education, Princess, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

Cheers, fellow teachers! It’s World Teacher Day! Time to start celebrating, non?

writing134Oct 5 is World Teacher Day! What are you doing to celebrate?

I started celebrating today at precisely wine-o’clock. (Cheers, Me!) I’ve been in this profession (off and on) for more than 20 years, so I figure I’ve earned a few pops, as Don Cherry would say.

Teaching is a wonderful, fun-filled, amazing career BUT if you aren’t careful, it can drive you crazy.

Two years ago, I let it drive me completely and absolutely bonkers. My long trip back from Bonkersville took me more than a year to complete, but I came back with a brand new perspective.

Teaching is a job and you need to do it to the best to the best of your ability. You have kids who depend on you and parents who trust you with their most beloved little person. But in the end it’s a job and you can’t let it run or ruin your LIFE.

So, how can you be the best teacher you can be without going bonkers?

1. Do your job. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But sometimes it isn’t. We get bogged down in paperwork and standardized tests and we forget the real reason we are there…to teach kids. So, Priority #1 everyday: teach kids. Priority#2: everything else.

2. Accept the fact that you can’t do everything, for everyone, every day. It’s called being human.

3. Take comfort in the reality that you can be replaced. Yes…comfort. Once I realized that the world of school continued to spin perfectly fine without me, I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders. It was liberating to know that, yes, I made a difference but no, the world would not stop spinning if I stepped off for a day or a year.

This is my mantra. As teachers, we can't fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It's the wisdom part that gets me all the time.
This is my mantra. As teachers, we can’t fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It’s the wisdom part that gets me all the time.

4. Understand that you don’t have to teach everything or fix everything in one year. There are a lot of people in the system who will help your students over the years. It’s not your sole responsibility. I’ve taught or worked with almost every grade (including university students) and one thing every grade level teacher has in common is this belief that if “I don’t do it now, next year’s teacher won’t do it and little Johnny will be screwed.” Let me put your mind at ease. All (good) teachers, at every grade (including college and university) want what’s best for students. They will be OK.

5. During the school day, shut your door – physically and metaphorically – and focus on the students inside your room. They are your priority. (If you have trouble with this one, see #1.)

6. Teach students subjects. Don’t teach subjects to students. Know your students as well as your subject and I guarantee you will have a successful year. I love the fact that my son’s math teacher is a freaking math genius, but I also love the fact that she can relate to her students and make them feel like they can do anything. That’s a win-win.

7. Take care of your health. Eat right, exercise, get your sleep. You can’t do those things if you are working all the time.

8. If you do get sick, take a sick day. Seriously…no one admires the teacher who shows up with the flu and spreads flu bugs throughout the school. Hear me now: you aren’t that important! There are subs who can keep the world of school of spinning while you recover from the mumps. And don’t forget: your health includes your mental health, too. No one likes the crazy, cranky teacher. The occasional mental health day may be the thing that keeps your career on track.

9. If your classes are anything like the ones I see, you could literally work 24-hours a day and still not meet the needs of every child, every day. Do your best and then shut it down. Make sure you have a life outside of school. (see #7)

10. Enjoy it. Yes, class sizes are often too big and curriculums change and sometimes things just don’t make sense. But kids are worth it. Being able to watch children learn and grow every day is an amazing gift. Enjoy it.

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Note: This pithy advice applies to teachers like myself who experience first world problems. Teachers who work in third world countries, war zones, or in areas of extreme poverty are, in my humble opinion, teacher-saint hybrids who have my amazed admiration.

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education, Teacher

There’s A New Kid in Town. Be nice.

It sucks being the new kid – even when you’re not a kid anymore.

writing128At my old school, I could walk into the staff room anytime of day and no matter who was in there, I knew them, I liked them, and I felt comfortable talking to them.

My classroom was set up just the way I liked it.

I knew where all of the office supplies were stored and were the good things were hidden.

The school secretary was my BFF.

I knew when to approach the principal for something and when to turn tail and try again another day.

After 5 years, I belonged.

Until I didn’t anymore. And I had to get a new job.

After spending almost 10 years in the elementary school system, I switched gears and took a new position as a resource teacher at a different school – a middle school – grades 6-9.

I knew that I would know most of the kids because my new school is the feeder school for my old school. They are literally within walking distance of each other. But it was new and it was different and it wasn’t my old school.

