(Episode 6): Reframing Admin Accountability as Transparency & Trust: Looking to our Past to Help Inform our Future

No season on accountability could possibly be complete without a conversation on what the word means for administrators.  If admin are often at the top of the organizational hierarchy, who holds them accountable?  What does all of our talk about reframing accountability mean in relation to the work of leading the school? And while we are at it, who actually are admin versus staff versus faculty? Hollie Marjanovic sits down with Head of School Kevin Lewis and Cathy Davis, who currently serves as our math lab coordinator but has successfully juggled multiple faculty and admin roles since she began at SA in 1989.  In our conversation, we dive into St. Andrew’s past to get some answers about how we have become who we are today.

1:32-5:35: Cathy Davis’ favorite role in her time at St. Andrew’s and what it teaches us about the interplay between administrative work and the work of teaching.

5:41-6:58 : What Kevin meant by “accountability” when he set it as a theme for us all this year: the strong supports we all provide each other as we work in concert.

7:08-8:28 : The question Hollie posed that totally stumped Kevin: WHO is actually considered “administration”? Kevin’s conclusion: “Does it matter as long as we are able to support each other as we work together to accomplish our mission and the goals of our school?”

9:16-11:18: What was the structure of administration like when Cathy Davis first began in 1989?

11:20-16:33: What schools were like before the unceasing onslaught of digital communication.

16:35-18:10: To whom are administrators held accountable? Kevin shares the official structural answer (the board) and then his more pragmatic take: “I’m accountable to all of you [faculty, parents, students, general public].”

17:36-20:39: What that mysterious SLT (Senior Leadership Team) is about and why it exists.

20:44-25:37: We examine whether more circular or bottom-up methods of evaluation and feedback could be powerful mechanisms for administrators to improve their performance.

25:38- 27:32: How does our admin model and ratio of faculty-admin-staff compare to other independent schools? 

27:35-29:43 : Cathy recalls a pivotal turning point in our school’s history, and why meeting locations matter.

29:44- 31:45: What has changed in our school’s environment to shift structural, admin, faculty, and student needs?  

31:48-34:11: Hollie, Kevin, and Cathy talk about board meeting minutes and the vital intersection of transparency and trust. 

Ep. 5: Reframing Faculty Accountability as Clarity of Expectations

Are we sick of the word “accountability” yet? Once you get into this fresh conversation facilitated by Buck Cooper and joined by Meriwether Truckner, Margaret Mains, and Blake Ware, you won’t be. They explore a gamut of tensions raised by the notion of faculty accountability, but they keep circling back to the most central of tenants: the need for a foundation of clear expectations. After making show notes from the conversation I left with a strong sense that this episode needs to be required listening for anyone who teaches, anyone who is in admin, and anyone who believes that “no one is out to be the weak link”; it’s simply we have a shortage of time and an overage of tasks. Hopefully that covers all of us, and hopefully this is just the beginning of the dialogue.  I recommend listening to the whole thing, but here’s a breakdown to help you find what you are most interested in hearing:

2:45-3:32: What does accountability mean within the St. Andrew’s community?

3:46-4:53: Where, according to Blake Ware, it gets “hairy”: the “reek that comes with wanting to hold others accountable and not maintain the same standards themselves” when we all have different workflows and responsibilities.

4:56-8:05 :Why we can’t hold teachers accountable unless there is first a clear articulation of expectations for all the things (recess duty, dealing with parents, number of grades, communication on MySA, and on and on).

8:06-11:20:  Why the variety of roles teachers play in the life of the school community makes holding teachers accountable complex; and why a good rationale for the “why” behind an expectation is really key, particularly in relation to stressful times in the rhythm of the school year.

11:23-13:22: Why we tend to hold teachers accountable for the wrong things (e.g. did she enter grades in a gradebook) when often the most important aspects of teaching are more difficult to “measure,” such as how you handled a day educating 81 students in-the-moment. 

13:40-16:38: Trust as autonomy in curricular choices, and why sometimes trust could work in tandem with more structure for faculty at a school like ours; Margaret Mains terrifying-inspiring (?) sink-or-swim-first-year-teaching story: “Teach them how to write; see you in May!”

16:39-18:00: When hidden expectations and judgements lurk behind “we trust you; do what you want!” . . . is there a middle ground?

18:01- 19:02: Expectations must be paired with a solid rationale lest they be perceived as a hoop to jump through. 

19:03-23:12: SA’s approach to onboarding new faculty: you were hired for a reason, independent school culture, and our attempts to provide more just-in-time information. 

23:14-26:12:  The tightrope walk between perceived faculty trust v. accountability and where this needs to be recalibrated

27:43-29:43: Blake’s starting point: trust that adults are the adults of the school, and complications of equity that can result when different aspects of the job are held as higher priorities to some than others.

29:40- 31:04: How the middle school committee structure that started this year helped define these needed expectations in a tangible way and even out labor in the community. 

(Episode 4!) Reframing the Role of Parents in Accountability: Fostering a Healthy Child-Home-School Connection

This week we get into what is arguably the most fierce-love-laced aspect of this accountability puzzle . . . the role of parents.  

