Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Teacher Leadership Community

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote at a wonderful two-day event held at Rider University - The Teacher Leadership Community Summer Forum. Suzanne Carbonaro and the teacher leader team that put this together are tireless and enthusiastic about what teachers can offer each other and how they can fruitfully collaborate.

Suzanne has created a Ning called Teacher Learning Community For Ed ( which you might like to join. It is chock full of great ideas, connections and real contact with educators who are making a difference every day.

The summer forum was held in the Daley Dining Hall of Rider University. I think there must have been about 100 educators gathered who were ready to share and learn. Chris Campisano, from the State Department of Higher Education, had asked me to speak. Chris is moving on to work as the head of the teacher prep program at Princeton University. Meeting Chris has been one of the highlights I've had this year.

Chris spoke first and then Emilio Piaolo, an award winning student teacher, followed him giving the group a moving speech - the story of her student teaching experience.

Emily compared images of her favorite activity - going to the beach - to her internship experience. She talked about waves of learning, our need to sometimes tread water or survive in rough educational winds. Her words were well crafted and beautiful, leaving the audience gasping at various times. I think her words could become an important essay for teachers and student teachers everywhere to share!

I spoke after Emily to tell my stories of collaboration across the barriers of age and position in my life. Here's a part of what I said. A lot of time, during my speech, I was off the page, improvising, as the spirit would move me. This has been happening more and more as I go on the road, but I still like to have that speech in front of me as a good back up! Here is a shortened version of what I said:

"What a year it’s been! But how did I get here and how did collaboration give me the skills I’ve needed in my career of 31 years?

In 1978, I got married to Joe Murphy. Joe told me that I would be able to learn Spanish very well, if we made a pact to speak no English to each other. At the age of 22, I was so in love that volunteering to give up my native language for a year seemed like a good plan.

Joe and I went to Spain and moved into a Pension – which is a kind of family-run Inn. The Inn keepers were Marisol and Pepe – a young couple in their 20’s. They had two small children, Jose and Susana. Jose was four years old and he became my secret teacher. I spoke only a couple of words of Spanish, so I really needed help!

“Pss, Jose, Que es esto?” I would ask about every object in the room.

Jose would fall to the floor in hysterical laughter and would finally give me the word I would need again and again. My learning became a game for him. To this day, when I go to Spain and see Jose, now in his 40s, I still talk about him being my very first Spanish teacher.

In college, I had studied philosophy. As a philosophy student, I needed to care about words and use them in a precise way. Going to Spain and leaving all of those hard-won words behind to break into a new language, was indeed a challenge to me. I had to learn to be humble, flexible and finally, to see myself with humor.

But most of all, I had to get help from others.

I had to ask questions and I had to let a person with greater skills assist me – in my case, it was a four-year old, but the age difference also allowed me to let down my guard. In fact, it was a perfect language learning situation.

Fast forward a decade and you find me working at a new school for science and technology. The place was gleaming and stocked with all of the latest computers, cutting edge in 1993.

We have to remember where technology was in those days. As recently as 1981, it would take two hours to download a copy of the local newspaper at an hourly download charge of $5. Experts in those days said that even though computers might be interesting and fun, they probably wouldn't have widespread use and certainly wouldn’t make people any money!

It would have been hard to envision the internet, online shopping, workflow software and our need for the instant gratification of text messaging!

Well, there I was in 1993 in my new classroom when a very serious man walked in, in a fancy suit. We had a technology meeting at a time that I barely knew what the word might mean.

The man said: “You are now a lab manager!”

“I am?”

“Yes, do you have any questions?”

“Yes, is there, uh, training?”

“Well,” he said, "there isn’t any money for professional development.”

“Oh, uh, oh.... I seeeeeee!”

I sadly flipped through the manual. I was in “tech shock” with a useless piece of chalk poised in my hand, somewhere between tears and paralysis.

Thank goodness, a student walked into the room. His name was Mark Lois and he played an important part of my personal history.

“Como estas?” I said, trying to sound chipper.

Mark was a sensitive kid and he instantly noticed something wrong on my face, though he had only met me a few days before.

“Que pasa, Maestra?” His kind face and question helped the walls come tumbling down.

“Mark, I don’t know anything about computers. Can you please help me??”

Without flinching or making me feel foolish, Mark began my instruction.