My first day, I was lost. I didn’t know where anything was and I didn’t know who to ask. I recognized my fellow newbies by their vacant zombie stares and the way they reached out and grabbed at people, begging desperately, “Help me! I can’t find the photocopier!”

By lunchtime, I was questioning my decision to return to the teaching world altogether.

I was just about to reserve a table for one for my full-fledged pity party, when I walked into the cafeteria.

It was the first lunch for the new group of grade 6 students and they were all trying to figure out where to sit in their new cafeteria.

Last year, in elementary school, they all had assigned seating. You may not have liked the kid who ate beside you, but at least you had a place to sit.

Now, it was a free-for-all.

Some rushed to find a spot next to their friends, while others just stood there, scanning the room.

I watched for a few minutes. I said hi to a few kids I had taught in previous years and then I made a beeline for a little girl I saw sitting alone. Since I didn’t recognize her from my old school, I was pretty sure she had just moved to our area.

“Hi there,” I said, sitting down across from her. “My name’s Mrs. Hollis. What’s your name?”

She barely raised her head. “Sarah.”

“Hi Sarah. Are you new here, Sarah?”

(whisper) “Yes.”

“Where did you move from?” I asked, trying to gently get her to open up.

Turns out “Sarah” had just moved to our area from California. She didn’t know anyone and when the lunch bell rang, she had no idea where she was going to go or who she was going to sit with. So she chose to sit as far away as possible from everyone. She looked like she wanted to crawl inside her own skin and disappear.

I talked to her for a little bit and then introduced her to a few students I knew at her table. I tried to start a conversation between them before moving on.

Next I found a foreign exchange student standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria. She was clutching her lunch bag to her chest in the same way my grandmother used to hold her purse at the mall – as if she was trying to protect it from potential muggers.

This little girl’s English was poor and her voice was barely a whisper but I managed to figure out that she had had trouble opening her locker which made her late for lunch. She didn’t know where she was supposed to go and no one was jumping up inviting her to join them. I quickly paired her up with a few kids I had taught a few years back that I knew would be nice to her and kept moving.

Now, I realize these kids are not in Kansas anymore. They are travelling the mean streets of middle school now. But this shouldn’t have happened.

New kids need support systems in place the first day of school. They need to know that when they go to lunch on that first day, they won’t have to stand there, scanning the crowded tables, desperately trying to figure out whether it’s better to approach an already formed group and risk rejection or eat alone.

It’s difficult as an adult to feel out-of-place in an unfamiliar situation or with an unfamiliar group but it is gut wrenching for a child.

The most important thing for all of us as human beings is to feel as if we belong.

If you don’t feel that you belong in the place where you spend the majority of your time, chances are you will be stressed, anxious and unhappy. And when you are stressed, anxious and unhappy bad things happen. Eating disorders, depression, anger, and a whole host of other things that children shouldn’t have to go through.

Schools need to do a better job of helping everyone feel as if they belong.

New kids transferring into a school should be assigned a buddy, someone who is confident and familiar with the school. Someone who will show them which bathroom is closest to the class and which water fountain only spits out warm water. They need someone to sit next to during lunch that they know won’t make fun of them.

Today was Pink Day. It’s the day when students and staff wear pink to show that they are against bullying. This is a great initiative. But do you know what protects kids most from becoming victims of bullying? Having  friends. Even one good friend lowers your risk. Bullies target kids who are alone because they are easy marks. If you have a friend, even one, you are safer, happier, and more successful.

So when you see a child who is always, repeatedly, unhappily, alone, say something, do something, help.

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It could make all the difference in the world.

education, Teacher, Uncategorized

Report cards – Who are we writing them for?

In response to a request for feedback put forth by Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education, I wrote the following letter which I forwarded today.

writing117Dear Minister Jennex,

In a recent letter to The Chronicle Herald, you invited families, students and educators to offer feedback on the report card system.

In my experience, teachers are often extremely reluctant to speak publicly on matters of education for fear of being seen as insubordinate or disrespectful. They often worry that speaking out will affect their current teaching position or their future job prospects. This fear silences teachers and keeps valuable information from being shared.

As an active teacher currently working in the Nova Scotia school system, I am taking you at your word that my feedback will be accepted in the manner in which it was requested. I expect that you will consider my comments to be neither disrespectful nor insubordinate. My only intent is to pass along my experience with the current report card system with the hopes that this ‘insider information’ will help to improve the current system.

