Monday, January 31, 2011

What is Teaching Excellence?

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not perfect.

I'm so happy to be one of the five teachers in the nation up for the NEA Foundation Teaching Excellence Award. I'm currently a Horace Mann Teaching Excellence winner and one of us will receive the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence at the Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, held on February 11th in Washington, D.C.

Guess what? The other four Horace Mann Teaching Excellence Winners - Karen, Teresa, Kathy and Terri - are probably not perfect either. In fact, that's what's so good about excellence, anyway.

It's a goal for real people doing the messy work of education.

Perfection for me is something stilted, reserved for a Grecian urn or Pythagorean universe.

Excellence is that shining golden ring we keep striving for on this fabulous carousel of life.

We rise up and we reach. We get the ring. It's in our hands. Oops, now, we drop it. There it is again! Still we rise and reach. Excellence is a personal process, which involves striving for goals, rethinking practice and committing to life-long learning.

Perfection belongs to an idealized past. Nobody wears it well.

Teaching excellence describes the belief that we educators share in the audacious possibilities of our students. Together, we see the "messy" striving of youth before us and we too participate in this learning. We see hope in motion and in seeking new ways for us all to shine.

So when people talk about my excellence or anyone else's, that's what they mean. My students know that I won't give up on them and so far; they haven't given up on me! We’re in this together!

Excellence is an opportunity to boldly seek a better way to understand this planet and our place in it. It's a dream that we all share.

When people talk about my "excellence," they are talking about the magic that we teachers make happen in our classrooms all across this nation.

It’s a spark that goes from you to me and me to you. I see it in my colleagues’ classrooms as I walk down the hallway to go to the mail room. I watch the sparks fly when the kids help each other with a math problem in the cafeteria. I see it on the sport’s fields when coaches create that perfect harmony needed to win a game.

Excellence: go into a school nearby and you’ll see it in action. Awards like the one I’m up for are there to remind everybody to keep looking for it, right in your own communities.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

MLK Celebration! Emily Goddard Wins a Scholarship!

January 17th was Martin Luther King's Birthday Celebration. It's a National Day of Service and a chance for all of us to remember where we've come from and where we need to go.

In my town, Teaneck, New Jersey, there is an MLK Day Birthday Celebration Committee which organizes a inter-religious and community event to honor Martin.

Theadora Lacey, the founder and organizer of the event, knew Martin personally. When she was a young woman, a new minister came to The Baxter Avenue Church, where Theadora's father was the President. That minister, so full of hope and fire, was Martin Luther King.

I'm happy to say that Theadora is my friend and a trusted community member. She has done so much to right racial injustice and to spread the message of hope in her classroom, during a lifetime of service.

This year, I was happy that a wonderful student from my high school - Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ - was nominated as a student merit winner for her service to the community.

Emily Goddard has worked as a leader of the Multicultural Task Force and was an organizer of the MLK Day of Service at our school. What's great about Emily is that she cares deeply and she's going about searching for a better world, right in her school community.

There were 24 young people nominated as merit winners and only two chosen for a college scholarship, based on their resume of service and an essay.

In that essay, Emily said that she realizes that the extraordinary things people do in the world are done by ordinary people. Well said, Emily!

I'm pictured here with Emily, proud as a peacock. Nothing makes me happier than seeing our young people take on the work of the world with passion, energy and commitment.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't there to see Emily and the other fabulous young people get their awards, but his friend Theadora's eyes were shining!

In the days before the Salute to Excellence in Education, I thought that I'd highlight some of the reasons that people gather to celebrate education in such an event along with the organizations that put the event together.

The NEA Foundation Salute to Excellence Gala is held in Washington, D.C. in a building called the Building Museum. It's magnificent and imposing.

When you enter the room, you are at once struck with the awesome and uplifting reach of the columns and the ceiling. Your eye travels up, searching, perhaps, for limits. You feel happy that your eyes are free to soar in an an enclosed space.

You can find out more information about the Salute to Excellence in Education Gala on the NEA Foundation website, along with an archive of fabulous pictures from other years, which I have just about memorized :)

Last year, Dora the Explorer was in attendance!!! Well, Dora was there, along with a few other dignitaries. I won't tell you more, but will try to entice you to take a look yourself!

The "take away" from the Gala should be the core values of the NEA Foundation itself. What I would most like to highlight below is the statement that the NEA foundation is "driven by the simple yet seemingly audacious idea that every student, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged, deserves a chance to thrive."

