Tis the Season . .. For Evaluation!

This particular three week sprint is a strange, strange time.  It is cheery.  It is stressful.  There is expectation of holiday spirit and all the fun to which it is tied.  There is anticipation of cumulative evaluation in the form of finals, projects, report card grades and comments. When you think about it, evaluation and feedback in the form of grades is largely a student problem this time of year, one that plagues all of us from age 5-22 or so. Then, you enter the adult workforce and “grades,” “feedback,” and “formal mechanisms of evaluation” dissolve away like snowflakes on my Mississippi windshield.  Very tangibly real for a moment; nonexistent the next.  I mean, teachers do have admin observations.  But for most of us, those are affirming pats on the back; you are doing well, carry on. 

Student course evaluations, however, are an entirely different beast. For anyone that is a teacher of students who are counted “old enough” to have valid perceptions to share, the mere phrase can drive up your blood pressure.  I’m looking at you, middle school, upper school, and college faculty.  As anyone who loves a higher ed tenure track prof in their life knows; those student evaluations hold a whole buncha weight.  They, their numbers and words, determine whether you will be granted that oh-so-scary trip up the ladder of tenure.  In my own 8 year professorial stint, I learned quickly that the best way to open that dreaded envelope of student evaluations was the same way it is best to take bad news: in the presence of friends, chocolate, and (sometimes) alcohol. 

Here at St. Andrew’s we (I think wisely) believe that middle and upper school student surveys are most helpful when utilized solely as a formative feedback mechanism that can give you a sense of what is going well and what isn’t.  But although the stakes may not be super high, I think we can all agree that teaching is deeply personal, whether or not we pretend we have good professional/personal boundaries.  So that sharp, chiding comment in the “what can the instructor do to improve the course” open feedback box can really sting.  Whether or not it is being used for tenure.

That’s why I was interested in talking with Austin Killebrew, who I learned through Lucy had asked her students to do a mid-term anonymous survey.  She wasn’t forced to by some arbitrary administrator’s expectation or link to an institutionally created form.   She was driven to get feedback because this was her first semester at SA, because she hadn’t taught this particular class before, because she is just that kind of a teacher.

As Austin began her first year teaching at St. Andrew’s, she worried she would fall prey to “a tunnel vision of what I learned in geometry” rather than really utilizing the fullness of the CPM curriculum she was working with for honors geometry.  Regular geometry also presented her with conundrums, such as when she walked them through an entire unit of proofs but when she collected tests on what they learned was shocked by the low scores: “Why are they not getting this?!” Austin sees assessments like these as forms of data rather than fuel for frustration at kids.   She believes in examining her own practice as a teacher first since, after all, that is almost the only thing she can control.  Nevertheless, she found herself emotionally drained by the scores: “I sat down and cried because it was so low; what did I do wrong?”  Her sense of bewilderment while grading that singular assessment sparked the idea of the mid-term form: “I need to do an evaluation to hear from them.”

Austin is no newbie. Her previous teaching gig was at a charter school where “I’ve always been the teacher the troubled students came to me and were like ‘hey I just kicked out of my class can I hang out with you?’”  The school had its challenges, but it had a strong culture of feedback.  “I love student feedback because I am here for THEM. I happen to teach math, but I am here for THEM.”  She set up the form carefully: “I need you to do a quick course eval for me; this is something I’m doing myself. . . to get your feedback on how this class is going for you because ultimately this is your geometry experience and I want to make sure it is what you want it to be.”  She also reminded them to take it seriously, always a wise move when dealing with a ninth grade crowd.  

Most students took her up on her invitation to take it seriously in an anonymous format.  Some of the responses made her smile, but in a good way: “When I come to geometry it feels like a break . . . I’m genuinely happy to get to come to this class . . . Feels like an escape . . . “ and “Ms. K is TOP G”!  There were, of course, outliers in every graph.  Whereas 29 students in geometry felt they learned something in class every day, 3 strongly disagreed. Whereas 26 students felt comfortable going to her for help, 3 strongly disagreed.  While it’s hard not to fixate on the assumed identity of those 3 outliers, this is a numbers game.   The data was affirming.  Highly affirming. 

Still there was stuff to learn.  She noticed a high number of students reported anxiety about tests and felt that there was too much homework in the class.  She also noticed more students than she wanted to (although still the vast minority) reported not being comfortable coming to  her for help.  When she saw these patterns she knew the next step of full-on bravery in the process: being transparent about the data with students and talking through changes she could make with them.  Austin made a slideshow of the findings for honors and regular geometry to make visible the patterns with them.  Depending on the block, they either had a thoughtful good discussion or a pretty quick and silent one.  For the silent blocks, she plans on starting a “suggestion box” of sorts for the more reticent students to share ideas for both anxiety overload and comfort in seeking help.