I’m not going to lie: before I became a parent and was a barely-in-my-twenties fresh-faced English teacher,parents terrified me.  They could be incredibly supportive, generous, the best of partners.  They could also swoop in when I least expected and scream at me while I was scooping spaghetti onto plates for a school fundraiser because their perfect child had received an A- in my class.  It felt as though becoming a parent upped the intensity of the good and the bad: the emotion, the love, the help and generosity.  At the time, though, I thought the love and protective instincts had the potential to blind parents to the truth of their children . . .potentially evoking irrationality.  Now I know better.  We both had pieces of the puzzle of supporting their kid, and obviously a parent’s piece was a billion times bigger than mine, as their one-hour-a-day English teacher. 

Fast forward 18 years and I’ve got three littles and I am constantly plagued with guilt about how I fall short, I fall short, I fall short.  I fall short in helping instill their own accountability when I swoop in to fill my 8 year old’s water bottle in the morning.  I fall short in my own parent accountability in our school community when I avoid clicking those “SAPA volunteer links” at the start of the year. 

So whether you are a parent-faculty member, a faculty member who isn’t a parent, or a parent-parent, this episode is dedicated to you in all of the ways you excel and all of the ways you fall short.  We need all the voices we can get in this conversation, so we will hear from Michelle Portera (first grade teacher and momma), Jim Foley (history department chair), Honey May (kindergarten teacher and momma), Rachel Scott (tech integration and mom), and Frances Croft (SAPA master, mom, SA alum, and many other things).  What does accountability mean for parents of school-aged children?

1:23-3:34: Practical tips from Dr. Foley about what teachers need parents to know about how best to support their children in their schoolwork at home.

3:35-5:30: How teachers can have tough, honest conversations with parents by emphasizing the “why” behind their recommendations.

5:34-6:59: Why the accountability that parents help instill in children today will pay dividends in their future lives in college and beyond.

7:00-9:19 : What lunch clips have to do with fostering accountability (remember that book and then poster that was popular in the 90’s: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?”)

8:48-9:30:  Accountability as a two way street.

10:04-11:01: Three layers for youth developing their own sense of responsibility: from self accountability to parent accountability to teacher accountability.

12:00-15:00: Straight-up wisdom from Frances Croft: why framing our children’s student roles as “their job,” thus separating it from our job as parents, is essential.  

15:18-18:30: Why kids learn so much more when we refrain from micromanaging and let them productively fail.

18:30-20:22 :Why parenting is not one-size-fits-all enterprise.

20:22 -26:49:  Why part of our role as parents might be to serve as our children’s advocates to help hold school’s accountable to serve our diverse learners, and the phenomenon of youth that hold it together at school but fall apart at home.

26:50-29:52: Why both parent and faculty perspectives can enrich each other, and why grace and open-mindedness is key; let’s all get on team “we are doing our best.”

30:06-37:03: Why Frances believes volunteering as a parent in the school community is worth it; the history of SAPA as “the triangle club”, connecting “child-home-school”; and how the question of “where do you plug in?” has a lot to do with fostering belonging.

(Episode 3 Drop!)Accountability as Honor: Lessons Learned from Honor Council

We are back and we just couldn’t get enough of last week’s theme of student accountability! So in this second round, we fix our gaze on the history and heart behind Honor Council, a beautiful manifestation of our commitment to that age-old honor code (“I will neither lie, nor cheat, nor steal”) and a concrete way that we empower students to hold students accountable.  We were joined by advisor (and past student member of Honor Council), Marty Kelly, along with senior honor council member, Anthony Jones.  It’s short and sweet, so you can easily listen to the whole thing, but if you just have a few minutes, see the notes below to skip to what you want to hear:

1:35-2:24: What accountability has to do with honor . . . even when nobody is watching.

3:07-4:28: The history of the Honor Council, and why honor is at its core.

4:41-5:12; 13:37-15:10: How Honor Council has evolved, and why it has to continue to adapt with the time. 

5:578:54: Nuts and bolts of how the Honor Council functions.

9:48-10:56:  The pros and cons of being held accountable by your own peers.

11:33- 13:11: The role of empathy when you are going on the preponderance of evidence; walking the line between being “grace filled and affirming the values of the community.”

15:35-19:24: What kind of infractions get you on honor council, why the most common type of case has increased since covid, and “calling in” versus “calling out.”

19:47-20:44:  Why keeping an open mind is crucial for Honor Council matters.

20:59:21:48:  Why advising Honor Council is the hardest part of Mrs. Kelly’s job.

On Hamster Wheels & Hamster Shortages

This post was contributed by Michelle Portera.

Are you aware we are in the midst of a hamster shortage? The news media may not want you to know, but according to several area pet stores, it’s one more part of the economy experiencing supply chain issues. I know, because during the first week of school, my class made it clear that they want to have a class pet like our neighbors, Mrs. Menist’s class (ya feelin’ my side eye, Judy?) The outspoken leader of this movement is the daughter of art teacher Jane Cleek, so if you know this cutie, you know the pressure is ON. Pet stores in Madison and Jackson turned up empty, so one weekend I searched them out in Oxford. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable clerk at the pet store (who had one in stock!) informed me that hamsters do not handle change well. If I were to bring this hamster back home with me, it would likely develop a disease and not be with us very long. When a shipment arrives, a good pet store will quarantine the hamsters for several days and give them extra care to ensure they can handle the stresses of a new home. He also informed me of the hamster supply chain problem, and that as soon as stores can get the furry friends, they are usually spoken for by the customer who is next on their call list (who knew?)  I was back to square one. Back in the classroom, my own “hamster wheel” started to turn a bit faster, and my students hopped on, too. We are rolling along, sometimes at a dizzying pace, and I haven’t yet had the capacity to launch part 2 of the great hamster search. I’m giving myself until Christmas Break. My class has been patiently waiting, but they are faithful to routinely circle back. 