“Do you know anything?

“No, nothing.”

“O.K., This is a desktop, this is a mouse. You move it like this, no – not up in the air, but side to side.”

I immediately felt comfortable and I let Mark teach me. Soon, I would notice kids pulling out cords, playing with computer programs and applications with an irreverent and fearless approach to technology.

When they would go too fast, I would say, “Slow down” just like I did when I was learning Spanish. Their attitude empowered me to adapt to an entirely new culture of technology, just like I had done years before with Joe in Spain when we made a pact to speak no English. The world was changing and, by golly, I was changing with it! My students taught me that I could use their matter-of-fact, playful, irreverent approach to new learning to my advantage.

Because of them, my mind was beginning to explode with a new excitement and a hopeful attitude about technology. I didn’t need to be a math genius to work with it or understand everything. I just had to be comfortable with a little momentary confusion and to develop a willingness to try different strategies, one at a time. The machine wasn’t out to get me. With a little gentle coaxing, technology and I became good friends!

Fast forward some more and bring me to last year.

I had agreed to become the cooperating teacher for Tim Riley, an outstanding student from Ramapo College. After all of my years in the classroom, I figured it was my obligation to encourage a younger colleague to find his educational dreams. Little did I know that the relationship would be so mutually constructive and personally rewarding!

I had met Tim during our interview a month before. Because I teach upper-level Spanish, I wanted to make sure his proficiency was up to speed. It was and I approved his application.

The day he was scheduled to arrive was the last day of the marking period. The night before, I had taken home two cloth shopping bags, buldging with journals to read and assess. They were heavy. I pulled up my car, dropped them off at the door, just near my classroom for only a half a minute so I could park my car. When I returned, however, the journals were gone!

What was I going to do? They weren’t behind the bushes! They weren’t tucked against the wall! They were nowhere. How foolish I was to have left such precious cargo unattended, even for a moment, but it was early and I didn’t imagine anyone would want a sack of notebooks. I was, as you might imagine, in an absolute panic.

Seconds after the discovery of my dilemma, my supervisor, Dr. Dianne Bono, walked out with Mr. Tim Riley, my new intern.

“Oh,” I said, mustering a smaller than average smile. “How are you?” My supervisor left, depositing my new charge with me.

“Fine,” he said, “you look worried. Is everything all right?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, it isn’t.”

I quickly told Tim my plight. We immediately started brainstorming. What could have happened? Where could the journals be?

I learned that Tim’s wiry frame is fast – he was a prize-winning runner – and he could make it up and down a hallway in a nanosecond.

But no matter where we looked, we couldn't find the journals. It was a total mystery. The journals went missing for three hours. In the meantime, I showed Tim the cafeteria, got myself a gulp of coffee and settled into teach the best I could. Ha! Now, I was supposed to teach well – what a challenge - but the show must go on! I didn’t share the situation with my students, hoping the journals would turn up.

Finally, at long last, an email came from a colleague who had picked them up on his way into his office and then had forgotten to contact me. He knew it was me because my name was on every student’s journal. He was sorry that what had started out as a favor had caused me so much worry. At last, the problem was solved and, by the end of the day, Tim and I had truly bonded.

The next day, I let Tim jump in right away. During our first week, when he was just supposed to observe, he offered to type and project student oral responses, so we could see them on a big screen. This way, he said, they could visualize the corrections I was making. I was impressed that Tim could type as fast as he could run. In the middle of class, Tim would dash to the computer and would interact with the words, find an Internet clip reinforcement of a point I was making or provide other suggestions.

Sometimes I would look up and there would be a funny comment in Spanish! The kids just loved it and in a matter of days, I was teaching better and we were all learning.

Soon, the time came for Tim to actually take over the class. I was nervous, but not as nervous as he was. We had developed this team style and I needed to give him more time to fly solo. He needed to learn ways to position his body to take over the room and project his voice. How much intervention should he provide on an assignment? How can you help one student when the whole class needs you?

He’d get so focused on helping a few kids that the others needed attention. During these early weeks, I took careful notes that I shared with him after class for a debriefing. Soon, his confidence grew and he knew just what to do. Quickly, we had a routine and he was managing the class on his own. I would even jump to the keyboard and type student’s responses like he did for me, though not as quickly or as well.