My concern is that there appears to be a disconnect between what is being said and what is being done.

In your letter, you stated:

Comments on report cards should provide clear, straightforward information to parents about how their child is achieving and progressing in relation to program expectations and learning outcomes.

The HRSB policy on assessment states that report cards must be written: “using language that is based on learning outcomes and is easily understood by parents/guardians.” 

What we have here is an oxymoron.

To ensure report cards are easily understood by all parents/guardians, we need to use clear and straight-forward language. But, when we must deal exclusively with learning outcomes, we are forced to use eduspeak.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do both at the same time and have anyone, other than other trained educators, understand what you ‘really’ mean.

In your letter you also stated:

It is important for families to know that teachers are expected to produce individual report cards for students. The idea that they must use only “canned” comments is not true. Teachers are encouraged to include personalized comments.

While I don’t presume to speak for all teachers, the ones I know, myself included, have not been encouraged to include personalized comments. In fact, most personalized comments have been discouraged and crossed out by administrators only to be replaced by general outcomes-based language.   

As a former teacher, I know you are aware that teachers spend hundreds of hours writing report cards every year. And while it is true that we are not given “canned comments”, it is true that we have been specifically told by our administrators what we may and may not include in these comments.  Over the years, this list of what is permissible to say has been whittled down to such a narrow point that often all that is left is what you might call a ‘canned’ comment.

All Nova Scotia schools (as far as I am aware) require teachers to submit their report cards to be proofread and edited by an administrator before they are sent home. This helps to pick up on most of the inevitable typos that occur when you type 100+ pages of reports, but it also ensures that all comments are outcomes-based and do not include any information that strays from this focus.

HRSB policy states that teachers are required to develop accurate report cards by always relating grading and reporting to the learning outcomes and excluding characteristics that are not linked to learning outcomes (such as effort, behaviour and attendance). 

As well, individual student achievement will be measured against defined curriculum outcomes rather than compared to other students or measures of individual academic growth (and is) not be based on measures such as students’ social development and work habits, bonus points, student absence, missed/late assignments, group scores, neatness.

How is a teacher supposed to personalize a comment for a student when all personal information has to be excluded?  Once again, we have ourselves a paradox.

There are many different ways for teachers to communicate with parents outside of report cards. As we used to say at my school, “No parent should ever be surprised by what they read on a report card.” Yes, we send home completed tests and projects and samples of work, we write newsletters, we make appointments to meet with parents and we call them when specific issues arise. We also have board scheduled parent-teacher interview times. Unfortunately, in the HRSB at least, parent-teacher interviews are no longer scheduled to follow the issuance of report cards. Any parent who is confused by their child’s report card must make a separate appointment to meet with or speak to their child’s teacher. For a variety of reasons, not all parents are able or willing to do this. Many of them rely on their child’s report card to be self-explanatory, as they should be.

In the end, it’s simple.

Parents want to know how their child is doing in school. They want to know what their child is good at and what they struggle with both academically and socially. They want to ensure that their child is a happy, independent learner. They want what’s best for their child. And students, even the little ones, want to know when they’ve done well and how they can do better.

We need to improve our current report card system so that parents and students understand what we are saying. Otherwise, what is the point of having report cards at all?

writing118

education, Memoir, Princess, Rants

I’m the biggest loser! No, I am! (Relax, people. It’s not a competition.)

writing110I recently told my tale of personal woe in an article that was published on the Huffington Post website.

It was scary to bare my soul in a public setting but I thought it might help other teachers to know that there was someone else out there who had a difficult time doing a challenging job.

The feedback I received was amazing. I got comments from teachers all over the world. “It’s like you are telling MY story.” Some people sympathizied, others empathized and some disagreed.

I also received some rather interesting feedback that implied there was a game at hand that I didn’t realize I was playing.

“Meh. Big deal. That’s nothing. You should see what I had to deal with.”

To which I replied (in my head), “Really? Is this a contest? Are we playing Who’s the Biggest Loser right now? Is this a special episode of The Amazing Pity Party?”

The one-upmanship in the comment section was quite amusing to watch.

“Humpf. This lady obviously had lots of money and got to stay home all day. I don’t have any money and I am run off my feet working two jobs.”

