Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Another post with too many cliches...

It's happened again.

"He has really come a long way!" "Wow, what a wonderful attitude!" "Way to go, buddy!"

So says his teacher.

And then comes...

The Compliment Jinx: When teachers dare speak aloud about a child's recently improved efforts... and the very next day ( afternoon, minute) the child completely blows up and makes us all out to be liars.

Why, oh why does this have to happen? Are the gods out to get us? Do the fates find joy in squelching any feeling of satisfaction we dare to feel? How about karma? All this hard work should lead to something positive!

Perhaps it's more simple than that. Maybe it's all cyclical, and we are just missing the bigger picture that could reveal a pattern. Or Mom was right all along... what goes around does come around.

Here's what I do know: "One step forward and two steps back" has become a way of life for me. It's a slow process, but nothing will keep us from plugging on. What's at stake is just too important.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Is it the flu? Or the Teacher Workday blues?

Today was our first day back with kids after 2 teacher workdays. Sadly, we sent another child home with flu-like symptoms... fever, cough, etc. Poor kid looked gray/green. 2 out of 6 kids down; who will be next?

With 2/3 of the class gone home, we had a terrific day--everyone got the attention they wanted, and all was right with the world. I was able to do some math enrichment...ENRICHMENT!!!... and we are effectively making our way through the geography unit. (I have to keep reminding myself: there are 5 oceans now, not 4.)

This short week leaves me feeling a little discombobulated. Two teacher work days throw us all off kilter: without the natural flow, the kids don't trust what's coming next. Is it a PE day? When do we go to computer lab? Where did we put the sidewalk chalk? Do you really mean it when you say "raise your hand"? Are we allowed to jump off the desks now?

Teachers can't get all the stuff done we think should have been done on the work days: parent calls, report cards, IEP progress reports, re-organize the files by Friday, plan for the next quarter. Truth is, work days really mean conference days, and meeting days, and staff development days.

It's a lot of work to make up for two teacher "work days".

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

One step forward....

This afternoon we saw a great breakthrough moment.... and in this business, that's rare! After weeks of teaching, reteaching, modeling, practicing, reinforcing, ignoring, following a complicated behavior plan, and reinforcing some more.... he walked out of the room safely and to the counselor's office...WITHOUT DESTROYING PROPERTY OR HURTING ANYONE!!!

It was a sweet victory, and even though he was very mad, I think he recognized his personal accomplishment. He did the time out, and genuinely participated in the "processing" portion of the crisis cycle. I can't ask for much more than that.

The most satisfying part: the behavior plan we created and implemented was complicated, time consuming, and intense. Time after time, we were required to follow through, even though our hearts were hurting. It's never easy to stand firm when a cute little guy is begging for another chance.

We stuck to what we knew was right... and it paid off.

We're sure to take a few steps back soon, then a few more forward. It's a long process to make true changes to one's behavior and approach to life's challenges. But today we did take a step forward.

It felt good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The best part of my day....

You may be asking yourself, hmmm, I wonder which part of her day Mrs. Ris likes the best...?

My favorite "kid time"? Our daily morning meeting often reminds me of the old Art Linkletter schtick-"Kids say the darndest things..." Over the years I have heard about digestive issues ("My poop was yellow, Mrs. Ris!"), love triangles ("My daddy kissed the babysitter.") and various other tidbits and tall tales. ("We went to Disney World last night!") It's mostly a good time, a time when kids compliment and laugh and support each other. Yep, morning meeting has been a real source of fun over these last years!

My favorite "learning time"? Our afternoon math workshop. We break into small groups, and start with something fun: a quick learning game, thinking puzzle, or math storybook. Then we practice some problem solving strategies, using manipulatives as appropriate, and talking-talking-talking about how we are thinking these ideas through. Then we do some paper and pencil practice. It's focused and generally immensely satisfying.

Mostly, I love the look on the kids' little faces when understanding is sparked.