Not all of us are as brave as Austin.  I know there are moments when NOT knowing what others were thinking about my class felt far safer than opening up the floodgates.  But Austin is convinced that it is a useful practice for every class, every level, every faculty member, no matter the years of experience.  Why? Austin explains:

Get student feedback because every class, every grade level is different, different personalities, as students come through culture changes all the time. Even if you’ve taught for years and years not every group of students will react the same.  What is working and what is not? The feedback is GOOD- the earlier I do it- the better I can catch it and make them feel more prepared for the rest of high school.

Maybe it’s a google form.  Maybe it’s an exit ticket.  Maybe it’s at the end of each week.  Maybe it’s at the end of every quarter.  But if we could all inch toward asking the people who know best about our work in the classroom every day more often, and if we could all open the doors of our hearts an inch wider to hear the feedback charitably, I think we’d all be the better for it.

For the record, though, I still recommend reading student evaluations surrounded by friends who understand with alcohol and chocolate close by.  Just in case. 

Tis the Season . . . For Chris Hartfield!

I don’t want to overstate it. But I DARE you to find someone who has a negative word to say about Chris Hartfield. Like triple dog dare you.  The guy has been our tech-savior for the past 13 years and counting.  He undoubtedly gets the brunt of our most stressful moments.  And yet somehow he absorbs all of our anxiety-energy and gives us back a peaceful vibe and a mended iPad, all at once.  See?  Magic. 

So when Zander Paul Rust comes home chattering about 3D printing and the long waitlist, and when Lucy Rust says “mom- hey mom- check out these cool octopus thing” while you walk together on your daily “it’s 7:30 and we just got to school and need to fill up water bottles and mom needs coffee” walk, you might have a sneaking suspicion that Chris has something to do with it.  You might be right.

I got a chance to sit down with him to hear about the mostly-middle-school-craze that is currently 3D printing.  But truth be told, I also just wanted a chance to interview the legend that is Chris.  Consider it my holiday gift to you.  You’re welcome.  

His first words were that he prefers being behind the scenes and isn’t good at “this kind of stuff.” But I’m not so sure. Chris has a way of skipping all the noise and chatter and getting to the substance.  

Chris first knew he was into tech back when he was 8-9 years old: “My mom took me over to some guy’s house that was selling computers and he showed me how to do some things on that . . . it kinda took off from there.” He was initially hired at SA’s just to repair computers, but he was so overarchingly good at troubleshooting a range of issues that his job evenutally evolved to the mix of things he is to all of us today.  So what’s a day in the life like now? Chris explains:

“I show up and make sure everything is actually functioning in the network.  I then get the 3D printers going and ready for the next job. After that I fix the computers when they are broken and deal with the kids as they have problems.  Every day is different; you never know what’s going to happen!  I just like fixing stuff.  It feels good to solve problems.I just like fixing problems. That’s pretty much all I do.”

Problems make my skin crawl.  Like the unexpected, uncontrollable gives me the heeby jeebies.  I never liked physical puzzles.  I like sure things.  Chris is an enigma to me, and kinda what I want to be when I grow up. But I digress . . . 

So what IS the scoop on the strange things that have been populating our north campus library and the lines of middle school students that have been forming?  We’ve had 3D printers at both campuses for ages as I understood it, but, like most schools I know of who purchased this equipment when it was super expensive and super-trendy, we hadn’t found a valuable way to really integrate it into the curriculum or get kids or teachers pumped up about using them.  Enter Chris Hartfield. He explains: 

Probably a year ago we got a couple of 3D printers we started using at Lower School. Some stuff happened so we never got into actually using them and they sat up here for over a year. This year I decided I want to see them do something so I got them all set up and running printing random stuff out and asking kids if they wanted to print stuff and then word kind of spread that the middle schoolers could print.  . . . Just middle schoolers were getting excited about it because they were seeing stuff they wanted to print.   I was letting them email me and then it started getting too many kids emailing me so I had to make a website, a little form for them to use.  There’s a form and a website tied to it that I created google slides for to track their job.  

He attributes much of the 3D printing contagion to his location in a high traffic area, “not tucked away in a lab area.”  I have a feeling though it also has to do with the approachable soul behind the tech desk.  So what are kids actually getting out of this?