If we are, in fact, on the metaphoric hamster wheel, that makes us the hamsters. We are cute and some of us bite. Every day we hop on our wheel, for our own benefit and the benefit of the children we serve. Goodness knows, teaching can feel like a race against time. The wheel on which we run is exhilarating and life-affirming at best, exhausting and depleting at worst, and sometimes even monotonous. We find comfort in the structure and predictability of the wheel, but, after a while, we may find our thoughts wondering if there is more out there. Enter, the wheel alternative–the ball! If you are placed in the ball, lucky you! But watch out, the ball can quickly transport you to unexpected, fearsome places. Sometimes you’ll bump into things and have to back up and try a new direction to get the heck back to safety. Sometimes you may discover a new favorite place with an amazing view that you would not have known about otherwise. Some of us hamsters need to be alone, while others function best as part of a pair or group. One thing we can mostly agree on–we don’t enjoy change! We prefer change in small doses, and when we are asked to change, we require lots of extra time and support. If everything changes at once, you might find us huddled in the corner under our bedding. 

So what about the shortage as it relates to teachers across the country? Is it something we can chalk up to Covid and hope it gets better? Is the problem truly that education is built on a system in which, generally, teachers don’t feel well managed and taken care of? Is it more complicated than that? There are metaphorical “pet shops” managed by those who are more focused on quantity and appearance than inner well-being.  This kind of environment makes it difficult to identify the cues indicating it’s time to hop off the wheel and take a nap.  I am grateful for managers and admin with a more holistic approach who ask for and respond to feedback as it relates to overall quality and well-being. It makes a huge difference in career longevity and quality of life. No school is perfect, but as a seasoned hamster, there is no doubt this is a place I can run the wheel instead of the wheel running me. There is no final destination when you’re running around, much like there is no perfection at any point in this vocation called teaching. We hamsters have learned to thrive in the tension between what is ideal and what is.  The important part is the forward movement.

It’s likely I won’t have much time to shop for a class pet, because being a mother and a wife is an additional wheel on which I run when I’m not here at school. I hope Santa isn’t short on hamsters, because he might be my only hope! 

Less is More, and Other Lessons I Have a Really Hard Time Learning

Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive

To paint a little thing like that, you smeared

Carelessly passing with your robes afloat-

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,

(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!

Well, less is more, Lucrezia.”

Robert Browning, “Andrea Del Sartolead” (1855)

Last month in what was my best/worst move ever, I poured out my soul in this very WordPress blog site. I told a sordid story about a PD-Day-gone-wrong (and also right) that simultaneously elicited many head nods from fellow admin (“yup- that’s happened to me”) and many shocks of horror from faculty friends (“WHAT?! Admin have FEELINGS?!”). I jest about the shock that admin have feelings part. I think it was more a surprise that admin so internalized anything as silly as the success of a PD day. Plus, anyone who has known me for two seconds to any degree of familiarity knows I have feelings. So many feelings. Like take it down a notch, Julie.

Seriously, though. There was an outpouring of love, advice, affirmation, etc. from all sorts of directions. Some came from people I expected; like, I knew we were buds. Other sources felt more like an unexpected encounter with a sprinkler system on an afternoon July walk in Mississippi. Surprising . . . but oh-so refreshing. I want everyone to know I am okay. I am not on the edge of my rope. I am grateful in so many ways for the job I am currently in. None of us feel these ways 24/7, but I feel grateful that I feel these ways the majority of my waking-working hours.

So in this October theme of Hamster Wheel, I am writing the day after 10/11/22 (our October PD Day). I feel compelled to remark on yesterday’s very differently-constructed set of events, in part thanks to the horrors evoked from Workshop Week. I feel compelled to say that the number of positive remarks we’ve had about the day have reminded me of the age-old adage that I’ve never quite been able to internalize, the one my mom will text me from time to time, the thing my husband said to me when I mentioned five years ago it was time to have a fourth kid, the thing my eldest child reminds me when I beg her to pass me another handful of candy corn and honey roasted peanuts:

Less is more.

Sidenote: I know all of these people that love me are right, and yet I feel the strong urge to debate that very cliche I just typed. Sometimes more candy corn is more. Sometimes more opportunities are more. Sometimes more work results in more for the stakeholders you are working for. So if I’m being honest I am not entirely cured of this mythology. I am in a sort of denial stage, dotted with moments of acceptance.