It's important to remember that this is what teachers and their representatives want most of all - that students thrive. They want students to reach their gaze up, in the enclosed spaces of educational settings, to see just where their limits might be. Once they do, they will find that these limits are much more expansive than they ever dreamed before.

So what is the NEA Foundation? Here you go, in the organization's own words...


I am not for profit, but I am most definitely for the advancement of both educators and their students.

I am the source of grant funding, illuminating programs, and perhaps most important, empowerment.

I am a trusted partner to and unwavering supporter of public school educators throughout the country.

I am always looking for opportunities to support innovation, inspiration and improvement in teaching.

I am driven by the simple yet seemingly audacious idea that every student, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how advantaged or disadvantaged, deserves a chance to thrive.

I am the NEA Foundation.

And I am dedicated to lifting student achievement.

Friday, January 28, 2011

NEA Foundation Salute to Excellence in Education Gala

On February 9th, I'll be on a flight heading to Washington, D.C.

I'm one of five educators who has won the Horace Mann Teaching Excellence Award! The other four Horace Mann Award winners and 26 other state Teaching Excellence winners will gather in our nation's capital to learn about our upcoming trip to China this June.

We'll be packing evening gowns along with our notebooks because the fabulous National Education Foundation Salute to Excellence in Education will happen on Friday, February 11th.

Last year, I attended the Salute to Excellence in Education as the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year and was impressed with the massive columns in the National Building Museum, the sparkling people celebrating education and the young people who brought their amazing talents to the stage to entertain us.

This year, as a national finalist for the $25,000 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence, I'm on pins and needles!

In December, my students created a movie about me, with the expert help of the Pearson Foundation digital arts trainers. and I'm anxious to see the finished product displayed for more than 800 educators! Northern Highlands Regional High School students will be there with me because it is their film that will be shone to everyone. I'm so proud of these kids! They did such a terrific job!

I'm in emergency gown mode right now and have narrowed it down to two choices - one plum colored and the other blue. Wearing such attire is not an everyday thing so I will have to choose carefully. I'm tending towards "plum." My husband's life is easy as he will wear a tuxedo. He happens to own one because he sings in a chorus so he's good to go. I don't think he's stressing about his shoes!

But whatever I select, will be just fine.

The people attending this NEA Foundation event won't be focused on what I am wearing! They are coming together to remember and be inspired by the excellence that all educators share. I'm just a reflection of that light, the daily work of these teachers, the incremental sparks of everyday excellence they produce in their classrooms.

I am honored to catch their light!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dear Mr. President,

Did you hear the applause coming from my house?

My family is filled with teachers representing elementary school through high school. Every day, our alarms ring early and we get up to push the ice off our cars to get to schools where the kids are waiting for us.

We want innovation. We go to work with a mission - our country needs jobs and our students need to connect, engage and transform their lives.

We want success for all children and to level the playing field to create opportunities. We know that every single kid we teach has a gift. It's our pleasure to help them hone their abilities, face the tough tasks of the day and turn themselves into exemplary young adults.

You scored a goal for education last night, Mr. President!

When a point is scored in sports, it creates energy on the field or court. Spectators can see how the players suddenly seem quicker and more focused. Sparks fly.

You did that for teachers last night.

“In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.”

We foster talent in our classrooms by engaging our students in real-world connections and activities. We knock down barriers between race and creed when we teach character education and reflective learning.

Mr. President – we teachers want to reduce barriers to the growth and investment in our young people. Because of this, we need the support of our states and the utmost respect and cooperation of the American people.

Just like you said, we can’t make the plane fly without an engine. That plane might seem lighter in the beginning, but disaster would follow with no motor.

Without educators to fuel this innovation and to build this nation, we will not be able to win the future. Your words helped remind our nation that teachers are fighting on the front lines of excellence. We fight ignorance and build hope.

We do big things in our classrooms, Mr. President, and I can tell you that in my house and all around the country I call home – you made a lot of teachers happy.

This morning, in every state in our nation, children woke up to a dream about building a new tomorrow. We the teachers of these United States, stand ready to foster a more perfect union with parents, students and the public. Come on into our classrooms and share our vision.

Together, we will win the future for our children!

Friday, January 21, 2011

USA - Land of innovation and talent!

I heard on National Public Radio yesterday that the U.S.A. exceeds the world in the patents we submit for new inventions.

Our Chinese neighbors are here visiting and looking for how we develop talent and innovation! How do Americans keep thinking "out of the box?" How do we develop the sort of critical thinking, in a democracy, that creates a healthy distrust for monolithic forms of thought?