During our time together, Tim and I shared stories of life, lesson plans and our areas of expertise. I learned about geocaching, a sport where you bury items in far-flung places and then post their longitudes and latitudes for people to find them. There is a world of people who do this for fun! Who knew?

We put together wonderful formative assessments and brainstormed everything. I would start one sentence and he would finish it. I would anticipate his needs by an expression on his face.

Finally, our time was drawing to a close. Tim needed to go on interviews, but he didn’t own a tie.

“Do I really need one?” he asked, “isn’t a polo shirt ok?”

The next day there was a carefully wrapped box with two ties: one a blue silk tie and another red one. I just saw a picture of him wearing the red one on his facebook page.

“Nice tie!” I commented.

“I wonder why you like it?” he replied.

When Tim left, the classroom seemed oddly silent. All these years, I had taught in it alone, but now, the sound of his voice and his thoughts were part of the fabric of my day.

The students groaned when they entered the room.

“Oh, no – no Mr. Riley,” they wailed. I didn’t feel bad when they said it because I felt the same. “What are we going to do without him?”

Mark Lois, the student who taught me technology and Tim Riley, my outstanding student teacher, all became my teachers. As a veteran teacher, I realized that I cannot have all of the answers. By teaching others and being open to their gifts, I can learn too. By maintaining humility, humor and a spirit of constant collaboration, I can grow.

When I was in the final stages of the Teacher of the Year competition, I needed to create a movie to showcase my teaching. I was told to enlist the help of my school’s tech team to produce a highly polished, though unedited video. The only one available at all was my student, Alfonso Carrion, a senior.

“I’ve got this, Maestra,” he said, to respond to my worried face.

Though he was involved in closing out his own year and getting ready for the prom, Alfonso worked with me on filming the video. He added English subtitles over the weekend so that the committee could know what I was saying in Spanish. Only a year later did I discover that Alfonso had given up his prom weekend afterparties to work on this project!

Later, Alfonso told me that he was most impressed with the role reversal we had experienced together, that broke through the barriers of age and position.

"Helping you is what I wanted to be doing," he said, when he visited me after his first year of college.

Years ago, when I was living in Spain, it was necessary for me to approach the task of learning a language with a beginner’s mind. Jose, the four year old, taught me my first words. Later, there was Mark, to teach me technology and Tim and Alfonso, but I could have just as easily have told you the story of Rebecca, who collaborated with me on an all-freshmen diversity program, Na Eun Kim or Adam, whose tireless efforts during Mix- it-Up-at-lunch made the day a tremendous success or Anne Sullivan, whose cheery face popping into my room, at just the right moment - days after the death of my father - reinvigorated me, both professionally and personally.

Recent research shows that the mentoring relationship works best if it is non-threatening and supportive. I think my mentoring relationships have worked in the past because I have involved my protégé in my real needs – the need to learn a language, the need to find those journals, the need to make a video.

Each time, the mentee was able to immediately help me, the mentor, at a time when I really needed it. Because they could help me, I could offer my help in a way that was totally nonthreatening. We were a real team.

In an average 5-year period, 2.2 million of 3.1 million teachers will leave the profession. Part of our mission as educators is to prepare the next generation to be our replacements, to add our story to theirs and theirs to ours.

This way, when our last day of work has come and we turn in our last set of keys, we need to know that there are other educators whom we’ve empowered to lead. And when this day comes, I am sure that the lessons they have taught us will stay with us forever!"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The last day of school

This teacher of the year journey has been incredible - speeches, presentations, meetings, being part of the big conversation. One thing has been missing - my students at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey.

I had to go back before the seniors left to graduate.

My chance came on Thursday. I hadn't wanted to come in during the year since my hard-working substitute teacher, Betty, was trying to get the day-to-day work of class done. I didn't want to come in and disrupt her, but now, the time was quickly approaching for all of my seniors to graduate. I didn't have much time.

Luckily, when I left. my classes were divided between two teachers. The teacher of the seniors, Dr. Dianne Bono, was on an educational trip to China, so it would be perfect for me to come in for those classes.

I walked into my old classroom and a couple of kids burst into joyful applause. "I was dreaming you'd come and you did," one girl said.

Another boy seemed sullen. He didn't look up. Later, he told me why.

"I was mad at you - you left us!"

"And now, do you forgive me?"

"Yeah, we're cool."


