Tuesday, October 24, 2017

7 Simple Rules

A classroom is a microcosm of a society.  Within the four walls, there are jobs, work to be completed, rules, routines, multiple personalities and a hierarchy of leadership.  Rules and routines are necessary for the society to function at its optimum capacity.  A consistent set of rules and expectations help the members to feel safe and secure.  For this reason, teachers know, that as the leaders of their mini community, they must establish mutually agreed upon rules early in the school year.  A teacher, as the de facto leader, sets the tone for the classroom.  From there, he or she elicits the rules from the students all while keeping in mind the goals and the needs of all the children in their community. Meanwhile, routines are explained and practiced.  Expectations are taught and consistently reinforced until, they too, become routine.  Kindness and manners are expected and words matter.  For not only are we teaching curriculum, but we are also teaching the norms of a civil society.

Teachers in Elementary Schools have similar simple rules to the ones I have posted on my wall:

On a larger scale, these are the rules and expectations for a larger society.  Let's take a closer look:

1. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.  In other words, don't hurt anyone, don't touch anyone that doesn't want you to touch them, and don't take things that don't belong to you.  Sounds simple, but as many people can attest to, adults seem to forget this simple rule.  No one likes their personal space invaded or any of their parts grabbed.  (I'm looking at you here Donald and Harvey.)

2. Use walking feet.  In our adult world, this can translate to Slow down... take your time and don't rush headlong into something.  Think before speaking because words matter.  Thinking before tweeting or posting is even more essential as it is often difficult to convey true intent and emotions in 140 characters. 

3. Use inside voices.  There is no need to spend your life tweeting in all caps.  No one wants to be talked at. Rather, they would prefer to be talked to.  They also would like to be heard.  Shouting above each other, name calling and threats has never resulted in a successful resolution to anything.  Rather, civil discourse and diplomacy are much more effective.  

4. Be a good listener.  We learn more by listening than by speaking.  As adults we need to listen to others: truly listen.  We also need to listen well enough to understand and not rush to judgment.  Listening also means putting down the phone, looking at the speaker and focusing on what they are saying, not what we want to say next.  I believe that many adults would benefit from practicing their listening skills more often.

5. Be respectful of everyone.  No matter what color, religion, sex, career path, orientation, education or anything else, everyone deserves to be respected as a person.  We can even take it a step further and be respectful of everything including animals and our planet.  Even if others are not respectful of you, you owe it to yourself to be respectful of others.  I'm invoking the Golden Rule here.

6. Do your best work.  Put forth your best effort in all you do.  No excuses, no blame game, no deleting incriminating emails, no spinning of your words, no shirking of your duties.  Doing your best doesn't mean being right all the time, being the smartest, winning or even being perfect.  It means sticking it out even when it gets hard, staying focused and not heading out to your private golf course for the weekend and tweeting out insults.  Being a good citizen is a 24 hour 7 day a week job.

7. Be Responsible and honest.  This is a tough one for little kids.  At age 6, they are just beginning to learn to be responsible because up until this time, the adults around them have done pretty much everything for them.  They also have remarkable self-preservation skills along with a shady relationship with the truth.  I spend all year working on these seemingly simple and incredibly important skills.  This seems awfully difficult for many adults in our society right now.  They have seemingly forgotten what it means to be responsible to the people in the communities they represent, and in which they live.  It also seems that many of our leaders have a 6 year old's shady relationship with the truth.  Being a liar is easy.  Being responsible and honest is hard but essential for all members of a society.

As a teacher, it is my job and my greater responsibility to help grow citizens of both our nation and our world.  It is extremely important that I model what I teach because little ears are listening and little eyes are watching.  It might be a good idea for many adults, and most of our society's leaders, to spend some time back in elementary school learning how to be good citizens.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dear Teachers

Another school year is done.  Once again, goodbyes have been said, boxes have been packed, files have been closed and supplies have been put away.  Tonight, we turn off our preset alarms for 5:30 a.m. and begin our lives as the Summer versions of our selves.

Reflecting on this year, so much has changed and yet so much as stayed the same.  In my little corner of the world, another class of Firsties came in to my classroom as beginning readers and have left as confident book lovers.  Tasks once considered challenging are now "This is easy Mrs. S".  Those timid looks that were the hallmark of September have given way to big, albeit toothless, smiles.  They left me taller than when they arrived and ready to take on the next level of learning.  On a slightly larger scale, changes in administration gave way to more collaboration and respect.  Academic freedom to make some decisions on how to best instruct our students was returned to the teachers.  Colleagues looked a little less tired and harried.  We laughed a little more.  We allowed joy to return to our classrooms as we pulled out the glue and glitter a bit more often.

