Saturday, August 31, 2013

New challenges, new directions

Here I am at the Labor-Management Conference, 2012

It's the end of August and I'm getting ready to start a new position as the Gifted and Talented Specialist in a New Jersey suburban school. At a community presentation on my second day on the job, a gentleman said, "I read your blog" and I realized that I had abandoned this enterprise of writing down my life for quite some time. NJ TOY Travels had been waiting for a bit of narrative for far too long.

In 2011-2012, I spent the year in D.C. as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow. I worked on a team of 5 Fellows, based in the U.S. Department of Education and with 11 more who remained in their schools around the country. At ED, as we called the U.S. Department of Education, I had the honor of working with Jo Anderson and Massie Ritch as my designated "Leads". I was on the Labor-Management Collaboration Team (LMC) led by Joanne Weiss with Brad Jupp, Jo Anderson, Aurora Steinle and Tyra Mariani and student intern, Shane Smith. I saw and learned how the top unions work and how collaboration can happen when everyone puts their cards on the table and speaks frankly about their perspective. I worked on the International Summit on the Teaching Profession with the LMC team under the stunning leadership of Maureen McLaughlin. What a year!

My Ambassador Fellow colleagues, Genevieve DeBois, Shakera Walker, Greg Mullenholz and Claire Jellinek sustained me and kept it real through the year while teaching me so much about what it means to teach and to lead. Together, policy folks and teachers forged an exciting initiative called RESPECT, which is an acronym meaning "Recognizing Educational Success Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching." I worked in the Office of the Secretary, but also under the Office of Communications and Outreach, learning an amazing amount about what it means to communicate sincerely with people in all kinds of contexts across this nation.

Peter Cunningham, the head of OCO, was a big mentor in this area as I watched him seek out the perspectives of the teachers on staff to make sure that we were hearing what teachers needed, believed and wanted. The Fellows traveled the country to really listen to over 5000 teachers' perspectives on the RESPECT initiative and the year after I left, fellows captured the thinking of 5,000 more. Once we listened to the teachers, we would create reports that would go directly to the policy people so that policy could be responsive to educators. Gillian Cohen-Boyer, the Ambassador Program Lead, fostered and supported this national conversation with teachers. Laurie Calvert, an Ambassador Fellow from 2009, stayed on at the Department as the head of teacher outreach, to continue inviting teachers into the department to share their perspectives and expertise. Laurie would also include the teacher's words in newsletters as she continually looked for ways to make RESPECT come alive in schools across the country.

When my Fellowship year was finished, I returned to my position at Northern Highlands Regional High School. My family and my students were waiting and I totally enjoyed my homecoming. Being back in my old classroom felt terrific and seeing the familiar faces of my students couldn't have been better. Nevertheless, all of these experiences, both in D.C. and as Teacher of the Year, had changed me. I had learned how to think of schools as organizations and I wanted to be involved in crafting their future. I loved my interaction with students and found it sustaining, but I also wanted to participate in exciting initiatives that would tap into my new skill sets. Though I had some opportunities at Highlands to lead, I had a lot more in me to share and do! Around April, I came to the realization that I would have to eventually look for a new school which would be the perfect fit for me for a new chapter in my career. Sad as it was to let go of a place that had been so very good to me, I realized that I had to do it. Almost immediately after first having this thought, I saw a position posted as a Gifted and Talented Specialist in a great school district nearby and when I clicked and read the description of what they were looking for, the position spoke my name.

It wouldn't be the first time I had left a school I loved. Before working at Northern Highlands, I had been a founding teacher at Bergen Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey and in that role, I had been actively involved in developing the talent of very gifted young people. When Bergen Academies started, under the leadership of the late Dr. John Grieco, we had more teachers than students and those teachers spent every day, till late into the night, figuring out how to provide each child with a way to create real and important educational products. The school was built around the infusion of technology, project-based learning and a true belief in youth empowerment.

When I had started there in 1992, computers weren't the omnipresent school tool they are today, but on my first day of work, I walked into a classroom filled with apple computers. I barely knew how to turn one on! The world wide web existed at this time, but to navigate, you'd have to peruse giant yellow books that looked like phone books to find the address. When you'd get to the site you were looking for, it wasn't pretty. A webpage was just words on a what looked like an electronically typed page. But, wow - how fun it was to get there! Nevertheless, I had no experience with this sort of new technology. The students entering the school were all tech savvy and ready to rock and roll and The Academies, in those early days, had a very strong sense of youth empowerment. On any given day, students floated in and out of learning experiences at some sort of regular time, but if they were particularly engaged in learning, a teacher could keep them back to dig deeper into an essay or finish an experiment.

One day, I asked freshman, Mark Lois, to stay after class for a few minutes. Mark was super proficient at the computer and I admired the irreverence he had for cables and plugs. He would always mess around with the hardware without any sense that these expensive pieces of equipment were fragile at all. He was the guy that I needed to teach me right away! "Mark, help me out. I have no clue how to work this thing and I'm supposed to teach using it," I said. "Mark stood a bit taller and started teaching me immediately, "Well, this is a mouse and this thing here, we call a desktop." And so it went. From that day forward, I would forever see students as both my students and my teachers as I respected their interests, passions and abilities.

At Bergen Academies what we were doing was teaching, but it was also talent development. Students kept portfolios and were led by the same faculty advisers for all four years of school. Teachers could plan for special meals with the kids, to bond and become a community. We did extensive projects that had us working into the night. My own children, Joe and Melynda, were small and of course I needed to attend to their needs in the evenings. Half the time, I would pick them up and turn that clunker of a car I drove right around to go back to school to help the students create their projects. I felt like I was being a bad mother, but when presented with the plan, my kids would scream: "Yay!" while jumping up and down and shouting, "are we having pizza?" Once we'd get to the school, The Bergen Academy kids would invite my children into their project work and in this way, we all became a kind of family. Now, Melynda and Joe are grown and I'll ask if they thought that going back to school had been a bad idea, "No," says my daughter, who remembers the most since she was older at the time, "We loved it!" Phew.

Now, the students I taught at Bergen are all grown and I watch many of their marvelous lives unfold on facebook. I've met them for coffee and have gone to a few special events in their lives. I get weepy when I see them holding babies and healing sick children on the other side of the world. I haven't nor will I let them go and I won't forget what we shared.

The same thing is true for my Northern Highlands Students. I will never forget them and over the coming years, I will be filled with pride at their accomplishments. Once I am somebody's teacher, it doesn't end. Once we have that bond, it's always there to tap into.

So now, I begin a new chapter in a new school district. Last week, at the New Teachers'Orientation, I took a few walks down the street and I liked what I saw: inviting shops, a nice park to take a walk in and many community organizations that I would love to partner with in the future. I walked into the middle school on the first day and those floors were shining. I LOVE the beginning of a school year! It's a chance to begin again and to create hope for children. Everyone I have met so far, from the administration to the secretaries to the parents and community volunteers, seems to share a strong belief in the future of the children in this community. For me, jobs are opportunities to be useful and I hope to serve this new district well.