Students utilize Tinkercad to create their objects and after they upload their creations to the form, Chris takes it from there, although he’s “trying to get them ready so a few kids are ready to do their own [to] set it up themselves instead of me.”  This is more than just fun and games, “It’s a CAD program, so they’re having to use math, design stuff, being creative with it, and now making them take their own supports off and having them do it themselves.”  Chris went on to share more benefits: “I thought this could be a starting point for future careers.

3d Printing is actually starting to branch out into all types of industries and they all function in the same way as these little printers. They build houses, cars, medical supplies, and a multitude of other items all with the 3d printer tech.” 

Starting to think about integrating this into your own work with students? Go play with the 3D printing that is all the rage among the fifth and sixth graders.  Chris has already put a link to it in your SA BookMarks on your school-issued device.

The art, theater, and science departments already are implementing or planning on some collaborations.  With BioChem, Chris helped design element puzzle pieces, and he also 3D printed pencil bins that especially fit the desks in the room. He even worked with a friend who makes 3D models to provide Daniel Roers a 3D Andy for a recent global studies trip.

All of these creations don’t just cost time; they cost money. What’s on his current wishlist for Santa this year?  

“I’d like to get a few extra printers to help speed up the print so we aren’t waiting a week at a time for one print  . .   We’re already possibly looking at a higher quality 3D printer- that prints different materials (e.g. rubber tires), materials that are flexible. . . I would [also] like to  get funding for filament!”

If Santa’s generosity correlates with the good we put out into the world, I have a feeling Chris will be receiving a sleigh-full of filament.  As unsung heroes go, he’s solid gold. We are lucky to have him in our village. 

Tis the Season . . . for REAL Discussion

This post was contributed by Linda Rodriguez

As you may know, I am a R.E.A.L believer!  This discussion format, geared to middle and upper school students, takes what we try to do with Harkness and gets the teacher out of the way so kids can R.E.A.L.ly talk to each other.

Don’t get me wrong!  I love the Harkness table!  I love the give and take of a great Harkness discussion!  However, too often (in my experience) the same 2-5 students work the room and crowd out other voices.  Additionally, I don’t like how the kids look to me when they’re speaking – I mean, I know I’m grading them and all, but it’s much more interesting when they talk to each other and I’m in the background.  

With R.E.A.L, students come to class with questions and quotes so they have something to say, jumping in when conversation flaggs and voicing their opinions and queries…and they’re NOT looking at me for validation!  Their level of intentional preparedness allows them the freedom to speak from a place of knowledge, not just to earn a grade.

I also R.E.A.L.ly appreciate the built-in moments when students are given quiet time within the discussion.  In my class, this happens about every 10 – 15 minutes.  We break the discussion for 5 minutes so students can reflect on the conversation that just happened, writing what they heard and what they think.  This offers another avenue for the quiet students to voice their opinion, even if it’s just to me.

Now, to be fair, I’m only doing R.E.A.L “light.”  I’m not implementing all of the R.E.A.L.ly great tools of the program, but my students see the difference:

“Overall, I think this was a pretty well rounded discussion involving everyone in class. Discussions in this class are unique from any other class we’ve had in that it is not heavily monitored.”

“I think this discussion went well. Everybody talked and shared their ideas. I could probably work on giving questions during the discussion though.”

“This discussion was much better than the discussion of last time. This is partly because I read the correct document, but also partly because I feel as though the discussion flowed smoother. I feel as though everyone participated. It was slay.”

Toss me an email if you’d like to chat about this program or how to get trained.  It’s the R.E.A.L deal!

Tis the Season Theme Opener: Presenting “Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer”

When Hollie Marjanovic suggested the theme of “Tis the Season” for our November-December blog blast last October, I could not stop thinking about all of the things I could complain about with that opener . . . 

  • Tis the Season . .. for dress down days in which I fail my kids because they have no holiday themed clothing or accessories and we are running around the house yelling “WHO HAS SANTA SOCKS” at 6:45 on a Monday morning (not that I am speaking from experience from my morning, 12/5/22).
  • Tis the Season . . . for way too much sugar (but I mean is that really negative?)
  • Tis the Season . . . for awkward family moments in which my husband hangs out with his brother and turns into someone I don’t recognize!
  • Tis the Season . . . for us never remembering to move that weird Elf tradition thing which wasn’t a thing when I was a kid and it actually pretty creepy if you think about it so why do we do it and let’s face it, Alianna just has more fun if she is the one moving it so let’s elect her to do it! (Sorry English teachers everywhere for the run-on; it just felt appropriate.)
  • Tis the Season . . . for me always and forever being behind in shopping. Arghh.  Gross.  Yuck. Shopping.