It's good stuff and it leads people to create inventions which grow commerce and wealth. It's our national product - what we are known for world wide. We aren't known for lock-step thinking or stepping in line - we are appreciated for our fierce independence, our sincere optimism and can-do attitude.

We don't have a melting pot or a salad, we have a garden! It is young and alive with rebellious sprouts. We believe in the fact that with the right soil, air and water, we can keep growing a nation. What we have is wonderful raw material and the tendency to keep growing and nurturing the democratic roots that sustain us.

Even our fractious debate between our political parties is dynamic. We keep swinging that pendulum from right to left and back again. All part of growing.

We Americans love our individualism and our right to keep it, but we want to be judged by the same measures that test people who are vastly different in their core values and stategies.

In public schools, we educate all of our children and we take their test scores and share them with the world. Then, we're compared with other nations who carefully sift out their bad test takers early in life and route them to technical or vocational work.

It's important to own who we are and stand up proud and shout it. Far from being the "ugly American" who arrogantly struts into the world and declares what the world should do, I say that we accept who we are and get more comfortable in our own skin.

Of course, we have hard work to do. The achievement gap must be eliminated. We need to prepare our students for the century we live in, not the one we left behind. We need to reinvent our schools to adapt to a new age with new needs.

But this is happy work. It's work that teachers, students and parents can roll up our sleeves to do. It's our educational barn raising. We put up our beams and we lift them up into a structure which shelters our children, fosters their creativity and innovation and invites the community in to share.

It's quintessentially American work and the way we do it can and should be informed by the educational models we see in the world, but this effort must uniquely suit our people and our needs. No apologies required.

Let's be proud of what we've made in our fine public schools across this nation. Like Lady Liberty says, "give me your tired, weary, yearning to breath free."

Our schools fling open their doors to all who enter here. They are free, public places which form a rock of scholarship and a window of opportunity for all who enter. For generations, they have held the dreams of immigrants and have given the keys to the city to all who open the books treasured herein.

We create a unique recipe which combines dreams for a new tomorrow, uncertainty, a spirit of independence and a belief in the power of hard work. This is American education. It produces a world-wide treasure and I am proud to be a part of it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wagzie at the Spirit Animal Sanctuary

When my daughter, Melynda, was in college, she worked at an animal shelter for a time. When she was there, she fell madly in love with a dog whom we later called Wagzie.

Now, my husband Joe and I didn't want a dog. Not one bit. We had already shared our lives with a lovely Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named "Vincent" who had passed away, but when Melynda met Wagzie, she told her brother Joe about this wonderful, intelligent dog she had fallen in love with and thus the "Adopt Wagzie" campaign began.

Wagzie, you see, was not being adopted by anyone. She was a mix of Rot and German Shepherd and the people who came to the Bergen County Shelter favored little dogs. Even though the shelter was a "no kill" environment, Wagzie had been there for over six months, living in a small caged space with a concrete floor and no toys, pillows or regular walks. The only fun these dogs would have was dependent on the generosity of the shelter volunteers.

The shelter was meant to be a temporary solution designed to move a dog towards adoption, but with a dog like Wagzie, it wasn't so easy. Besides being big, she had separation anxiety, a love for foraging in gooey garbage cans and an urge to hop over tall fences to meet neighborhood pets.

These feisty qualities, along with her size and rather large teeth, made her difficult, if not impossible to place. She had already been adopted and returned to the shelter because she would get into trouble with the blinds and curtains when her owners would go off to work.

Wagzie's days were numbered at the shelter. It was a "quality of life issue," as they called it and if someone didn't come to the rescue soon, the dog would be put down!

My daughter's love and passion to save Wagzie quickly found an ally in her brother Joe who sat with her to create financial spread sheets and other presentational tools to convince us to bring her home.

The last straw came one morning when my husband Joe and I found a "Dog Contract" hanging from the ceiling signed by our children with spaces for us to add our signatures. This contract listed the responsibilities associated with dog ownership and laid out how they would be handled.

We folded.

That was seven years ago and Wagzie lived with us happily for all of these years, after an initial period of adjustment.

Melynda grew up, married and had a baby. When my granddaughter started toddling, Wagzie suddenly felt threatened and started to get nervous and walk away. Next she began growling and finally, one sad day, she had to be held back because she was going for the baby's face.

We looked into this behavior and found out, from my cousin Barbara Long, who is a dog trainer, that this can happen and the solution requires training - a whole family approach - along with time. Even with this human-canine therapy committment, there is no guarantee of success.

