Thanking a Teacher

A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”.   I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.

While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.

I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace.   Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play.   Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.

Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!

Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.

Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.

Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.

These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now.   I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.

Library Assistants: Essential Personnel in ALL School Libraries

Every school must have a library assistant. Period. The End.

This blog post has been incredibly difficult to write. I have written and deleted a post-rant on the importance of these key personnel. But then when I write about my former and most recent library assistant, I do her a dishonor by including her in a rant. She deserves more accolades. She is a treasure to me. So I have written and deleted an ode singing her praises. But that does not get to the point of why we, as school librarians, rely so heavily upon our assistants.

So here I am. Struggling to write something of meaning that threads the needle between my love, admiration, and enteral gratitude for Jean and proving the point that library assistants are as essential to schools as custodians, cafeteria staff, and classroom teachers. Library assistants are not “nice-to-haves” if there is additional funding. They serve a key role within the library program and school-at-large.

First, meet Jean. She worked at Taylor for over 30 years: first, as a parent and parent volunteer; then as cafeteria monitor and crossing guard; finally dedicating over 20 years as library assistant. When I met Jean she had worked in the library for 10 years and knew it like the back of her hand.

It was a rocky start between the two of us. I started my tenure in Taylor’s library by redesigning the library space (including book shelves), program, and policies. The first day I met Jean I introduced myself and then showed her the thousands of books I had already weeded from the collection. I pointed to the empty bookshelves and told her we were moving them to rearrange the flow and layout. Our first day working together, we did more physical movement of the library and books than most librarians do over the course of their career. This is a lot to ask of a person making less than ½ my salary and who knew the school culture far better than me.

But over the first few weeks, month, and certainly that first year, I incorporated her in my vision. I listened to her and it became our vision: our vision to work together having our desks in the same space; our vision to make the library collection better reflect what our students wanted to read; our vision to make the library a lively, happy place open to all anytime of day.

Jean will tell you that I won her over when I threw out the card catalog and moved my desk to where it sat. Before me, the school kept copies of the all library records in the card catalog. No longer spending time typing the little cards and no longer needing the type writer to do it, she had time to help create displays and had more space on her desk for personal items reflecting her personality.

Jean became my knowledge bank when it came to school history and teacher personality. Her rapport with the staff served me well as I proved to be a change maker and tradition breaker. She advised me when to pull back or when to go full steam ahead.
Jean loved pulling books and setting up displays. Personally, I enjoyed that as well, but Jean really enjoyed it and was great at it. So that was all hers. I would decorate the display with student work or colorful signs. Her displays ranged from the typical holiday showcases to more obscure social awareness. During quieter times in the library when she was not shelf reading, shelving, cataloging, or repairing books, she was researching topics for her displays.

Jean ran circulation and library volunteers. I was teaching. When the library program switched from fixed scheduling to a wheel model, I was teaching all the time with no check out attached to lessons. All things circulation was Jean’s domain. She could get long overdue books back from students better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She knew what types of books each student liked reading and which ones their teachers wanted them reading instead. She helped them find both types. Parent volunteers checked in with her and she led them well.

Jean’s presence allowed me to focus on instruction, leadership, purchasing, and operations. Because of her, and for that matter any library assistant’s presence, I molded and oversaw the library. She did the tasks. Library assistants are workhorses. They put their heads down, ask for little, and work. Their work is imperative. If they cannot do this work, the librarian must do it. Circulation does not stop because there is no assistant. Books will always need shelving. Tasks always need completing.

The best example for why library assistants are so important comes from a WCPSS colleague of mine. Speaking with her principal about library staffing and operations she asked her principal what the principal wanted for the school: A librarian focused on checking in and out books or a librarian focused on instruction? The conservation is certainly more nuanced but the point is made. School librarians who serve as instructional leaders run a different library program than those who emulate public library programs. All libraries are important. But school libraries serve a different role for communities than public libraries. School leaders must decide what program best meets the instructional needs of their students and communities.

For the program I wish to operate, for the students I teach and have taught, for the teachers, staff, parents, and communities I have and do serve, I need a library assistant. To this day, I realize how much I took my assistants, and Jean in particular, for granted.

Library assistants make librarians better at their jobs. They are essential personnel.

Find Your Tribe: They are your wind, energy, and dreams.

 

Dreamers, realists, doers, thinkers…people are grouped into categories. These labels have a ring of truth but most often one person is a mixture of all types. In Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the first chapters outline the types of teachers within a school building. The premise is it takes all types to create a well-rounded instructional program and enact systematic educational change.

Much like the various types, my small “tribe” at Taylor had a mixture. While all groups and my relationships to each group mattered, it was the small tribe that gave me wings. The music and art teachers comprised this tribe. Much like when the architect, engineer, and artist collaborate, the three of us dreamed, designed, and built.

