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August 31, 2009

The Beginining and the End: 12 Stories

Photo I really haven't wanted to write this blog post because, when I finish writing it I will know, deep down in my clenching heart that it is real.

I am leaving the classroom.

There, I said it. I have accepted a position as a Head Start Child Development Specialist. I will be supporting and supervising approximately 18 classrooms. I am excited and at the same time my heart is sinking. I have been on this teeter-totter for the past two weeks since I accepted the position. I will have the opportunity to practice the leadership skills I have developed as a teacher leader and in my studies in educational leadership. I will also be giving up what I have always known: one class, 18 kids. I will still be in classrooms with kids and teachers a lot. I will learn if I am able to become the transformative leader I hope to be by developing some more streamlined systems to meet accountability requirements. I think my supervisor secretly hopes I can help us move into a paperless system, but we both know how hard that might be. I will keep blogging here, but my stories may change.

I am standing on the edge of a new life.

I think the scariest part is that I won't have "that one kid" this year. Every year, for twelve years, I have felt that there has been a capital R - Reason for me being exactly where I was in that classroom. There has always been "that one kid" that needed me and not anybody else. She could have been a pawn in a inter-family power struggle, or a boy with overly reactive parents. As a way of saying goodbye, here is a list of kids, one for each year in the classroom, who I know I helped.

Benjamin - We went to the Washington Zoo together. He was the only student without a parent on the trip. I treated him like my own son, before I had one. He came to school with a language delay and left on track.

Tarshena - Her mother was on heroin and went to jail before the winter break. I tried to keep her emotionally close by doing home visits at her grandmother's house. She was reading on grade level by third grade.

Craig - An extremely bright boy with lead poisoning. No one understood why he couldn't sit still. I figured out a way to teach him without that being a prerequisite.

Gregory - He was being raised in his great-grandfather's house. His great-grandfather, an eighty year old man, was shot by one of his grandson's with a drug problem. Gregory was in the house. The investigation took several weeks. Later we realized the killer had picked up Gregory a couple times from school. We were able to keep Gregory on track academically and get his family some counseling. I will never forget him.

Nisha - A girl whose mother had not had a decent relationship with a man until she was in my class. She left my class reading small words with a mom who learned how to trust.

KenDaja - Her mother once told me that she wished her daughter had "any other teacher in the school." I think she was afraid that there was something wrong with me because I was a male preschool teacher. I invited her mother into our class to volunteer every day. Her daughter came in with a slight language delay and left reading. Eventually she acknowledged that I had taught her daughter well, but she still couldn't stand me.

Amani - His parents were combative with each other and the world. I held him on my lap as he screamed "I hate this f--in school!." His mother cried on my shoulder as she thanked me for helping him. He left with literacy skills way above level with social skills to take him successfully through the remainder of his schooling.

Shakeece - He had extreme social and language delays when he came to school. He left on track after two years.

Jakeece - The next year I taught Shakeece's younger brother Jakeece who, when I met him as a two year-old, ran around his apartment hitting his big brother with a stick and peeling paint off the walls. He left reading. While in my class, their mother's twin brother was shot and killed for protecting a young woman who was being harassed by some thugs. Over the course of those four years, their mother got her GED, became a certified nurse assistant, and moved out of the housing projects to the suburbs.

Candice - Candice's mother had never learned to read, complicated by a brain injury in middle school. Brianna had some physical delays and wore leg braces as a toddler. She developed her physical abilities in our class and left reading. She stayed at the top of her classes as long as she was at our school. Over the two years Candice's was in my class her mother entered an adult literacy program. As a 6 year-old, Brianna was helping her mother read.

RaShawn - RaShawn had some attention problems and low self-esteem. He was disagreeable and physically aggressive. One day he seemed exceptionally agitated. I called his grandmother and she told me the story. That morning there was a 6:00 A.M. knock on the door. His father was shoved to the floor, hand cuffed, and arrested in front of him. RaShawn left on track, but his behavior threatened to nose dive after the arrest. He eventually became a successful student but it has been excruciating to watch each year as I imagine him asking his teacher, "Will you let me fail?"