We became terrified about the possibilities of harm and sought other options. Even if it were possible to bring Wagzie to a shelter and have her placed with a different family, this new behavior made her a risk to them. We couldn't live with that, but we didn't want to destroy an animal who had become part of our family.

What we needed was a farm. We dreamed of a place where Wagzie could run free with other animals, under the care and supervision of kind caretakers. But where could we find such a place?

I began searching for things like "dog retirement" on Google and finally - thankfully - I found the Spirit Animal Sanctuary ( in New York State, where we agreed to leave Wagzie.

At Spirit Animal ( , Alan Papzycki, a third generation dog trainer, is the leader of the pack for over seventy dogs who have found a home with him. They live happily in a true sanctuary with interlocking fields, human contact, canine companionship and love.

Each dog is a story. Some have come to him from loving homes with stories similar to Wagzie and others have found refuge from terrible abuse or abandonment. They all live together at Sprit Animal as one, happy, canine family.

What you see here is a video of Wagzie as she frolics with another dog named Bella, in the snow. We are so happy that she has found her home at Spirit Animal and that Alan has taken on the mission of letting these dogs live free, as they were meant to be.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

People angry at public workers

Marie Cornfield (photo from NY Times, January 2, 2011)

Today's New York Times talks about the rising resentment about the salaries and benefits of public workers. A teacher, Marie Cornfield, in Flemington, confronted Gov. Christie at a Town Hall meeting. The Times quotes her:

“People I don’t even know are calling me horrible names,” said Ms. Corfield, an art teacher who had pleaded the case of struggling teachers. “The mantra is that the problem is the unions, the unions, the unions.”

I think the time has come for some sorting out.

Our economy is bad and people are hurting - a lot. Folks are losing their homes and jobs, limiting their experiences and curtailing their dreams.

In such economic times, those with steady, public jobs are held up to public inspection. What seemed like a modest salary in better times, all of a sudden looks pretty good.

When I was young and thinking about teaching, some people thought I should choose law or business because they saw me as a talented student. I was called to public service, however, and I haven't regretted it ever since. In 32 years of teaching, I have learned so much from my talented colleagues in all disciplines and like to think that I've touched quite a few of my students' lives.

But that's not what this is about - it's about money.

The Times says that even with benefits calculated in, school teachers make the same or slightly less than private sector employees with similar educational levels.

The difference is that the public workers have more secure jobs.

So all of a sudden, there is a focus on the worst educators and why, in this terrible time of economic difficulty, the lowest performing members of my profession have a job when the public feels they shouldn't. To respond, the New Jersey Education Association has proposed changes to the process of tenure to ensure that failing educators can be more easily separated from a district. Tenure is not a "job for life," but the right to due process. Well, it just got easier to remove an educator from his/her position when the job isn't being done properly. This is in everyone's best interest.

But, in the end, I believe that it's not about tenure or other educational or public service issues, it's about money.

During hard times, people get angry and right now, they are angry at teachers, cops and firefighters.

But think again.

Does a person who has somehow survived a career of running into burning houses deserve a secure old age?
Does the police officer who has stood between you and crime in a torrent of bullets deserve the support of the public sector?
Have teachers, who have spent a career nurturing the minds of our community's children, earned a modest pension?

I would say they have. These are public workers whose employee is the state and the towns where they work. They have been doing a good job serving the public and they went into these jobs with the expectations that the rules wouldn't dramatically change once they reached mid career.

True, the financial picture is one that nobody had predicted and new decisions have to be made, with all stake holders sitting together.

Do we value the continuity of our children's' education?
Do we cherish our safety, security from crime, fire or ignorance enough to step up and honor our agreements?
Do we recognize that the anger the public is feeling is due to the feelings of loss and fear in this economic climate and not due to a true dissatisfaction with the service public workers have and will provide?

In the attempt to cut budgets, public workers are being vilified, not because they have failed to serve nobly, but because revenue is sought.

I find it curious that the public is angry at modest wage earners instead of the fabulously wealthy among us. I do not question anyone's right to hard-earned money, but there are notable cases of wealth that is ill gained.

Perhaps, we might look at why we are having these economic difficulties and what we might do in the future to prevent them. Easy money is not what public servants get. Quick bucks and shaky investments that have gone bad have brought us to this place.

Now, we are all trying to dig ourselves out. We must remember that we are all citizens trying to run communities and our public workers keep us safe and smart. They have earned our support, respect and collaboration.