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Unfolding Education

“To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself–that is the first duty of the educator.” ― Maria Montessori

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8 Great Gifts You Can Give Your Child’s Teacher to Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week – and they won’t cost you a penny

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  1. Treat Her Like A Professional

Teachers are a passionate and well-educated group, but they have chosen to work in a field where they are paid almost 30% less than comparably educated professionals. In a culture where we place value on high earners, teachers often fall to the bottom of the totem pole of respect. Your child’s teacher deserves to be treated as a professional. Her passion for education means she earns less than the rest of her college pals, but it shouldn’t mean that she’s treated as though she IS less than her college pals. Let her teach.

  1. Lose His Cell Phone Number

Teachers may, from time to time, share their cell phone number with parents. When this happens, please be thoughtful about how you use it. Sending them texts during school hours creates the pressure of an immediate response and teachers shouldn’t feel like they need to be attached to their phones during the school day. Sending them texts outside of school hours, intrudes on their personal time; something that they already sacrifice much of to benefit their students.

  1. Consider That She’s an Advocate for ALL the Children in Her Class

Teachers develop relationships with all the children in their class and want the best school experience for each and every one of them. Your child is her child. And that child who is constantly bothering your child – that’s her child too. Please consider that she is constantly working to meet the needs of all the individuals in her classroom in balance with the needs of the community.

  1. Remember That You Only Hear One Perspective

You are your child’s best advocate, and teachers understand that. However, it’s always good to remember that you are only hearing one perspective when your child tells you something that happened at school. Please bear this in mind when you approach your child’s teacher about something your child has reported. Don’t state things as absolutes but, rather, say, “Here’s what I heard. Do you have any input on that?”. Quite often your child’s teacher will be able to add other details to give a more rounded picture.

  1. Realize That Your Child Has A Responsibility in His Learning

All the great lessons in the world won’t help your child to learn, if your child won’t engage in the process. Remember that while a great teacher is a good predictor of student success, all failures in learning do not solely lie with the teacher. Students have a responsibility too.

  1. Understand His Workload

Teachers are expected to pack about ten hours of work into an eight-hour day. Not only that, but they often assume responsibilities that exceed that of educating and reach more into the realm of parenting – feeding, outfitting and attending to the emotional needs of the children in their charge. Be patient in your dealings with teachers. They may not be the quickest to answer your emails and phone calls, and it’s unlikely to be due to inefficiency or lack of care.

  1. Remember That You’re All on The Same Team

Your goals are aligned; both you and your child’s teacher want this to be a successful school year for your child. Working with the teacher from that perspective helps increase the chances of that happening.

  1. Let Her Know You Appreciate Her All Year Long

Teacher Appreciation Week is a wonderful way to show your gratitude for your child’s teacher. Teachers rarely hear from parents until there is a problem. Try to send a little note, or email, every now and again, throughout the school year, to let your child’s teacher know that you appreciate her. The gift of a few kind words can go a very long way towards turning a tough day into a good one.

A Well Educated Child

Since the days of our planet’s earliest civilizations, the education of children has been a hallowed undertaking. The first American public school opened it’s doors almost 400 years ago, and still the definition of a good education, and how to achieve it, is the subject of debate.

When designing systems I find it helpful to start with the end product in mind. What does the product of a good educational system look like? As the parent of three teenagers, a long time educator, and a future school leader, here’s what’s on my list:

  1. A huge curiosity and a love of learning.
  2. An ability to meet challenges with enthusiasm and creativity.
  3. A solid core knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, and an understanding that that knowledge is never complete.
  4. An open-mindedness and appreciation of differences.
  5. A good self awareness and a self esteem that is independent of the approval of others.
  6. A servant/leader mentality.

How do we go about creating a system which encourages those traits? Ideally, we start before our children ever become part of the system; we support a society where all children begin their lives on a level playing field, where everyone gets to school fed, rested, and healthy and children and parents know that participating fully in education really can lead to a fulfilled life.