“Hold on, here. You have it made! You have two feet? I only have one foot and no job and I sit in my house all day crying my eyes out.”

“Whoa, whoa, suck it up, lucky duck. You have one leg? I have no legs and I live on the street where I wish I could cry but I have no tear ducts because they were removed by aliens!!!”

You see where I’m going with this?

We’re all just simple human beings trying to get by in a world that’s sometimes neither fair nor kind.

And sometimes the only thing that gets us through the day is the compassion of others – family, friends, and yes, even strangers.

Pain is pain. Compassion is compassion.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s not a competition.

I know the story I told isn’t the most pitiful story in the history of the world. In fact, it not even the saddest story within a 100 metre radius of my house.

But it’s my story. And it’s the only one I can tell.

Feel free to tell your own. Trust me. If it caused you pain, you have my compassion.

For the ultimate one-up-manship story of woe, check out the attached Monty Python sketch.
For the ultimate one-upmanship story of woe, check out the attached Monty Python sketch. Be prepared to snort milk out your nose (if you’re drinking milk, that is).

Four Yorkshiremen – The script

Monty Python – Four Yorkshiremen – The Video

Princess, Rants, Raves, Teacher

Teachers: Love us or hate us, we’re still going to teach your kids.

A teacher for Prime Minister? What you talkin' about, Willis?
A teacher for Prime Minister? What you talkin’ about, Willis?!

If Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wins the next federal election in a few years, Canada will have a teacher for Prime Minister. Imagine! A teacher as the leader of our great country!

Although I think this would be fabulous, I can’t imagine it happening, seeing as many Canadians don’t even seem to want teachers to be teachers.

In last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti wrote an article titled, “Who You Callin’ A Teacher?” In it, she describes the twisted relationship the general public has with teachers.

“Is there another profession that’s so loved in theory and so loathed in practice?” she asked.

She continued by saying, “The love is everywhere to see, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything: Countless books, films and documentaries take a scrappy teacher as a hero…In real life, teachers get scant thanks from a public that expects them to perform ever greater miracles with ever fewer loaves and fishes.”

I love that biblical image: performing ever greater miracles with ever fewer loaves and fishes.

It’s what teachers do every day. Not only are we expected to cover the 3-R’s (and cover them well enough to beat out other countries on standardized tests) but we are also expected teach children things that their parents should, but often don’t, deal with at home (like, please don’t rape your classmate, put her picture on-line and then bully her into an early grave…but that’s a story for another time).  Add in the integration of special needs students who don’t get the support they need…oh, and do it with less money and little support.

What gives? Why the lack of respect for teachers? Renzetti explains it like this:

“There’s a particular store of resentment directed at teachers, perhaps because so much of their work is invisible to the outside world, but more likely out of numbing jealousy that they get summers off.”

I totally agree. In a past blog about snow days, I made the point that every job is different. Each has it’s own pros and cons and yet many people can’t get past the perks that teaching has to offer.

The green-eyed monster is a vicious, myopic creature. We often envy what we see on the surface.  Dig a little deeper and you’ll see all of the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears that go into a full school-year of teaching. There aren’t a lot of people who can do that well. And yes, I know there are bad teachers out there…just like there are bad nurses and bad toll booth operators and bad garbage men. But I think it’s fair to say that most teachers are well-trained professionals who have the best interests of their students in mind. It just wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t.

But let’s go back to Justin Trudeau for a minute.

In his recent blog post, Drama Teaching Experience, fellow teacher, Grant Frost noted (tongue in-cheek) that the Conservative attack ads on Trudeau had it right. What could a drama teacher possibly bring to the job of prime minister? How could a teacher possibly lead our country? His response?

“Drama teachers are a special breed of people who develop co-operation in their students, work tirelessly so that others can shine, and help all students reach their fullest potential…Canadians should dream of such a leader.”

In the end, Renzetti sums it up: “Those who can, teach; those who can’t, make fun of them.”

Excuse me, Mr. Harper, but who’s teaching your kids?

Love
Love
Hate
Hate
Rants, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

10 Simple Things You Can Do To Help Your Child Get a Better Report Card (and lead a happier life)

writing72

It’s that most wonderful time of the year…report card time!

I jest, of course. Report card time is often a stressful time for children, teachers, and parents alike.

After report cards come home, the question parents most often ask is, “What can I do at home to help my child?”