Anywho, this PD Day we committed to less: less structured hours spent together in activities and meetings. We did this because of feedback from so many of you about how all you need is TIME. We did this because the timing of these days is just somehow never good. There is always a looming report card deadline or meet the teacher day. But then, we also committed to more. More choice in the form of PLC’s that you joined. More choice in whether you wanted to grab some coffee and breakfast while working on grading or join a group at the fair. We committed to designing a greater diversity of groups of folks meeting for different purposes. I got to learn about the daily rhythm for an instructional assistant! (link here) Coaches spent time together exploring how and why athletes have changed, for better and for worse. The day wasn’t perfect. There were moments that were clunky. The acoustics in the gym are terrible. I know I felt rushed from thing to thing. But still. The general consensus was far less vitriol and far more gratitude. I’ll take it.

So the moral of the story is that somehow if we get off the old hamster wheel, somewhere in the middle of the less and the more, we can find the Goldilocks “just right.” Of course, that’s a super problematic story in like 15 different ways. But that’s for another blog.

The Hamster Wheel of Redos, Come See Me During X Time, and Reassessments

This post was authored by Hollie Marjanovic

Overheard from English teacher—“Correct this assignment because no capitalization has been used, I won’t grade until this has been done!”

Overheard from Math teacher –“Come see me after school because we need to review this homework before your test.”

Overheard from another Math teacher – “Come see me during your study hall twice per week because we need to work on homework and do further sample problems for more practice.

Overheard from two Science teachers – “See me before or after school for extra help and practice; there will be a reassessment if you complete these activities.”

Overheard from Spanish teacher–“See me at break so that we can discuss this last activity and review it together.”

Overheard from History teacher–“You haven’t finished this, come back to see me and let’s make sure it gets done!”

Overheard from a math teacher – “I’ll come sit in your study hall today, and if anyone has questions, I’ll be there to help answer.”

Overheard from many teachers – “Let’s clean out your backpack; let’s put some dividers into this binder; let’s look at your planner.”

Copied on emails from EVERY US Faculty member –  “You are very capable. Please see me for additional help; please go to Writing Lab; please go to Math lab; please go see Mrs. M….”

This daily communication with so many of our students is vital to their success.  I know it isn’t fun, it’s not the reason we get into teaching, it means less time spent creating lessons,  and feels like a never ending hamster wheel ride.  However, THANK YOU!  It does pay off!  Eventually they begin to do the things and you are helping them approach and not avoid.  Bravo, my people!  

My Weekend with Mashmallow, or Behavioral Psychology in relation to Hamster Wheels

Sometimes the stars align.  Sometimes, the very same week you decide on a theme of “Hamster Wheel” for the October blog blast, you receive an invite from you daughter’s (the pet crazy one, ok they are all pet crazy) third grade teacher to sign up for a slot on a google doc to watch the hamster for the weekend.  It was then that I knew it . . . this blog theme was fate. It was destined.  It had to be.

I, by the way, have a tenuous relationship with hamsters. My first main memory from hamster- nurturing was  that I named my pet hamster “Emily” because she was my best friend in kindergarten but then weeks after I got the hamster the human version of Emily stopped inviting me to play with her because she became one of the popular kids. Ouch.  Also, are there really popular cliques in kindergarten?  My second main memory: My mom picked her up and she bit her finger so hard that blood immediately spurted out.  My mom taught me a new bad word that day.  I was both fascinated and disgusted.  By both the blood and the language.  I also still to this day, 35 years later, have a poem hanging on my childhood bedroom door that my dad wrote for me that features Emily:

Julie likes yellow, Julie likes red,

Julie looks pretty, with bows on her head,

We all love Julie, oh yes we do,

So on your birthday, Happy bday to you!

(And to Emily too.)

I would have included a picture of the poem but it is so yellow and faded that it is nearly illegible.  That is how old I am. 

 Anyway, those are my three hamster party stories.

So the theme is hamster wheel which pretty self-explanatorily evokes feelings of being busy, wondering if it is all, in the end, hopeless.  I mean, a hamster wheel involves a cage, aerobic activity with no end in sight, and is a pretty solitary endeavor.  Pretty depressing theme, huh?

That’s what I thought before I pet-sat a hamster with my kid for a weekend and became a hamster expert.

Guess what.  When a hamster is scared, in a new environment, threatened, exhausted, overwhelmed, etc., it does not take to the hamster wheel. I have NO idea why, but Marshmallow the adorable hamster of Carla Kelly didn’t feel totally secure for the first 12-24 hours with us.

I feel like it’s important to pause here to mention that Millie the dog did not even come CLOSE to try to eat Marshmallow the hamster. The entire weekend. Not even ONCE.  However, she did have a distributing tendency to come near us and sit/beg the every time we got the hamster out, the way she does every morning when Alianna eats her warmed up croissant and shares approximately 50% of the pieces with her (“one for you, one for me” style).  So I did kinda worry for Marshy, as we came to affectionately call her. Millie also learned how to walk on two legs this weekend b/c she discovered she could get eye level with Marshy (whose cage was on the bar) when she did so.  

To be fair, they DID have a blast together when Marshy was flying across the floor in her ball-thing.  Those are new.  Or new since the 35 years ago I had a hamster.  I didn’t get a picture because I was belly laughing so hard each time he got in it, but here’s the idea:

Anyway, and here’s my big hamster behavior psychology revelation: Marshy ONLY got on the hamster wheel when she got comfortable with us, which was mostly Monday morning at around 5:30 AM when I got up to do yoga.  I wish this picture was a video.  I promise he was super-sprinty.  Like impressively so.  He’s such a good boy.  The goodest.