Gen ed or special ed...." the look" is one of the best parts of teaching.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tunnels, lights, and a universal truth....

So much went well today, and I plan to take a moment to enjoy that.


Don't get me wrong, it was NOT a perfect day: we worked through two major blow-ups, and one of them lasted over an hour. There was whining, manipulating, sassy-talk, and even a little mild violence.

On the other hand, I saw "higher order thinking", considerable extra effort, and smiles caused by work satisfaction (not revenge).

I'm feeling the inelegance of these first weeks slip away. I actually feel lighter, more open. Less tentative.

It's education's universal truth, a reality often forgotten in the moment: The crazy-paced and mind-numbing challenges of the beginning of the year are short-lived. There IS a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes,however, I let the long path through the tunnel get me down. But for now, that dark trip appears to be ending.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Balance, Brauts, and Blacksburg.....

When in the course of the day I feel a bit like crying; when my bruises are blue and yellow and purple and sore; when I'm so drained as the children head for the buses, I can barely think about planning for the next day ..... then I am sure it is time for a change.

Since school started some 3 weeks ago, I awaken at 5:30 am, and am on the road by 6:30. I've been arriving at school early to be ready--really ready---for the day. I'm lucky if I get home at night before 6pm. Even when the kids are reasonably good, there's committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, clinical support sessions, team meetings..... drama with new, untrained staff members who think the kids are simply bratty.... It sucks the life out of you. And I am old enough to know better.

Where's the balance?

And I'm not the only one. There are dozens of teachers scampering around all glassy eyed and slack jawed.

So my quest for "happiness" has hit a bit of a snag. Tomorrow is Friday. It's another football weekend in beautiful Blacksburg. Happiness will find me there. I'll be balancing a mimosa in one hand and a braut in the other. Go Hokies!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It's two weeks into the new year, and I have moved past the happy optimism of the first few days, through the renewed commitment stage where I pledge to do everything I can to provide the support my new kids need, and I'm now rolling into exhaustion. It doesn't help that our new school hours make my already long commute even longer. Gratefully, I have discovered the value of Tylenol PM; sadly, I have been purposely ignoring my wonderful husband. Yes, it may be a new year, but not much has changed.

I get tickled everyday by some amazingly cute thing one of the children does. I feel great about the lessons we are doing; my new IA has a lovely way with the kids. This is the stuff that keeps my going.

Back to School Night was a bust though. Only 1 set of parents showed up; one set did call to send their regrets. No word from the other 6 kids' parents. I dressed up for nothing. Oh well.

Some other news from the trenches: A kid has already been sent home for bad behavior, we've had two fire drills in two weeks, and my new shoes are still not broken in.

TGIF.... Have a good one!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

From Graceful Presence Blog

This poem took my breath away... literally. So beautiful, especially as that awful anniversary approaches. I am inspired to breathe out joy and love and learning each and every day in my classroom and beyond.

Wage peace with your breath.

Breathe in firemen and rubble,breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.

Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.

Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.

Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.

Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.

Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.

Make soup.

Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.

Learn to knit, and make a hat.

Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.

Swim for the other side.

Wage peace.

Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious: Have a cup of tea and rejoice.

Act as if armistice has already arrived.

Celebrate today.

Judyth Hill

Monday, September 07, 2009

More prep for the first day of school....

Newly purchased outfit selected with care... not too casual, not too stuffy.
School supplies packed in the new bag placed conspicuously by the door.
New haircut and other various self-care procedures completed.
Alarm clock checked and rechecked.... no technical snaffoos tolerated.
Makings of a healthy breakfast set out.

Ready for my first real day of school.
Just like when I was 9.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Boot Camp for Teachers

It's the end of teacher week, and I left my classroom late this afternoon with a light heart and a smile on my face. Why so happy? My room looks great, for one thing. My IA is bright and eager. My teammates (the other ED teachers) are committed, focused, and fun.