Once children become part of the educational system we work hard to instill in them an excitement for learning. We create schools where children love to be. How do we do that? We educate them in beautiful environments, rather than in the institutional buildings we house our schools in today. We follow children’s natural inclinations and allow interaction with the outdoors and nature. We surround our children with incredibly prepared adults who feel excitement about learning and teaching on a cellular level. We follow our children’s curiosity and feed, rather than stymie, their desire to learn about things that interest them. Instead of teaching compartmentalized subjects, we teach thematic units with real world connections, pulling from all disciplines. There are no bells signaling the end of one subject and the beginning of another – we give our children long, uninterrupted work cycles which encourage concentration and allow for explorations and trips down the rabbit hole and outside of the box. We don’t confuse memorization with learning. We allow concrete understanding before we move to abstraction. We allow our children to see that knowledge and discovery is the reward; that growing synapses and expanding horizons is the bounty; we don’t march them onstage for ribbons, or bribe them with treasure boxes. We don’t make them equate success with making their parents or their teachers proud; we let them discover that the most profound happiness is found in self satisfaction. We don’t pit them against each other in their academic ventures, we help them to see that when one does well, we all do well.  And as we empower our children in unfolding their own personal greatness, we also foster in them empathy and understanding of each other. We expect not only a self discipline around learning, but also a responsibility of kindness. We model and instruct in grace and courtesy as surely and emphatically as we do in academics.

The societal microcosm of the classroom extends to the entire school; administrators, teachers and children smile and greet each other in common areas, pick up trash they find, they open doors for each other. Visitors on campus know that this is a community full of vested stake-holders. Parents are welcome and made to feel that their contributions are vital to the success of the school. This is no drop-off/pick-up school. This school puts demands on its families, and gives them many opportunities to meet those demands, be it reading in classrooms, making materials at home, participating in the organization of after school or weekend events. Creating a well educated child after-all means that families and schools must work together because a well educated child benefits everyone.

The well educated child is an absolute possibility. It just takes a group of people to stand up and say this is what I want for my child. On a local level, it happened in my community, when a group of parents started a Montessori charter school and required full participation from its members. That school grows and goes from strength to strength because it is meeting a need – the need for well educated children.

The model is entirely possible in all our public schools. We just need to seriously weigh the value to our society of well educated children and then put the foundations in place. We hire inspirational figures to lead our schools and then trust them to do that. We require that only highly educated and passionate teachers interact with our children and then trust those teachers to guide our children in their learning. We remove the shackles that currently bind them and give them all the supports they need to do the heady work of inspiring our children, including good pay, and freedom from the institutionalized joy-killing manacles of our current system.  We put money into creating beautiful environments for our children to learn in. We loosen the constraints of curriculum and kiss goodbye to the corporations who make money from publishing ever changing, always limited text books. We require parental involvement. We make the education of children a “whole village” affair.

Idyllic? Entirely. Unrealistic? No. When we provide an educational system to our children which inspires and excites them, and prepares them to be part of the creative workforce needed for our future success, we reduce unemployment and crime. We reduce the need for prison systems and welfare systems. When we provide an educational system which teaches our children to be good humans and citizens of the world, and create an educational paradigm which involves the entire community, then we reduce hate and violence and war. Think of how much that saves our society, and not only financially.

A well educated child is our responsibility as a society, and until we realize the importance of that child, we are destined to fail on so many measures of societal success. Without that well educated child we will never reach the full potential of our humanity. We need to know that it is possible. We need to know that it is essential. We need to demand it.

 

Tales from the Classroom: Creating Space

As educators we are tasked with filling our students with knowledge but sometimes, even more important, our job is to create space; to plant a seed, step back and allow it time to grow. The work that a student does on his or her own, the learning or self knowledge that springs organically, is the most deeply rooted and impactful of all.

In my kindergarten class, as in many elementary classes around the world, we assign classroom chores every Monday morning. Last Monday, the name I pulled for the chore of being classroom greeter belonged to a very smart and wonderful boy with a few social/emotional challenges. The job involves going up to people who enter our classroom, shaking their hands and saying, “Welcome to our classroom”. Upon hearing his assigned chore I saw my young friend (I’ll call him John) tense up and flush. “No”, he said, resolutely shaking his head, “I’m not doing that. I am NOT doing that”.

Sitting in circle I explained to him that I knew he felt fear about the prospect of greeting people, but that I wanted him to be okay with feeling that fear, to notice it, but to understand that what he was being asked to do wasn’t anything dangerous. I told him that he was fully capable of acknowledging the fear, and doing the job anyway. We had a group discussion, as we often do, about the importance of how we talk to ourselves in our minds – the power of our thoughts. John listened but still asserted that he wasn’t going to do the job. I told him that I accepted his decision, but that I wasn’t going to change his assignment, and that he could either do it, or not do it, when the time came.

All week my Teacher’s Assistant and I waited for a visitor, but none came. John was more keenly aware of traffic in and out of the classroom than usual, but his moments of anticipatory tension all disolved when the person holding the door handle was, invariably, a classmate coming back from the bathroom.