Also, he didn’t keep going at a consistent pace like I expected.  There was no slow and steady wins the race.  There were spurts of ridiculous speed and then spurts of complete calm.

The wheel was super squeaky by the way.  Like super, super squeaky.  Like everyone in the house knew when Marshy was on that thing. 

So here are things I know related to hamsters and hamster wheels that I think can inform how you process every blog this month:

  • If you are so busy and needed that you feel like you are on a hamster wheel, it means you are also part of a thriving, loving, safe community.  Because if you weren’t you wouldn’t have the purpose or the psychological safety to starting running on that thing in the first place. 
  • Aerobic exercise is vital for survival.  
  • Taking breaks from that exercise is also vital for survival.  And the breaks don’t have to be hours.  Taking short rests while on the wheel and then going at it again .. . totally meaningful.
  • Everyone can hear the whine of the squeaky wheel as we run. And it is annoying.  Super annoying.  Just an FYI.
  • Sometimes when we run on a thing we THINK is a hamster wheel it’s ACTUALLY that clear ball thing that moves us to new places.  Surprise! We did make progress!
  • We need a safe den/tube/fort of soft things on the bottom of the cage as well.  For all of those times we don’t feel hamster-wheel-ready.
  • Sometimes the big, scary, Millie sized fury-monsters peering up at us through the cage actually think we are friends.  They have no idea how intimidating they are.

So all of you who feel like you are on a hamster wheel, I’m sorry.  And you’re welcome.  And you’re lucky.   

Thanks for the lessons, Marshy.

Hamster Wheels: Through the Eyes of a Child

This post was contributed by Kim Sewell

When Julie announced there was an overwhelming connection for the next blog topic ‘hamster wheel’ among my colleagues, I immediately felt anxious. Just the term ‘hamster wheel’ had me imagining moving as fast as I can, but not really getting anywhere. Kind of like the nightmare where you are being chased and you freeze because you can’t move your feet and you crumple into a ball until the monster overtakes you (or maybe that’s just me.) I could not think of a more exhausting image to think about and then write about. 

I’ve thought about this image from the viewpoint of a mom (cook meals, wash dishes, do laundry, grocery shop, clean house, repeat) and from the viewpoint of a teacher (get new class, set routines and expectations, meet parents, teach curriculum, assess, go on field trips, have class parties, get seasonal breaks, have May Day, out for summer, repeat). As a mom and a teacher, I put new demands on myself and others are put on me. As we know, time is finite—no more no less—but that doesn’t stop us from adding more work, more goals, more life into that time. I was going down a real cynical, cyclical path thinking about this topic. Hamster wheels suck… I could not find a positive side to this wheel!

Then I thought about children…my own, the ones that are in my care, the ones I encounter out in the world. The older I get, the more I realize children have the best outlook and most of the answers in life. Up until the age of 5 or 6, children love singing the same songs (wheels on the bus, twinkle twinkle), eating the same food (goldfish and fruit snacks), wearing the same clothes(even when they get too small) and sleeping with the same luvy (yes, the one you have to go back to get when they have left it somewhere, because there is NO substitution, even for one night). Children thrive on consistency and routine. They thrive on the hamster wheel. To them it’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s the process, not the product. Sometimes they are barely moving the wheel, sometimes they are at a steady pace, and sometime they are going ninety miles an hour, but they are going at their own pace and enjoying the wheel. It’s secure and safe. We usually do our best work in those conditions. From now on I will try to look at the inevitable hamster wheel in life through the eyes of a four-year-old, smile, eat my goldfish, and remember that it’s about the journey. 😉

Wheels, Circles, Cycles, and Songs about all of These

This post was contributed by Buck Cooper.

Asked to think about the connection between teachers’ work and hamster wheels, my mind went to tangential things–wheels and circles and cycles and songs about all of these. Thus, for this month I give you my attempt to maximize the blog post as medium with my top 5 songs about circular wheel type things and those songs’ helpful ways for thinking about my own teaching practice. Do note that this list is going to skew old, mainly because I mostly listen to old music and because (yes, I’ll say it) I’m old.

5. Journey’s Wheel in the Sky: This is clearly a song about teaching in November/December/January, when the shine has worn off of the year, when plans are being wrecked by lots of sick children, sick teachers, extracurricular travel obligations and early planned family vacations, but as all teachers know, time marches on. (The wheel in the sky keeps on turning; I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.) It’s that time of year when teachers are tired and many of us get to work before the sun comes up or is just coming up and never leave until it’s been down for a good long while (I’ve been trying to make it home; got to make it before too long. I can’t take this very much longer. I’m stranded in the sleet and rain.) Clearly, Steve Perry had a teacher in his life or taught at some point.

4. Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game: This is earnestly one of the most beautiful songs about children, wonder, growing up and the passage of time. I’d put this one alongside another of Joni’s songs, Both Sides Now, as songs that say something meaningful about how growing up changes the ways in which we see the world around us.