It felt normal being back with the kids. It was like being in my own living room. These kids are my people. We understand each other.

That night, I went to graduation and heard a few of them speak. Sam said that you should use your talents to the max in this life. Jackie outlined the triumphs of the senior class. Melanie pitted herself up against the standard graduation speeches which talk about "the best class" and "the most special people" and sought meaning for herself and her peers. Michael, the Valdictorian, exhorted his peers to keep trying even though life will inevitably throw a few failures their way.

Highlands "Voices" sang beautifully and Joe Occhino, our new principal, poignantly gave voice to a poem he once heard at a graduation. He swore, when he had heard it, that if he ever became a principal of his own school, he would use that poem. We all were there to hear him do it.

That school is my home base right now. In September, when I pass the "crown" to the new New Jersey Teacher of the Year, I'll go back into my Spanish classroom. I'll play some Spanish music and we'll greet each other with enthusiasm. Most of all, we'll be real and the kids will teach me as much as I can teach them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Eagle Scouts and Scholar Athletes

On Saturday, I had the double pleasure of seeing my former student, Steven, become an Eagle Scout in the morning at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, N.J. and later, speaking at a News 12/NJEA Scholar Athletes luncheon celebration.

The day started in Allendale, New Jersey, where the Eagle Scouts assembled to celebrate the extensive service projects that these young men do to earn their coveted status. I stopped in to take a peek before heading down my second event in Edison, N.J. The wonderful, Dawn Hiltner, from the NJEA communications division, spearheads this event and was kind enough to invite me to speak.

I pulled into the parking lot of the Pines Manor in Edison and read over my speech in the car. I like to center myself before walking into a new environment. Little by little, I could see the students starting to arrive with their families for the luncheon.

I always enjoy watching the students walking into such an awards ceremony. The kids look all spiffy and the mom and dads, just plain proud. There is a new shirt with a slightly stiff collar. A little brother or sister is in tow and with any luck, there's a beaming grandparent.

I sat at table number 9, which was empty when I came into the banquet hall. Soon, though, I saw some of my friends from the NJEA - Wendell Steinhaur, the Vice President and Dawn Hiltner, from Communications.

Before long, my table started to fill up and I found myself sitting next to Shannon Myers, the goalie for the women's soccer team, Sky Blue. She was to be the keynote presentation and my contribution after her talk was billed as the "words of wisdom." Pressure was on!

Once everyone got there, Channel 12 had organized a presentation of all of these scholar athletes on big screens in the front of the room. These came from a special video segment that had been aired on television.

Reporters from Channel 12 go to the schools and watch the kids at games, at practice and then they talk to them individually. We got to see their real personality. How wonderful to get a chance to meet these fresh faced and optimistic youth. They made us laugh, wipe away a tear and admire their outstanding skills.

We saw one student playing funny songs on his guitar. Another girl, an accomplished gymnast, had joined her school ROTC by mistake. She had intended to sign up for her school chorus, but found herself in a ROTC meeting. She riot is that she stayed and found out that she liked it. "I like commanding!" she said, with a gleaming smile. Another set of twins talked about how they enjoy competing for grades and athletics. "He's got me by a point in the GPA, but I take him in sports."

Shannon, the Sky Blue goalie, took the podium after the student videos and gave a magnificent keynote - right from the heart. She was powerfully spoken and didn't even look down at a written word. So impressive!

She told the students that high school will probably not be the "high point" of their lives. There are many exciting things ahead, she said, if they follow the spark of passion inside. If they follow their inner fire, their wildest dreams just may come true, but if they ignored it, the flame would die out.

Shannon shared with the group that she had majored in communications and later got an M.A. at Syracuse University. This all lead to the corner office she had dreamed of, but something was missing in her life.

One day she read the paper and found a press release about a U.S. women's soccer league that was about to form. She got a couple of credible sources that confirmed this fact and then began the life transformation she needed to become a professional woman athlete. "I'm living my wildest dream each day," she told us. Shannon had so much passion in her voice that every word counted.

I got up next and spoke from words I had prepared. Below is an abridged version of what I said:

"To have the opportunity to address a group of students so worthy of my utmost respect and admiration, is an honor.

You have distinguished yourselves because you have combined the ideals of scholarship and athletics to a high and worthy degree. Your have understood the value of teamwork and leadership. You know what it means to be there when other people are depending on you.