TaShaunda - She was the pawn in the inter-family emotional battle. TaShaunda was extremely busy and hard to manage but, in the end, she was the first child I ever taught that I thought might actually need to be in a gifted program. She was reading well when she left our class and had developed social skills that have helped her become a successful student.

There they are, twelve kids, twelve years, twelve stories. Of course there were the ones that got away like LaRon whose language delay was insurmountable, Tevon who was expelled from my class and ended up on Thorazine, and Jonathon who has experimented with shop lifting as a second grader. I have lost fewer as I have gotten better over the years. Then there is the one who I almost lost but, thanks to a mentor, I didn't:

My second year DeVonte was driving me crazy with his anger and hitting. I asked for some help from my program who sent a retired expert teacher to support me. She came to my room, observed for a day, and then came back the next day with some information. We had a conversation and she helped me realize that I was as much a part of the misbehavior as my little troublemaker. She helped me become a better teacher by giving me some practical advice and helping me to see a broader perspective on my teaching. 

So that is what I hope becoming a Child Development Specialist means. Maybe it is time for me to be like that mentor who helped me. She changed the course of my practice and helped me to help all those difficult kids that came after DeVonte. I may not have that one kid but hopefully I can help that one teacher who does. Stay tuned.


These are some powerful, heartbreaking and hopeful stories. These kids were lucky to have a teacher like you, and now, your positive influence will be compounded by 12.

Nice stories. These kids are blessed to have a teacher like you.

Best of luck in your new role. I have not doubt that in 12 years, you will be telling the stories of 12 educators whose lives and professions were influenced by you in a productive way!Don't forget to consider how many children you will touch through these teachers.

Hey Pal,

Amazing post...really. Reminds me of why I've chosen the profession that I'm in and makes me want to write my own "12 Stories" post---although it would be 16 stories for me.

Now here's your challenge: I often argue that the minute you step out of the classroom, your "credibility clock" is ticking. To me---and this may set some of our TLN friends off---"teacher leadership" has an expiration date.

And the sad part is that doesn't have to be! You can be as credible ten years from now as you are today...AS LONG AS YOU GET IN CLASSROOMS and act as a PRACTITIONER on a regular basis, all the time.

I think once people get sucked out of the classroom, it becomes really easy to get buried in other things---district level planning meetings, new leadership efforts, district initiatives, (checking their email, reading the latest blogs, going to conferences)because you control your own time in a way that classroom teachers never will.

As a result, they end up distanced----intentionally or not---from what it is that people like me do every day.

And that's bad when you're standing in front of a guy like me trying to convince me to buy into something you're trying to say. I just don't even bother to listen to someone if I don't believe that they are a good teacher.

So own your position. Make teaching in front of other teachers a part of your work. Make reflection about your CONTINUING practice transparent so that those you "supervise" believe in you as a teacher first and as a leader second.

Leaders are role models, right?

So model TEACHING instead of professional developing or transforming or supervising or all those other things that are easier to do because they are a part of your new role.

Any of this make sense?

I'm rooting for you. Our world needs a model of a person who steps beyond the classroom but remains committed to practicing our craft.

I'm not sure I've seen more than two or three people pull that trick off in my entire career.

With admiration and hope,

John, Wow! Your 12 stories showed me what a joy it would be to write...my 32 stories. Starting with 3 year olds in West Philly in the early 1970s, on to...the day I announced my retirement, a year and a half ago. This summer, coaching my novices, I asked them about how long my credibility would last. Having shared stories and strategies from 32 years, they responded positively, because, yes, I am continuing to teach, and continuing to learn. I actually have more time to LEARN now...by reading and thinking...than I did when I was in the thick of things.

Teaching teachers is still teaching. Keeping fresh by working in classrooms is absolutely vital (and it feels good, too!) Stepping out of your comfort zone is scary and wonderful, and I wish you much success. For me, deciding to "retire" was incredibly sad, because I have always viewed myself as a teacher. Happily, fortunately, I have found ways to continue that role: with novices, with coaching, with writing, and...a brand new job working with urban high school kids on literacy skills. So...keep growing, keep going, and you'll be fine.

What an inspiring post! Thank you, John.

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