3. Billy Preston’s Will it Go Round in Circles There’s one verse here that speaks to me as a teacher–”I’ve got a dance, I ain’t got no steps, y’all. I’m gonna let the music move me around.” I don’t think the work of teaching is fundamentally improvisational, but I do think the ability to let the music move you around instead of being stuck on the steps of teaching children is an invaluable skill to have. And by that I mean that you have to be responsive in the moment–another apt metaphor is that you need to know the shape of the container that you want to fill with learning opportunities–the guard rails—the contours. 

2. Harry Chapin’s All My Life’s a Circle This is such a lovely song, and this particular version has the added bonus of being from an episode of Solid Gold, which was an early 80s Saturday night family TV viewing staple in my home. I love a lot of things about teaching, but I especially love knowing and being able to anticipate the rhythm of an 8th grade academic year–starting with the awkward few weeks where we teachers and students don’t really know each other and are figuring things out, moving to the period of boundary pushing that really persists from late first quarter until graduation—the slide into the holidays where everyone is a little tired and a little anxious about the season—staring down the long barrel of the January to spring break run, which is also maybe the best period of teaching and learning of the year and then the final 4th quarter sprint where the weather gets beautiful, the behavior gets a little nuts and everyone’s getting impatient for the end of the year where we all realize that we’ve loved each other this year and will miss one another in the years to come. Then, you spend a summer resting, reading and maybe making some extra cash, rinse and repeat. 

1. John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels There are a lot of thoughts that people have when you take yourself seriously as a teacher. I think for a lot of people it’s a liminal profession–the thing you’ll do until you find something else to do like law school or medical school or herding yaks. And I can tell you the moment that I decided that teaching children was the thing I wanted to do–about 12 years after I graduated college, when I had taught middle school for five years and undergraduates for more than that. It was such a relief to tell myself that teaching children would be enough for a career for me. This song, though it speaks to John Lennon’s move from the Beatles and pursuing big fame, also speaks to being fully committed to this work of teaching, and thinking of it as a profession worthy of pursuing on its own merits. (People say I’m crazy, doing what I’m doing. Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin.)

I realize this post is mostly really old songs, probably a generation or two before even my time (and I’m now regarded as veteran faculty in the middle school, at least.) I also realize my own increasingly strong opinion that the period from say 1965-1985 (give or take a couple of years either side) may be one of the best periods of popular music in the history of popularity or music. And it all (as it always does) connects somehow to teaching children.

Oh to be Four Again: The Antidote to Hamster Wheel-er-itus

Ever wish you could shed the heavy-weighted baggage of adulthood and go back to being four? 

Well several weeks ago, I had the privilege of doing just that.  Well sort of.  I was still 40.  But I did get to fix my gaze on PK4 students and feel the flow of their morning. And it was packed with activity and yet also somehow incredibly relaxing. 

 Here is a non-exhaustive photo and transcription account of what I encountered:

I started my day with the smooth, soft start of choice. Want to read a book about spiders and talk incessantly about so many spider facts that the adult listening feels inferior? Consider it done. Want to paint a butterfly? Got you covered. Want to go up that loft and try on fifteen dresses before 8am? Have at it. That is . . . until the pledge starts. Then I found myself, Pavlovian-like, being carried to my square on the circle to say the pledge, take roll, and shout out whether I was hot lunch, lunch box, or half day.

Now that we found ourselves in a circle, we might as well take advantage of the delightful but oh-so-fleeting attention spans that mark 8am. “What letter does butterfly start with?”

Okay enough of that. Let’s get back to play.

“How do you untangle this?”

“What color does white and red make when you blend them?”

More spider facts. And volcano-larva facts. And then, more spider facts.

Oh and don’t forget these guys up here.

The chime goes off. It is only 8:25am.

A flurry of clean up.

“What day of the week is it?” “FREE PLAY!” Nope. That’s the activity we started with this morning.

“I love art science!”

“Turn your bodies back this way. Take a deep breath. Some beautiful ready, set, go.”

“Who is the leader? Door holder? Caboose today?”

“If today is Wednesday, yesterday was . . .”

“FRIDAY!” Nope. “Tomorrow we will say tomorrow is Friday!”

“Now the weather report. How did it feel outside today?”

“Yesterday we rolled our ball to greet each other. Today we are going to do something else that starts with B to greet each other . . .”

BOW! “But I want to do it like a princess!”

“That’s a curtsy. Maybe when we talk about C.”

It’s also “wave it out Wednesday!”

“We are now doing our listening activity; you listen to what I do and then you do it.”

“Take a minute. Check your body.”

Rhyming words! Blending words! Compound words!

“Now to get our wriggles out! Oh no- I can’t find the right song on the CD!”

“It’s okay! We love you anyway!”

Switching classrooms.

“Do you know what it’s like for your parents when they come see your PK4 Sing?”

“It’s like taking off the wrapping paper of the most ginormous gift ever- the biggest gift they’ve ever had is your beautiful VOICE!”

“TOMORROW fall starts . . . Tomorrow we are gonna say BYE BYE to summer. What is another word for the new season besides fall? Let’s read a book about fall, one that I loved to read with to my children when they were young!”

“Time for us to go potty and go outside!”

“This is our string family!”


“Why are you pretending you’re crying?” “WE DON’T KNOW!” WAHHHHHHHHH

Meanwhile back inside . . .