You have found the courage to run down a court with the ball in a special zone of incredible focus or to bravely race as fast as your legs can carry you.

When your body has screamed for you to stop, you know when to listen or when to push on.

It’s not everyone who can do this. You know how to let your coaches show you the way to excellence. You realize that age has something to share and you want to benefit from this knowledge.

We here gathered today know that it’s not easy to shine, to step ahead of the pack, to lead, to forge new territory and to create records that will set you, your team, your school and your family apart.

The trophies and metals that line your walls are society’s way of telling you that you inspire us to remember what your well-spent youth stands for.

When you feel good, you work.
When you feel lazy, you work.
When your friends are flipping channels and going to the mall, you often work.

What’s different about you is that you know how it feels to be in harmony with yourself and to feel the power and beauty of your personal best.

And for you, it doesn’t stop on the field or court. When you hang up your muddy cleats or throw yet another sweaty tee shirt into the laundry or eat an exhausted plate of spaghetti after a quick shower, you keep going.

You do it because there is that paper to write on the Civil War, the art project to finish, the data to tabulate, the video to edit. You promised your classmates that you would create the hand out for the English project and you know that your Spanish teacher is counting on you to present a poem to the class with a perfect accent and emotion.

Everyone is counting on you, but most of all – you are counting on you because you take pride in what you do. Even when the whole house falls asleep or you fall asleep in the middle of a job, you wake up early to put on the finishing touches.

Because for you, doing a shoddy job just isn’t an option. What sets you apart is that you care!

When I was in college, I studied philosophy. Even though my parents didn’t really understand what I was studying, I enjoyed spending a lot of time thinking about big questions. Why am I the way I am? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to make a commitment?

Besides those questions, I also liked learning about the ancient Greeks who lived about five hundred BC. For the Greeks, sports were an art and exercise was frequently done to beautiful music. For the ancient Greeks, physical strength, grace and movement were vital parts of one’s education.

We can still see Greek images engraved on museum artifacts that show us the strength of their muscles and the sports they played.

In books we treasure, we can even read their conversations in the pages of philosophical dialogs and plays.

I talk to you about the Greeks because I believe that, in an important way, these ancient athletes have passed their torches on to you! You have stepped up to be the keeper of the flame.

So it’s your job to keep it bright and strong until you pass it on to another.

Why you? Because you have chosen yourself through your exemplary actions.

As a scholar athlete, you stand in a fine tradition of excellence which goes back thousands of years and connects you to all that is fine in our history.

So remember those that have come before you with gratitude and forgive them for their imperfections. Be kind to yourself as well and remember that you can only give the world each day’s best job and that sometimes - there is more of a lesson learned in a loss than a win.

Today, you do honor to yourself and to everyone who believes in you. You are a beacon in the state of New Jersey and for everyone who has helped you get here. We do not celebrate you because you are perfect, but because you have excelled, achieved and endured.

It is an honor to meet you. Follow your passion, seek mastery, tend the flame and never give up! Congratulations!"

After my words, Wendell Steinhaur gave a wonderful speech which spoke directly to the students' interests and dreams. He even made sure to include a little humor, which the crowds enjoy.

What I like most about Wendell is his kind and sincere smile and a personal warmth which radiates to the audience. He has been my NJEA liaison for the Teacher of the Year program and has always been there whenever I needed any help at all, within minutes. What a role model!

When the luncheon was over, a representative from Channel 12 came over with the gift of a magnificent pen set with my name engraved and some words of thanks. The set is something I will treasure and admire. Each gift is a reminder of the job I have to do as the representative of my esteemed colleagues. I take it to heart!

On the way out, some parents and students politely stopped to thank me for what I had said. That's always nice because no matter how many times I get up to speak, I can never quite tell how much of what I am saying is resonating with the audience. It's good that some people come up and let me know.

Each talk I give is on somebody's big day. When I speak, I am being scripted onto a life story and I need to rise to the occasion!

Everyone was clearing out of the hall. Waiters were collecting uneaten rolls and half-filled glasses on giant trays. I walked out to my car and enjoyed watching the families exit, stopping to take a picture by the fountain and one more by the brimming flower beds.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Picture with the president

Here I am in the Oval Office with President Obama!!! Amazing! He was so gracious!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Common Standards and Test Mania

The country is talking a whole lot about common core standards for our nation's children. The idea is that if you study math as a sophomore in Texas, you should be able to be a junior in New Jersey and be o.k. Your learning should be rather portable, allowing you to feel confident that what you are learning is being learned all around the nation.