I am so ready for the start of school year 2009/2010 on Tuesday morning.

Teacher prep week is a kind of bootcamp, a week of meetings balanced against hours of lifting and stacking and labeling and organizing. It's the dramatic moment when your class list is revealed; it's the panic that sets in when you see how many tough cookies are on that list. It's the feelings of hopefulness that rise to the top because, after all, it's a new year, and you never know, the kids might have matured over the summer. Hmmmm...

It's coming in early and staying late. It's the emotionally draining process of advocating for yourself against colleagues who need to schedule pull-out or push-in times, all the while wanting to throw a stapler, or a punch. It's poster making, lesson tweaking, laughing, sighing, whining.

I am glad it's over.

Enjoy the long weekend. Rest up. It's going to be a happy new year!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Today was our first official back-to-school day for teachers. I've been to my classroom or to meetings at least 5 or 6 times since mid-August, but today was the day all of us were back in the building. I love the electricity, the positivity that crackles around us on these first wild days. The trick is to try to find a balance between important information meetings and working on getting the classroom ready. It can be tricky, and if we are not prepared in either area, it's a terrible way to start the year.

Still, working to find this balance is so much easier when we are all tanned, refreshed, and smiling!

I also found joy in the excited anxiety of our new first year teacher. He is soooooo ready, and he's going to be absolutley great, but he has his doubts. That's understandable. Likewise, back slapping with the other old veterans was fun. We look good for our age, of course-ha!- and look forward to a productive year.

Also, kudos to the administrators who condensed a series of informational meetings into a "Virtual Opening" whereby we teachers read/listen to the welcome speech and other introductory info about our school from the comfort of our own computers. Very convenient, very user-friendly.

Tomorrow..... back at it, and with a smile on my face... at least for now!!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teachers without teaching degrees???

As my daughter so aptly puts it: WHAT THE FRENCHTOAST??


These headlines are unimaginable, I would imagine, and yet the NYTs has posted an article titled:

Do Teachers Need Teaching Degrees?

Come on, aren't we past this? Are we still having to justify and beg for a little respect? Sadly, the answer is yes.

Of course, we are our own worst enemy. Teachers aren't expressly known for our work ethic... (although we should be!!), but those nasty summer months "off" tend to bias the public against us. Teachers don't reflect a particularly corporate demeanor, and for many folks, corporate equals professional. The media doesn't always show us at our best--check out HBO's new series Hung, for example. The lead character is a forlorn coach/social studies teacher whose better days are long behind him.... and now he resorts to prostitution to work his way out of the rut of a life he has built by default. The message is clear: teaching is for losers. The young and attractive female teacher is a secret sex maniac; elementary teachers are lightweights who just like to color and read stories to kids; high school teachers wish they were anything but.

A close read of the NYT article reveals that the real issue is whether masters of education degrees should be rewarded with increased pay, OR should student performance be the barometer. This, of course, is a different question altogether.

Do teachers need education degrees? Absolutely YES.
Should these degreed programs be improved? Absolutely YES.

I've blogged about this many times over the years, and I stand firm in my belief that most training programs are long on theory and WAY TOO short on practical experience, especially with regard to managing the classroom experience. In today's climate, where every teacher must be, at some level, a special ed teacher, the demands of our profession have never been as taxing.

(Of course.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Power of "NO"

On my continuing exploration of the UNCLUTTERER's Plan for a Remarkable Life.. (see July 28 post)

#6. "Say No to the stuff that doesn't matter...."

Where to start? Well, what DOES matter comes to mind so easily.... most educators can easily think about student achievement and consider the important elements that create, support, and improve it. It's usually a fairly linear process: I can say yes to staying late or coming in early to better organize my three different curriculums in various skill levels, using research based teaching strategies. I take the extra time to learn the complicated new technologies that promise to streamline my IEP writing (I complain, but I learn.) Mentoring new teachers, working most evenings at home, sharing my classroom management expertise with my peers--YES,YES,YES.