They think the answer is going to be complicated and involve expensive tutoring support. And sometimes these things are necessary.

But in many cases, there are some simple (free) things you can do at home that will make a positive difference in the classroom. They aren’t based on rocket science and they’ve been proven time and time again by people way smarter than me (people like scientists and psychologists).  They don’t just help kids get better grades…they help them to become healthier, happier people. And in the end, that’s really what we want, isn’t it?

Keep in mind that these suggestions are designed for parents of elementary school children. Once your child hits middle school, you want to have good habits and attitudes ingrained.

  1. Make sure your child gets enough sleep. Get the TV and the game system out of their bedroom. If they have a phone, have them turn it off and leave it in the kitchen at bedtime. You want your child to have a restful sleep so they are ready to learn once they get to school. Kids can’t focus on learning when they are tired.
  2. Get your child to school on time. It’s disruptive to everyone when kids arrive late. And it’s often the same kids who arrive late every day. I get it. You’re saying, “Oh, but it’s just so hard to get out the door on time.” Uh, yes, it can be. But you need to make it a priority. By consistently allowing your  child to be late, you are teaching them that punctuality is not important when it is.
  3. Help your child with personal hygiene issues. Check them out before they leave the house. (I often do the sniff test with my kids.) Body odor, dirty clothes, bad breath, basically anything that involves bad smells, is going to make your kid a social pariah and a target for bullies.
  4. Teach your child that everyone has strengths and challenges. Your child may be good at math but struggle with reading or vice versa or both. Make sure they know that this in no way measures their worth as a human being or anyone else’s worth, for that matter.
  5. On that note, make sure your child understands that neither their self-worth and nor your love is tied to a grade on their report card. Remember: no one will be checking their grade four math mark when they are applying for college or their first job.
  6. Teach your children that popularity comes with both power and responsibility. If your child has been blessed with a leader-like personality, help her to use this power for good, not for evil.
  7. Keep an eye on what your child hears, sees and reads. There is a reason movies and video games have ratings. Movies that are rated R are not for children. Video games that are rated mature are not for children. Grow a spine and say no.
  8. Sexy lingerie is not for little girls, it’s for grown women. Even though they make thongs and lacy bras for the pre-teen set doesn’t mean you have to buy them. It’s not cute…it’s wrong. Same goes for Playboy t-shirts and sweatpants that have “Juicy” written across the butt. If she begs, see #8 for advice.
  9. Healthy food makes for healthy minds and bodies. If your child is coming to school already jacked up on a sugar-fueled breakfast (or worse, no breakfast) we are already at a disadvantage.
  10. Finally, don’t trash your child’s teacher in front of your child. The fact is, unless you can negotiate a class change, your child and his teacher will be spending more daytime hours together than the two of you. Be part of a team – your child’s team.

writing71

Raves, Teacher

Yoga + Writing = Happy Students who Will Write and Write and Write…

Author: Sheree Fitch
Author: Sheree Fitch

I recently published a review of the book Breathe, Stretch, Write in the winter edition of AVISO, a magazine for Nova Scotia teachers. I was paid the princely sum of $75 for my efforts. (Yes, this why writers are such wealthy, wealthy people.)

But it wasn’t the promise of great riches that drew me to write this article.

This book has made my writing classes more enjoyable (for both me and my students), more interactive, and best of all, more productive.

Like most Canadian parents, I knew Sheree Fitch for her lyrical children’s books. Our family copy of Toes in My Noes is 18-years-old, ripped, stained and completely well-loved. You know those songs that get stuck in your head? Earworms? Sheree’s poems are like that. To this day, I can start with, “I stuck my toes in my nose and I couldn’t get them out” and someone in the house will follow with, “It looked a little strange and people began to shout!

As a teacher, I still read her poetry to my students, of all ages, because it’s fun and well written and the kids like it.

But this book? Wow. It’s an incredible teaching resource. She has made the lessons so easy to follow that you could put a sticky note on any one of the pages and leave it on your desk for a substitute teacher…without any explanation. It’s that straight-forward.

If you teach writing to children, do yourself a favour and get this book. You won’t regret it.

Here is a link the AVISO article, Breathe, Stretch, Write: Using Sheree Fitch’s Writing Resource in the Classroom.” The article opens in Adobe and starts on p.22.

To purchase this wonderful resource, link here to Pembroke Publishers.