It's easier said than done.

But the Common Core Standards Initiative has been working hard to make this happen and this spring, we've seen some major results. "The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a single set of clear educational standards for English-language arts and mathematics that states can share and voluntarily adopt." Folks want to be able to say what a student knows and is able to do and there needs to be clarity around this from state to state.

"Who is leading the Common Core State Standards Initiative? Parents, teachers, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders, through their membership in the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) are leading the effort to develop a common core of state standards."

For anyone who wants to weigh in on the topic, it's possible to do so on where there is also a great deal of information on the standards.

On my New Jersey Teacher of the Year interview last September, I was asked what academic standards meant to me. I said that they were a beacon for us to follow, a goal to move towards in instruction.

I think it's important to understand that believing in standards does not mean that one is signing up for every high-stakes test out there. It does mean that we have to come to a better shared understanding of what we teach and how best to evaluate progress and proficiency.

Most people I know say that this needs to be done by using a variety of assessment methods. I think of it as casting a wide net to see what knowledge is in there. It certainly doesn't mean that kids should submit to a single multiple-choice test, get a number and have that number be the deciding factor that says a child has reached the stated goal.

The other thing about standards is that they aren't supposed to invade classrooms and take away that teachable moment. "Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do help teachers figure out the knowledge and skills their students should have so that teachers can build the best lessons and environments for their classrooms."

I see the standards movement as a good thing which gets us working together to create more goal focused programs, with a wide range of teaching strategies and experiences in each individual classroom. To think that standards are equal to the very worst in standardized tests is just wrong.

(all quotes taken from

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Middlesex Vo-Tech School Awards

Gloria Cook & Maryann Woods-Murphy

Tonight took me to Piscataway, New Jersey. Down the NJ Turnpike I went, against the traffic going North.

I pulled into the parking lot and saw a large, flat, brown-brick structure: Middlesex County Vocational Technical School. I was happy to be meeting Gloria Cook, the history teacher, who had invited me down.

In seconds, I was in the door and could see that the building was much nicer from the inside than its rather simple exterior showed. What the eye couldn't see, curbside, was the unique entry of shafts of light from long windows, interesting public spaces and classrooms clustered around gathering areas. There were shops and students and little brothers and sisters all here to celebrate the achievements of their big brothers and sisters.

Gloria Cook and I had met at the NJEA convention last November. She's an optimist in every way. She came running up to me, when I was first named NJ Teacher of the Year, to tell me about her creation, "A Night of Elegance."

Her dream project is a formal dinner for students with china, flowers and fancy clothes to celebrate those students who had maintained a good grade point average, a nice attendance record and an exemplary attitude. She'd positively beamed when she had told me all about it. "Teachers would even wash the students' china dinner plates," she gushed. Gloria and her colleagues had refused to use paper plates to make it easier. The point of the night, you see, was to make one beautiful evening - a night to remember, when each student would don a collared shirt or a pretty dress and strut out into the room, showing off their pride and accomplishments.

This would have been the 4th year for the "Evening of Elegance."

Gloria had asked me to speak at the event and I was looking forward to it.

A couple of weeks ago, Gloria called to say that there had been some changes. Hit with the budget crisis, there was no money to create this evening for the kids. The school Principal, Dr. Linda Russo, didn't want to let the time pass without celebrating the students so they moved ahead with an awards ceremony for such things as "Best in shop" and "Perfect Attendance." The Awards Ceremony would be an evening to give out certificates, recognition and giant cookies, but would not include a formal dinner or dress. Gloria was, of course, sad but she remained ever cheerful. "The kids appreciate the recognition. I'm just so pleased that you could come tonight!"

I was happy to come and share my thoughts about excellence and dreams with the crowd. I told them the story of how this granddaughter of Irish immigrants became a Spanish speaker and I encouraged them to follow their dreams. I added: "When you look at people, remember that they too have dreams in their heart. Maybe you can help them achieve their dreams while you’re on the way to finding your own. Walk with gratitude, strive for excellence, and forgive yourself when you stumble."