Let’s say our blessing!

“The Ants Go Marching . . . ” 3 at a time excused from the circle to get snack!

“Sit by me! I love these!”

“If you have a book out, shut it tight! If you have a MOUSE on your book, you may put it up and line up. Time for music!”

“Who can march REALLY high? Thumb’s up if you are ready!”

Meanwhile in another co-curricular . . .

“You made la Luna feel very safe!”

“Remember we don’t touch our friends we don’t want to get our germs on them!”

“Let’s take one rainbow breath to calm our bodies! Air hug .. . I can feel that air hug!”

“Now that we’ve had time with puzzles, let’s join the circle! Criss cross applesauce. Ms. Rubinski is going to bring you FOUR BUTTONS!”

“Pete the Cat! Take your buttons off and count with the book! 4 minus 1 is . . . “


“Okay great work! Now I’m going to open up upstairs, the dollhouse, legos!”

[Insert massive giggles and potty humor whoops.]

Meanwhile in another classroom . . . some are doing this:

While others are doing this:

And across the hallway it is clear center time:

And in yet another classroom, children are choosing to either:

But now it’s time for show and tell. So everyone needs to put things away.

“If you have shoes, put them in the cubby so I know you are ready for show and tell!”

“Tell your friend, ‘I don’t like it when you punch me there.'”

“Okay, now we will share what we brought that starts with B! If yours isn’t chosen, take a big breath and know that there is always next time!”

“Can you all say Barbie?”

“I’m so excited! Are you so excited?!”

“That’s gorgeous!”

“When I “wink” at you it will be your turn to get up and get ready for lunch. . . . so watch my face closely!”


Episode 2 Podcast Drop: Reframing STUDENT Accountability

Whether you’ve taught for two days or twenty years, you’ve hit the same conundrum.  How do we help youth foster a sense of personal responsibility? How do we inspire intrinsic, not just extrinsic motivation? In other words, how do you help young people care about things that we think matter and be accountable for their part in the dance of teaching and learning?

In this week’s podcast, hosts Toby Lowe, Kim Sewell, and Julie Rust speak with Anne Avery Boling (senior) and Tanner Purnell (fifth grader) about student accountability.  From losing pencils to bullying to due dates on assignments . . there is a lot that can go wrong for youth in school settings. So how can we help each other work toward the best versions of ourselves?  Listen to the full podcast or skip to sections of interest below:

Show Notes

6:07-8:10: What does accountability have to do with responsibility? 

9:00-15:00: Our guests say the honor code and talk about its implications in relation to this theme of accountability.

15:03- 15:52: Tanner talks about the woes of losing pencils, and what ordering a whole bunch of extra ones from amazon has to do with accountability.

15:53-17:28: What role do students have in holding other students accountable?

17:32-19:30: We explore scenarios that demonstrate that making the right and honorable choice isn’t always as clear a path as we assume.

19:35-25:54: Students wrestle with what to do when someone misbehaves in the classroom and the teacher demands that someone speak up about who did it. . . and why it is far more preferable in these situations to speak directly to your friends, rather than the authority figure. 

26:23-32:15: What about due dates, late assignments, etc?

33:00-34:42:  Anne Avery’s advice to teachers/students as a key to success toward accountability and really all things: communication

34:58-36:48: Tanner’s piece of advice to faculty: publicly holding students accountable to know something can actually be painfully embarrassing in such a classroom setting.  If they don’t know the answer, see if another friend in the class can help!

A Day in the Life of Instructional Assistants

Special thanks to the Instructional Assistants that shared their daily realities to make this post.

A word cloud built out of 22 of our Instructional Assistants jottings around the theme of “A Day in the Life . . . “

In the Hamster Wheel of our school ecology, there is perhaps no population more integral to the wellbeing of our students, no oil more diligent to the squeaks that inevitably ensue on that well- trodden wheel of teaching and learning, than our instructional assistants. The official job description is filled with nods to all aspects of teaching: classroom management, differentiation of lessons, work with assessments, supervision, and on and on. But on October 11th when I sat down with our instructional assistants, I wanted to know more than their official duties. I gave them 5-10 minutes to jot down words or phrases or pictures to help me understand the flow of a “day in their lives.” I found, of course, that their days were as varied as those of classroom teachers at different levels on different days. As one assistant quipped in the room: “FLEXIBILITY is the name of the game. You have to be ready to jump up and shift gears on a dime.”

Of course in the process I learned that our assistants are rockstars. And that they know a lot about the repetition and relentlessness of the hamster wheel.

They are also quite patient. And optimistic in spite of it all. And, more often than not, more than their fair share of inspirational.

Junko Bramlett’s “day in the life” looks suspiciously like a guidebook to responsive classroom.

I took all 22 of their quick scribbles about “a day in their life” and transcribed them onto a google doc. I copied/pasted all of that text and it created the word cloud you saw at the start of the blog. But I needed another form to represent their lived realities. So here’s a “found poem,” a creative reworking of their words (none of mine) that I’ve mashed up together in attempts to reflect their collective experiences. It is imperfect and incomplete, but then, language always is.

A Day in the Life as Shared by 22 Instructional Assistants

I start my days off with my daily prayer and thanking God for the day.

I wear lots of hats.