Then came Thursday. Our school is a Montessori charter, and each Thursday a tour of prospective parents comes through many of our classrooms. Engaged in a lesson with a group of children I was oblivious to the sound of the group outside our classroom. My ever observant TA came and tapped me on the shoulder. “Look at John”, she said.

John was standing, ramrod straight, about ten feet back from the classroom door.  I could see the internal diaglogue projected all over his face – he was nodding, looking resolute, he was shaking his head, looking panicked, but his feet stayed firmly planted.

As each of the parents walked into our classroom, John extended his hand, made perfect eye contact and said, “Welcome to our classroom”, ten times in row. When he had greeted the entire group, he turned to me, gave a coy smile, like it was nothing, and went back to work.

My TA and I both had tears brimming. I followed the group outside and shared with them the magical moment they had just unknowingly participated in. Tears brimmed all round.

Some of the most important work we do as teachers has nothing to do with anything that will ever appear on a test. Some of the most important work we do as teachers is in sharing a concept and then getting out of the way to allow it to grow.  Absolutely, this is something that works in academic instruction as well as in social/emotional guidance. But teaching children the power of their own thoughts, helping them to see that it’s okay to feel fear and push through it, empowering them – those are the lessons, more than any academic concept we might teach, that make our job an important one.

 

 

 

Earning Goals

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I spent much of Saturday driving my 14 year old daughter around town, picking up bits and pieces of ladies’ golf attire for her high school team practice and tournaments. My dreams of finding some nice, inexpensive golf shirts in Ross or T J Maxx came up short; lots of guys’ golf shirts – no ladies. I had to bite the bullet and go to a sporting goods store, which isn’t known for bargain prices. Despite the expense, I was enjoying spending time with my middle child. She was in a chatty mood. The conversation turned to her career choices.

I think I’d like to be a lawyer (this has been the top pick for at least six years now), or a talk show host (she’d rock that too), or a realtor. Really, a realtor? That’s new. “Well”, she said, “I think that’s something I would enjoy and be good at, and make a lot of money doing. I am DEFINITELY going to have a job where how much money I make is tied into how good I am at doing it.” Hmmm. Was that a raised eyebrow I saw pointed my way?

I broached the idea that success isn’t always defined in monetary terms (I’m a Montessorian, after all – it’s all about the intrinsic motivation with us). Oh yes, definitely – that WAS a raised eyebrow. “I know, I know, you love your job,” she says to me, “I plan on having a job I love too, but when I work hard at it, and am successful at it, I also plan on being rewarded for it.” Not just in her heart, but in her bank account too, was the clear implication. “You are probably a pretty good teacher,” she continued, “but no matter how good you get, the amount of money you make will be always be limited. AND, you actually spend your own money on your job,” (that sentence uttered with a good dose of incredulity). “When I get to be the best at what I do, I think it’s fair to expect that I’ll be paid accordingly.”

Okay, fourteen year old; you’ve got a point. You live my life with me and you see that, in spite of my love for my job, money can be tight. I know you understand that when you choose whatever college to pursue whichever career you finally decide on, you are going to be applying for student loans. I know you understand that’ll be, in part at least, because your own mother is an educator.

Pause for thought.

The old question rises; how is it that movie stars and sports stars get paid the millions while teachers are lucky to make it into the $40,000 range? Sadly, I suspect that it speaks to our priorities as a society; we clearly place more value on being well entertained than well educated.

No wonder we are experiencing teacher shortages and seeing enrollment in teacher education colleges down almost 50% in places. We are raising generations of smart children with a good sense of self worth. They tend to be extrinsically motivated, and place a high value on reward, validation, money and things. How can we expect these children to grow into adults who willingly opt for a job which requires every bit the same hard work, time and expense in college as other career choices, but will ultimately make higher demands on them, while paying them far less than their similarly educated peers?

I can’t help but wonder; who will our future teachers be? Do we lose generations of potentially magnificent teachers to well paid jobs where they aren’t constantly held to public scrutiny, political whim and unattainable, ever changing standards?

And, very seriously, when will we finally care enough about the future of education in America (the future of America’s children), to do something about it?

Why I Teach

Being a teacher means that for ten months of the year, there is an expectation that I am available to answer emails, calls, and texts between the hours of 6 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.

Being a teacher means that the bar on my qualifications is constantly moving, and I am required to take course after course, on my own time, and often on my own dime, at the whim of my school district and state.

Being a teacher means that at social events, when the conversation comes around to disclosing my career choice to other professionals, they usually say, “Oh, that’s nice”, and shortly after move right along to engage in conversation with someone a bit more influential or powerful.