Bah humbug, am I right?

But then Jessica Farris sent me some amazing student artifacts to help us with this holiday-themed set of blogs.  And my entire outlook changed, as it always does through the perception and expression of some kiddos.  (Kim Sewell wrote about this phenomenon in October by the way.)  Thanks, young minds and hearts.  You make us all better.

And so, by way of introduction to our cool set of blogs this November-December, I present to you, a holiday story inspired by all of you, the beloved SA community, and these pieces of art work.  I dare you not to be in the holiday spirit after you get a load of this:

Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer: A Story of Us

(Sebatian Roman; 4th grade year)

Once upon a time there was a very skeptical reindeer named Randy the Red Nosed Reindeer.  He saw the world with gray-tinted glasses.  Every time someone said a word or did a deed, he imagined the worst.  When his students failed to turn in homework, he imagined them paying Fortnite and saying into their headpieces: “THAT class?! WHAT A WASTE!  We’d never do THAT homework!”  Whenever his colleague failed to show up for a meeting he had called, he told himself a story about how much they disrespected him and his time.  Whenever an administrator sent an email, he’d delete it before reading, whispering under his breath “I’m sure it’s nothing but loads of nonsense.” Each time a parent asked to set up a meeting, he’d roll his eyes and text his best friend in the department: “Time to hear all about how darling can do NO wrong!”  Each time he imagined the worst (which was all the time), his red nose grew a bit bigger.

( Christopher Skelton, Anne Maybree Hendricks, Abigail Shannon; Unknown)

One day, a few of Randy’s friends showed up at his classroom during planning period.  

“Sometimes the way you are so negative brings us down,” the sad looking Charlie Brown guy said.

“We want you to be happy and enjoy your life, so we come bearing tidings of great joy!” Angelica sang.  

“Quack,” quacked the duck looking thing.

“Here’s a magical bone of holiday spirit that will cheer you up woof woof!” Fido barked.

Randy was skeptical, because that was who he is, but he loved those four guys so he murmured, “what the heck,” and stretched out his hands to accept the bone.  The moment he touched it, the bone began glowing warm to the touch and his nose began visibly shrinking.  He became unexpectedly invaded with warm thoughts.  It all felt so unfamiliar he trembled a bit.

(Jett Ngo; 3rd grade year)

Suddenly, a sleigh swooped through the sky and landed right in the student plaza in front of his classroom.

“Santa?” Randy said expectantly.

But there was no one in the sleigh.  No one at all. He tiptoed warily to look closely.  No presents either.  Of course he knew it was all a myth.  The reindeer part especially. (Everyone knows that reindeer are great at teaching math, not pulling sleighs.)  Still, something drew him to the front of the sleigh.  Without thinking, he began to pull the harness over his head.  And without any effort or deliberation or intent at all, he began leaping into the air, then floating, then soaring. It was joy. Pure joy.  The sky turned from blue to orange to dark.  He had never felt quite so fulfilled.  Just as he had so mindlessly began flying, he found himself instinctively landing the sleigh on a roof.  Still no Santa. Still no presents. Nevertheless, he pushed himself down the chimney and into a warm house.

(Lissa McCrary; 3rd grade year)

There, a wise cat was curled up in front of the fire.  

“Oh it’s you,” she purred. 

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Randy confessed, feeling his now-compact red nose.  “I’ve never felt quite so warm inside before.”

“That’s what happens when you realize you are doing what you were meant to do with the people you were meant to do it.” 

“But Santa wasn’t even in the sleigh,” Randy explained, “And I’ve always been scared of heights!” 

“Flying Santa’s sleigh wasn’t what I was talking about,” the cat meowed.  “And you know it.”

She swished her tail and Randy suddenly found himself back at school, drooling into a few ungraded papers on his desk.

(Eva Houde, Charlie Buyan, Tanner Purnell)

As he wiped his weary eyes, he looked up to see three of his favorite rapscallion students hovering around his desk.  Surprisingly, he didn’t feel a familiar wave of annoyance. Instead, he felt that warmth, still present and strong. 

“Hey hey, Mr. Randy,” they said in chorus. “Check it out- we just figured out another way to solve the problem and we put the strategy into a rhyming phrase so others can remember it!”

It wasn’t a perfect class period.  It wasn’t a perfect week.  It wasn’t a perfect job.  And Lord knows, he wasn’t surrounded by perfect people.  But in that moment, Randy knew what the cat meant.  He was doing what he was meant to do with the people he was meant to do it.  