The relationship mattered because we found common allies who were not afraid to challenge the status quo of education. We saw a greater vision and understood for it to become reality, large and small changes were needed. The tribe began with art and music collaborating. I was already a friend with them so they would run ideas by me for my input.   When I saw how I could support their dreams, I jumped aboard their ship.

Some of the plans only impacted our individual programs. More often than not, the dreams were wide scale. Something seemingly insignificant as tweaking the master schedule for the next school year has huge rippling effects throughout the building. It touches core principles and beliefs of teachers. To change the master schedule required important, tactful steps.

School dreams only become reality with administrator support. Our tribe never dreamed anything without plotting out the entire approach and presenting information including all possible pros and cons, along with human impacts, to our principal. In many ways, he was our tribal leader. Our sage was the ITRT. Their wise council moved our vision to either become reality or go back for rethinking. Our tribe never accepted “no”. We tolerated and understood “not right now”.

A functional tribe understands its impact. Our tribe was a force. Much like a hurricane, our force grew when we were fueled by one another. The more we allowed each other space to dream, the greater our dreams became. The bigger our dreams, the larger instructional impact we would have.

Our tribe identified and understood unproductive dreams and instructional changes. Those ideas never were spoken to our principal. Sometimes, they were addressed with our ITRT to see if there were tweaks to make the dreams plausible. Because we tolerated each ideas, we happily agreed with one of our tribe members who pumped the breaks.

This relationship made us all better instructors. As a dreamer, I am always imagining what can happen in the future and constantly looking for improvements. I become bored when work is the same day after day, year after year. This tribe ensured it never was boring.

The Dynamic Duo: Librarians and Instructional Technology Facilitators

School librarians and Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) are islands within their school buildings. Most schools have 1 of each. The librarians and ITFs in these buildings are the lucky to have a counterpart. Some schools only have 1 person to do both jobs! How lonely this must be. The luckiest of all, are schools that have larger teams with more than one librarian and/or ITF.

My Batman to Robin was Ena Wood, former ITRT in Arlington Public Schools (APS). We were truly the “Dynamic Duo.” Ena’s supportive shoulder, guiding thoughts, and listening ears served to be invaluable to my career. Actually, Ena had a large impact in me teaching at Taylor Elementary School in APS. She knew of me through common connections. When an opportunity arrived for me to transfer, she encouraged me to apply. When I was hired, she served as my unofficial mentor. This mentorship grew into a true symbiotic relationship that helped one another grow personally and professionally.

The key to this relationship is that we understand what it is like to be a “silo” or “island” in our school. Her focus was professional development and increasing the effective use of instructional technology while mine was similar in terms of information literacy. We saw the connectedness of our programs. As the school population grew and classroom/office space shrunk, we contemplated moving Ena’s office into the library.

She subbed for me teaching library skills when I was absent. I served as her back up for technology support. We met at least weekly but rarely in a formal capacity. We made sure to eat lunch together no less than once a month. Our friendly informal rapport allowed for greater free flowing ideas. During these “chats” we planned professional development, lessons, and the vision information and technology literacy’s impact to our school.

But just as importantly, we helped one another personally. We shared our personal lives with each other. Serving as counselors and confidants, we ensured appropriate work-home life balance. Having someone at work to share and celebrate home life helped me focus at work and focus on home when each needed it most.

Our Dynamic Duo collaborated to present at ISTE and VAASL (then VEMA). We helped create and implement many APS I-Safe initiatives. But our impact at Taylor was vast. Together, we shaped the school’s technology and library programming. We served on our school’s leadership teams, helped design the school wide instructional focus, and challenged and supported all teachers and students.

We challenged one another as well. When one of us noticed a sign of boredom or static growth in the other, we talked about it. I encouraged her to take leadership roles in the district and state. She encouraged me to get my administration degree. We wrote letters of reference for one another as we pursued other career opportunities or were nominated for awards. This relationship matters to me. Librarians and ITRTs who do not have this same type of relationship, please do yourself a favor and start talking. Start collaborating. Start building trust. Your relationship (or lack there of) matters to each other and to your school community.

Relationships Matter Series

Relationships are key to functioning civilizations. Schools focus on PLCs and other teaming factors to help teachers grow and increase educational effectiveness. Throughout my career I have always built relationships with teaming partners, administrators, parents, and students. These relationships challenged me and made me a better educator. I want to take time to highlight some of my key relationships. Within this series I will not address student to teacher or teacher to administrator relationships. These topics are well covered within the educational world. They matter and have mattered to me. However, I want to focus on the relationship teams I have purposefully sought so I could be a better teacher.

These relationships came both naturally and were forced. I have always found the best relationships to teeter on the edge between comfort and chaos. In that small space is growth, learning, and excelling. Relationships take work to survive. Without these relationships, I would not be where I am in my career: physically and emotionally.

The relationships I will highlight have all come during my time as a librarian. My relationships as a classroom teacher were—and still are—important. I feel like they transcended into the relationships within this series.

I look forward to learning about others’ professional relationships. Leave a comment or find me online to drop a note.