Being a teacher means, despite earning about forty percent less than similarly qualified professionals in other fields, I spend a hefty amount of my own money on my classroom and students (sometimes even buying clothes and food for them).

Being a teacher means sleepless nights worrying about how to get through to that child who is shutting me out, or those children who aren’t learning as they should.

Being a teacher means not only devoting myself to my students, but also having to manage the sometimes challenging behaviors of their parents and guardians.

Being a teacher means working in a petri-dish of germs, being sick frequently and sometimes (more often than you would image) being pooped, urinated or vomited on!

Being a teacher means taking a fresh classroom full of students into my heart every year; living their success and failures, their joys and their tragedies as surely as they were my own, and then having to let them go.

Being a teacher means that I miss my own children’s school events, because they often coincide with those at my school.

Being a teacher means having to write five page lesson plans for every lesson I plan to teach, without ever being given time at work to write them (goodbye weekend).

Being a teacher means having to teach in prescribed ways (depending on the educational philosophy flavor of the month, at district or state level) and not really being trusted to teach or assess in the ways you know work.

Being a teacher means that the bar on expected income and benefits is also constantly moving, with regular adjustments being made to pension, pay scale, and bonuses (and many of the recent changes on this front make no sense at all).

Being a teacher means losing instructional time with your students for up to three weeks a year, so that they can take often changing, district or state mandated tests, that do nothing but turn your students off learning, and do little to show their actual abilities.

These are the things I consider every summer. With all those negatives, why is it that for fourteen summers now, I have reflected, and still decided to go back to the classroom and do it all again?  It’s because every summer, I remember the reasons why I love teaching:

Being a teacher means being given the gift of a new group of amazing young people to love and nurture every year.  Now, that may not be a very politically correct thing to say, given how we aren’t supposed to touch, much less hug (I teach kindergarten – hugs happen), our students these days, but I don’t know one good teacher, who doesn’t develop a real affection for, or connection with, his or her students every year.

Being a teacher means that I get to share in the failures and successes, joys and tragedies, of the students in my care. I get to offer congratulations when they come in on Monday, all excited about their soccer team’s win, or the great party they were at, or their new karate belt. I get to offer them encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, and yes, a hug, through losses, divorces, deaths, and whatever else life throws at them in our time together.

Being a teacher means that I get to facilitate a-ha moments on a daily basis. I get to shepherd my students down the path of discovery. I get to witness the look on their faces when that thing they have been working so hard to understand, finally and suddenly becomes apparent.

Being a teacher means that I get to teach my students that learning is a magnificent endeavor. I get to teach them to take that pleasure for themselves, and to push towards understanding and success, not to make me happy, nor to make their parents happy, but because it makes them feel good to do it.

Being a teacher means that I get to participate in the pure, unadulterated joy of childhood every day. I get to see things through the eyes of a child, and experience the wonder of everything anew, over and over again.

Being a teacher means that I am influential and powerful because I get to nourish humanity at its very roots. I get to encourage children to see beyond themselves; to their classmates, to their communities, and to the world. I get to help them develop a sense of themselves as capable and responsible members of society, and stewards of our planet. Every day I contribute to the formation of good, kind, well informed and well rounded human beings. We need those.

These are the reasons why I teach. The pros are fewer in number than the cons, but they are infinitely more powerful. So, despite the abuses, love and learning are the “drugs” that keep me coming back for more every year. That’s why I teach.

Weekends are Hard

summer I love school

I got this exchange by email this morning, from the mother of one of my kindergarten students:

Child: (after running down the stairs just now) “Mom, is there school today?”

Mom: “No, we are going to go to an egg hunt in 30 minutes, go get dressed.”

Child: (sigh complete with rising and dropping of shoulders with a deep breath) “Well can you email Ms. Cathy and tell her I miss her?”

Mom: “Yes, but aren’t you excited about the egg hunt?”

Child: (another deep sigh) “Yes mom, but I want you to tell Ms. Cathy I miss her…”

How marvelous that, with all the awful things we are hearing about education, there are still children who love going to school. It makes me feel good. But this lovely little dialog between this darling kindergartner and his mother, who was thoughtful enough to share it with me, is really not about me at all. It’s about a method of educating children that makes them love to learn, and even miss school when it’s the weekend.  Imagine a world where children happily jump out of bed on a Monday morning, delighted at the thought of getting into their classrooms, and getting to work. Imagine a world where we have to do a bit of group therapy whenever a long holiday, like Winter or Spring Break, looms on the horizon. As a teacher in a Montessori charter school, I feel very lucky to be part of that paradigm. Thank you once again, Maria Montessori!

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