It's a true honor to talk to these hard-working kids and their proud parents. I'm happy that Middlesex County Vocational Technical School found a way to honor their students.

I hope that next year, or the year after, Gloria's dream for "A Night of Elegance" can spring to life again. Hopefully, funds will surface for this sort of thing. Until then, I know that the teachers and administrators at the Piscataway Campus of the Middlesex County Vocational Technical School will do everything they can to honor and celebrate their students.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Trenton Rally!

Here I am with Wendell Steinhauer, the NJEA Vice President, at the Trenton Rally!

I have nothing but respect and admiration for the whole NJEA team. The public needs to understand just how tireless these folks are. During my year as the New Jersey Teacher of the Year, it's been a joy and honor to get to know these leaders personally!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Save our schools rally

(photo, Lule Seltzer)
(photo, Joanna Petritsis)

Hello Everyone. I’ve been in education for 31 years.

Do I look like one of those tired, burnt-out veteran teachers we’ve been hearing about these days?

Lately, I’ve been hearing a whole lot of people talking about education who have never taught. They say that we aren’t doing a good job even though our test scores prove that we are at the top of the nation.

We hear that we need to improve, at the same time as our failed budgets will stuff our classrooms with students, eliminate our programs and lay off our colleagues.

Does that sound like a plan for school improvement?

Well, a whole lot of people seem to think that teachers need improvement. They think that we might do a good job if we get merit pay and get rid of those terrible slackers among us. You know, the ones who hobble home carrying bushels of papers till their eyes are bleary or the teacher I heard about who remembered to pass her grade book to her friend after her car accident and before being loaded into an ambulance.

Slackers. Hum.

So to help teachers be less prone to slacking, these educational “visionaries” say that we should use rewards and punishments.

Problem is, years of studies by people like the Federal Reserve Bank, have shown that the carrot and stick approach doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything but the most rudimentary task. In fact, it makes people perform worse than they would without the reward!!!

What studies have shown is that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery and meaning.

For teachers, I translate this into:

1. Autonomy: Let teachers teach! Stop with the top-down ideas. Teachers care about their work. Listen to them and let them excel!

2. Mastery: Let teachers choose their own professional development, guided by their interests, needs and passions!

3. Meaning: Recognize that as teachers, our voice needs to count. Listen to what we are saying about our jobs. Let us narrate our profession. Move over – we have a whole lot to say!

But most of all and most urgently, we need to fund our excellent public schools!

We need the recognition that our New Jersey Educational Association is not a “special interest” – but is rather the experienced, expert voices of more than 200,000 educators!

We have a proud record of success and our spirit will not be dampened, despite the repeated frontal attacks to our integrity, expertise and motives!

In fact, what I’m seeing all over our great state of New Jersey is the unleashing of the enormous energy we need to fight the good fight.

I know that we are on the right side of history – the side of justice, of public access to education and opportunity. We are on the side of public workers who run our transportation, patrol our streets and put out our fires. We stand up together, in solidarity, because history calls us to do it. We know that there is nothing more important than educating and protecting our children.

We will not be silenced. We will prevail!

Teaneck Educators Supporting Education (Photo, Lule Seltzer)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Valdictorians of Bergen County, June 1st

To have the opportunity to address a group of students so worthy of my utmost respect and admiration, is an honor.

You have distinguished yourselves because you have reached for the golden ring and now; you hold it in your hand.

But you wouldn’t have gotten it, if you hadn’t dared to reach. There are other students who may be just as smart or creative as you, but unless one dares to exceed normal expectations, one cannot arrive at greatness.

Excellence requires not only talent, but also risk.

It requires heart - for the long days and nights you need to get an assignment just right. It demands self-respect, direction and the willingness to stand alone - to go against the grain.

Nobody in this room is here by accident. Your stories and efforts matter!

I believe you do honor to some long forgotten ancestor, whose blood flows in your veins. In some way, his or her struggle has helped you to achieve your dreams: He came across an ocean. She crossed a desert. He was denied a college degree and she couldn’t vote. Somehow, they survived.

Today, you do honor to your schools and to Bergen County.
This is a day to stand tall and proud.

We do not hold you up today because you are perfect, but because you have excelled, achieved and endured. It is an honor to meet you. Follow your passion, seek mastery and never give up! Congratulations!