What to say NO to?

NO mindless griping.
NO gossiping of any sort.
NO wasting time checking my email more than 3 times a day.
NO trying to do everything on my own.
NO to anything that refocuses my attention away from my students and their success.

And if we accept that a happier teacher is a better teacher --- is there real research on this?---this year I vow to say yes to
*Getting to know 3 people I don't already know well.
*Thanking more often the ladies who provide admin assistance.
*Take a few minutes of my rather short lunch break to be alone, quiet my mind, breathe in/breathe out. Breathe in again.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

#4: Determine What Matters Most To YOU

Still exploring the UNCLUTTERER's list (see previous posts) for creating that remarkable life we all want...

When 7 of our staff members took time out of their busy summer to meet for over 2 hours to hash out ideas for new procedures and routines: .....

When we 7 committed to focused communication, transparency, and COMING TO SCHOOL EARLY ALMOST EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK to facilitate this communication......
When we applauded our colleagues' new COOL IDEA, and gratefully decided to employ it throughout our special ed program, even though it means spreading ourselves a little more thin in some ways.....

Then it's clear we 7 have determined what matters most to us: our students.... and by that I mean not just the students in our own classes, but all the students in our special program.

It's going to be a good year!!!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Being selective in a cluttered world....

Rule #8 : Remove everything that is toxic in your life, because that which is toxic is clutter.....

The remarkable list in the post below has given me some guidance as I move through these last weeks of summer... and boy, did it come in handy this week when I was reminded again of the power of all things TOXIC.

Toxic people break your heart and your spirit.
Toxic food zaps your energy, starves your body of what it really needs, and ultimately makes you bitchy.
Toxic thinking is limiting and unproductive and risks all that you love in your life.

For years I've counseled my interns to be selective about how they use their "free time". During their first year of teaching I want to empower them to choose who and what they think is important. "Be extra kind to yourself" I remind them again and again. The stress of that first year can be crippling.... yes, toxic. Instead of freaking out, "sleep, take quiet time for yourself, eat healthy, and celebrate your little successes."

Good advice for an uncluttered life...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Planning for a Remarkable Life

As I continue to seek balance between (crazily) focusing on "getting a head start on school stuff" (see previous posts) vs. getting calm and centered and rejuevenated before school begins, I believe I may have found a path....

This amazing blog just might salve to kook in me that wants to do school stuff everyday AND the part of me that knows I absolutely must take a breath and pull away from school so I will be ready for school.

Here's the bloggers plan for a "remarkable life":

1.Purge, downsize, and minimize

2.Organize what you CHOOSE to own and use (emphasis mine)

3.Commit to and maintain a streamlined routine for the mundane tasks of your life

4.Determine what matters most to you

5.Remind yourself that even if you live to be 100, life is short

6.Say no to what doesn't matter

7.Enjoy being industrious (again my emphasis)

8.Get rid of everything toxic in your life, because toxic is clutter

9.Live within your means (and I might add, try to get pleasure from it)

10.Take risks and be brazen

11. Get enough sleep (Hey, I'm 51, overweight, and perimenopausal.... sleep is the bomb.)

So over the next few weeks, I will explore the power and the pleasure of becoming Uncluttered. Will this be the preparation I need for a productive, uncluttered new year? We will see....

Sunday, July 26, 2009

poems, sweet dreams, and thinking of school...

VaTech's own Nickki Giovanni's new book of love poems, Bicycles, has given me something calming and enjoyable to do as I MAKE myself settle in for the last few weeks of summer. I giggled when I read her ode to beer: I wish I liked beer. I see the ads with the happy people golden drops swimming dwn to quench that thirst....