Starting with a smile assisting kids.

Running less than 2 minutes late and getting stuck in the carpool line.

Greet, greet, greet;

Take care of whatever notes are in my basket. Copies.

Listen listen, take care of backpacks not fitting,

“I forgot my math homework.”

Manners at morning meeting, lessons, tea party, lunch, recess;

Thank you-please- interrupting when people are speaking.

Give bandaids and miracle water,

Weed/remove damaged and obsolete books,

Assist in whatever capacity I’m needed–

It varies day to day and hour to hour.

(You never know what the day is going to bring.)

Fill in for whomever isn’t here,

Glue stick and glitter fingers usually by 10am;

“Where is lunch; I’m hungry?”

Playtime, nap, lunch, playtime;

Listen to everything, what happened last night, the weekend?

Also others that need love/attention.

See-saw: all day posting;

Changing diapers/potty,

We are with the children most of the time throughout the day,

When teachers are out, we are the teacher.

Playground police officer :(, nurse, boo boo fixers,

Organize take home folders,

Copy-laminate-grade papers,

Put in help tickets, solve problems, create solutions, tech help.

I love to see them during playground recess time as they show other sides of their personality,

Shady bench at recess; laughter; sunshine; swingsets and soccer.

Conflict resolution, coach, friend, buddy, colleague, hugger.

Teaching/coaching them to find peace.

Feeling like I need 8 arms– Multi-tasking (a skill I had to re-learn) 🙂 

“Will you open my milk, yogurt, water bottle?”

Pretty packed days.

Okay, so confession time:

  1. I have been working at the school for over three years and in this particular whole-school position for no fewer than 470 days, and our 10/11/22 PD Day was the first time I have had the distinct opportunity of working directly alongside instructional assistants.

2. Since the inception of the blog in 2019, we have put out 131 posts into the universe. None specifically feature the daily lived realities of instructional assistants. (It should, however, be mentioned that regular contributor and writer Mary B Sellers has, by virtue of her awesomeness, represented some of that distinct vantage point all on her own . . . despite my own editorial failure on this front.

It was high time we fixed both of those errors.

To all Instructional Assistants: Thank you for your work. Thank you for your love. Thank you for these words.

Launching Season 5 of the Podcast: Reframing Accountability

Believe it or not, this episode marks the start of the fifth season of Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators.  This little podcast has seen a lot: from the start of the pandemic when we used video chat to connect us with thought leaders across the country; to a summer set of with stories from educators across the Jackson metro area;  to last fall’s conversations that bringing together parents, faculty, and students across a range of issues; to last spring’s theme of bridging the faculty/admin divide.  Throughout every episode, we’ve been lucky to feature practicing teachers who could bring in the truth of their lived experiences in classroom settings. 

This season is “Reframing Accountability,” and if you’re wondering why we chose such a scary framing topic, look no further than our first episode: “Why is Accountability Such a Dirty Word?” In this episode, Toby Lowe, Rachel Scott, Michelle Portera, Kim Sewell, Julie Rust, and Buck Cooper engage in an honest conversation about our love-hate relationship with the word.  The entire episode is worth a listen, but if you only have a few minutes and want to hop to a particular topic, check out our show notes below:

1:02-2:04: Toby, the idea man for this theme of accountability, shares why he wanted to frame up this season with such a baggage-fraught word.

4:12-5:38: Hear Michelle Portera unpack why the word “accountability” can induce eye rolls. 

5:39-6:04: Why the word can make Rachel Scott cringe, particularly when it is issued forth by someone you don’t know.

6:05-12:45: How the “accountability movement” in schools has tainted the word. Hosts discuss how ”it sounded beautiful, but felt terrible . . . reduc[ing] your work [with youth] to a number on a spreadsheet.”

14:38-16:16: Reframing accountability as SELF-driven, not OTHER-driven.

16:15-17:28: Why accountability can only take root in community to grow into something good, and the problem with checklists. 

17:29-19:49: Buck breaks down the word and discusses why “accountability in its best sense is about relationship being forged through explanation or dialogue.”

19:50-22:08: What Julie’s group text with old professor buddies has to do with accountability.

22:08-22:35: Why what happens when you do make a mistake matters.

23:34-26:00: Can accountability survive hierarchy, and relatedly, how can I be vulnerable to someone who can decide I don’t get to work here anymore?

26:27-28:33: Why is it so easy for us as adults to hold children accountable but so difficult to be held accountable?  What falls apart as we grow older? 

28:40- 31:00 Julie’s pet peeve and what to do with folks that don’t seem to have that internal drive.

31:45-34:32: The difference between accountability and justice, and a friendly reminder that “some people want to make the world burn.”  Also, just because you think someone is slacking doesn’t mean you know the full story.  

As great as this conversation was, it is just the beginning, the initial unraveling of the complex knot that composes accountability.  Go ahead and do yourself a favor and subscribe so you can make sure not to miss our weekly drop of this season.  In future weeks, we focus our lens on student accountability, parent accountability, faculty accountability, and admin accountability.  Can accountability be a crucial piece of our commitment to community? Is is possible to reframe accountability as an act of radical love? I’m not sure about the answers, but I’m sure that leaning into these questions will be illuminating for us all.  See you next week!

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!