From that moment forward he stopped waiting for Santa to appear with a sleigh of perfect gifts.  He told himself a greater range of stories about the moments and people that filled his life.  And, when the moment struck and it felt right, he pulled the harness over head and worked to affect the positive change that he could in his little community.

There are worse things to do with a life.

Tis the Season… To Hide a Turkey?

Tis the Season…. To hide a Turkey? Absolutely!

At the Lower School, our little saints are letting their creative juices flow. Specifically, three 3rd grade girls wanting to create some fun and adventure for their friends and classmates.

In October, Annie May Harkins, Emma Papadimitriou, and Alianna Rust wrote a sweet little letter pitching the idea of planning and putting together a scavenger hunt for the 3rd grade. These three brave girls met with Lower School Head of School, Shea Egger and myself to hear out their idea, and help make their idea come to life.

What started out as an idea for a halloween themed scavenger hunt evolved into Turkey Trouble! The girls decided to plan their scavenger hunt around the book Turkey Trouble by Wendi J. Silvano.

The gist of the story is that Turkey is trying to find the perfect disguise to stay hidden from the farmer so that he doesn’t become Thanksgiving dinner. He tries on a series of costumes and is successful in staying out of the oven when he dresses as a pizza delivery guy and delivers pizza to the farmer and his family on Thanksgiving day.

The girls and I set out to create a costume for each school day of the week leading up to Thanksgiving break and then complete the scavenger hunt that would lead the 3rd grade classes to help Turkey find a disguise that would not only keep Turkey safe through Thanksgiving, but also keep him safe through Christmas.

Alianna, Annie May, Emma, spent some afternoons working to make Turkey’s costumes, and brainstorming ideas for the scavenger hunt. The girls disguised Turkey as bowling pin, a mermaid, and even Elvis!

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving break, the hunt was on! (The original scavenger hunt was postponed because of the flu. Yuck!)

Students came to school to find mission envelopes that started each class on their quest. Each clue sent them to  a new place that moved them closer to locating the pieces of Turkey’s newest disguise to stay hidden through Christmas.

Take a look at the 3rd graders and the fun they had as they worked to collect the pieces to Turkey’s Christmas disguise…

The girls stated they had fun and believed their friends, classmates, and even their teachers had fun, but their favorite part… was the time they spent after school making Turkey’s costumes!

Tis the season… for creativity, glitter, excitement and fun!

Reframing Accountability as Embracing a Series of Tensions: Season Five Reflection

In this final episode of Season 5, podcasts hosts Toby Lowe, Kim Sewell, Michelle Cooper, Buck Cooper, and Rachel Scott come together to talk across all six episodes on the subject of reframing accountability. They share behind-the-scenes secrets about their episodes, discuss how all of this talk impacted their own relationships with students and colleagues, and surface the best definition of accountability we could come up with by synthesizing the six conversations that preceded this one. Listen to the whole conversation, or skip around to what interests you in the show notes below:

2:30-16:15: Our hosts for the season share behind-the-scenes back stories about the process and experience of leading episodes about accountability; plus Kim shares an amazing post-script about how her four year olds became her accountability partners this semester.

16:17-17:14: One of our major takeaways from the season, that could indeed be a starting point for cultures of accountability, courtesy of Francis Croft: “We all need to get on the team of let’s assume everyone is doing their best.”

17:38-18:53: What a conversation in a middle school division meeting about grading made Toby ponder in relation to structures-control-accountability.  

18:54-20:22: Buck explores accountability as holding in tension everyone’s humanity with the fact that there are things we have to do (e.g. produce grades and do recess duty).

20:23-23:57: Hosts explore the trust/transparency tension combo that came up in the honor council and administrator episodes, and they articulate the truth that trust is doubly hard with the turnover that is naturally part of schools (admin and faculty, but also students that change grades and teachers every single year!) 

24:09-27:20: Stakeholder groups in our school that we wish we had invited or heard more from in this season and why.

27:22-28:58: After six episodes, what we can say about accountability for sure: it is best when steeped in relationships and incorporates a circular or bottom-up (rather than solely top-down) feedback loop.

28:58-31:32: The question that still persists: what do we do about justice and consequences?

31:50-32:59: Hosts share what they are going to take away from this system in terms of next steps: change what you can change, lean into grace, open up communication. 

33:18-36:30: Final words from Toby, the initiator of this season’s topic: “What’s next is always work; but it’s a good thing that the work is so delightful.  You should always be pushing yourself, your peers, and your bosses for more accountability.”

(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!