And then I read this recommendation for sleeping away the last weeks of break. It may have been written with a lover in mind, but to me it speaks of my love for teaching and for my students:

My Sleep
by Nikki Giovanni

I appreciate my sleep
In sleep my conversation
is witty
My home is dusted
My office work
is up to date
the dog
is even
well behaved
And food is on the table
on time
But then
when I'm asleep
I don't have you
to clutter and confuse
My hungry heart

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. A day when one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing one can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room."

- May Sarton
Journal of a Solitude

I have to keep this in mind as I lose precious moments of my summer break planning and preparing for fall. I move between honoring my time off from school, and taking each day to get ahead of the game...I just can't decide....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blogging from PBS Training

Giving attention today and tomorrow to our efforts to create and tweak the Postive Behavior Support program at our school. While the self-contained ED classrooms have had great behavior programs for years now, our gen ed classes continue to face what teachers face in classrooms across the country: distractions caused by disruptive behavior impede academic success, office referrals skyrocket, and behaviors don't seem to improve. To interrupt this spiral, PBS seeks to reorient the learning environment from reactive punishment toward preventative programs that teach,reteach and reinforce appropriate behavior.

We need teachers to refocus their efforts on doing that which increases the probability that positive behaviors will be repeated.

Sounds logical; still, because poor behavior continues to dog our educational system, a whole cottage industry has developed to support school's reorientation toward this point.

My date with a representative from that group continues through tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Corridors of Shame"

“… There is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child’s God-given potential….Yet…there are overcrowded classrooms, crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children-black, bown, and white alike.”

So President Obama reminded us in his speech to the NAACP last week. He knows that the obstacles that poor and minority students face in their own schools are an embarrassment for every American. He highlighted important reforms, including improved early learning programs, and focused teacher programs that promote excellence and send bad teachers packing. I applauded when I heard him describe these new law and policy changes; I smiled when he called for higher expectations for every child. “We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes” to fight an “ internalized…sense of limitation.”

But I really joined the Amen chorus when he seemed to channel his inner tough talking Bill Cosby: We parents “must accept our own responsibilities. That means putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. It means attending those parent-teacher conferences, reading to our kids, and helping them with their homework….Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our destiny, each and every day.”

Of course I see parents of all colors and creeds who, despite good intentions, fail to help their children “seize the day”. It’s easy to accept excuses for this neglect, but the president reminded us that if “John Lewis could brave Billy clubs to cross a bridge”, or if brave civil rights workers faced down death for what is right, then surely we can reform education. Surely we can muster family and community support for behaviors that lead to academic success.

The question then becomes: How will I motivate my students and their parents to adopt and embrace pro-school, pro-academic thinking? If only Obama’s words were enough.

More on this as the start of school gets closer…..

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summertime.. and the living is easy...

The power of summer break on this teacher’s soul cannot be overstated….

There is something magical about awakening naturally in the late morning hours (sans alarm clock), and lolling around in bed with my sweet dog Caye. I hold dear summer’s unhurried, blissful morning routine that does NOT include a frenzied trek across town in pre-dawn darkness; instead, I happily consider which mall to shop, which recipe to cook up, and which book to read. These weeks fill me up in a way that teaching and all its joys cannot. It’s a good thing too, or I might never make it back to the classroom each August.

What teacher does not yearn for summer’s respite when the testing gods bear down in late spring? When two or three of my most difficult kids are in tag-team crisis mode, I call on my memories of sun, sand, and a tropical cocktail to get me through. Reminders of an evening stroll along the boardwalk or down the garden path can soothe the mark left on my calf by an angry six year old.

But then, summer finally comes, and I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT SCHOOL!
I can’t stop dreaming about their sweet smiles. I mentally plan new “getting to know you” activities. I seek out new professional books and internet resources. I worry about what the kids are up to in these unstructured weeks. I check my school email once a day for no good reason.

I actually look forward to August.

For now, though, I’ll sip my mojito and reapply the sunscreen. Only 6 more weeks til school starts again.