On a more global scale, however, changes happened that will surely make our jobs harder.  The latest in a string of unqualified Secretaries of Education is hell bent on destroying public education as part of a profit making scheme.  Protections for students with disabilities are being eroded as are protections for our students who are transgender or who are being discriminated against.  Legislation has again been pushed along at the state and federal levels that will, most assuredly, erode union protections.  Technology based education is being heralded as the new frontier of learning, thus replacing the human interaction that little people so desperately need in order to grow as the social creatures that we are meant to be.

As the school year wound down, we finished with the annual video yearbook.  Two important things stuck in my head as I watched the year go by on film.  First, the smiles on the children's faces as they posed wearing Halloween costumes, superhero garb, various theme day items and patriotic colors and accessories.  The joy was obvious.  The faces cycled through pumpkin carving, holiday decoration making, playing outside, interacting with peers, attending field trips, parading around the school, reading, reading and more reading.  This is what makes a school more than just a place to learn.  It makes a school a community of people who create common bonds and experiences.  It weaves us all together.  The other important item I noticed was what was behind the faces.  The backdrop of print rich and vibrant classrooms and learning spaces that teachers worked so hard to create.  Each and every adult used personal funds and time to engineer a home where children felt safe, secure and loved.  It is a testament to the devotion of the adults who educate our youth. 

I often wonder if the lawmakers who decide on funding, mandates and curriculum really understand that schools are much more than buildings that house children from 8:30-4 pm.  I also wonder if the taxpayers fully comprehend that the teachers that work in their public schools make these buildings more than brick and mortar and that the time off in the summer is actually time that we use to prepare for the next group of youngsters that will cross our thresholds after Labor Day.

So, my dear Teacher Friends, thank you for all you do.  Enjoy your well deserved time to rest and recharge.  You will need your strength as we move forward.  


H/T to Amy L. Vanderwater at the Poem Farm whose poem I chose to highlight this post.  Amy is a writer, writing teacher, poet, author and was the first person who encouraged me to find my voice in writing.  Amy, you are a teacher who inspired me.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ten Truths about Teaching

Dear Readers,
    Below is an insight into the jumbled brain of a teacher who either a) drinks too much coffee, b) can't sleep or c) really needs to find a new hobby.  In any event, here is are my 10 truths about teaching.  Please comment below with your truths as I would love to hear what you think!

Top Ten Teaching Truths 
(In no particular order)
  1. A significant part of your job as a teacher is essentially being a surrogate parent.  This is especially true if you teach in an Elementary School as you spend more hours per day with your students than they may spend with their parents.  Thus, you are one of the most significant influences on your students during the time they spend in your classroom.  If that thought doesn’t make your heart skip a beat, I don’t know what will.  So much for wanting only two children.
  2.  You will get sick.  No amount of vitamin C, Echinacea, hand sanitizer or Airborne will save you.  Your immune system will become stronger, but never strong enough to combat an epidemic of the stomach flu that will sweep through your classroom.  Just the whisper of the word “lice” will send you running to the nurse for a head check and give you an irresistible urge to scratch your head.  You will become completely freaked out when the school nurse sends home notes about impetigo, ringworm and hand, foot and mouth disease.  Some days you will seriously consider wearing a HAZMAT suit to work.
  3. Teaching will both make your heart burst with joy and break it to pieces.  Sometimes this will happen in the same day or even the same hour.  Let’s face it; you work with humans, not with widgets.  The amount of emotions, problems and issues all combine to make your own emotions a hot mess.  You will experience highs and lows so often that you feel like you rode a roller coaster before you even got to bus duty.
  4.  Your contributions to your profession will largely go unrecognized.  You are a superstar in your small world but that rarely translates into the larger realm.  While you may experience the thrill of being a B-List celebrity when you run into a student or parent in the local grocery store, chances are that it will only happen when you are not wearing makeup or haven't washed your hair.  The good thing is that you won’t mind the lack of formal accolades, because it is often the small things that make the most difference in a child’s life rather than the larger gestures.  You make a difference even if you don’t realize it.
  5.   Teaching is political whether you like it or not.  Education and Politics are tied together.  It is the political climate that dictates how and what we teach.  It is educational policy, often crafted by non-educators, that defines how much funding schools receive, what the priorities are, and even how you are evaluated.  Teachers can no longer afford to be ignorant of politics.  Know this: it is never too late to get involved and to become educated.  After all, you are an educator.  Educating yourself is of primary importance.
  6. If you are in a Union, then You are the Union, not “they”.  As a member, you have a voice.  Your salary and benefits are a direct result of your bargaining unit.  Get involved and stay involved on some level.  A union is integral to a democracy and functions as such.  As part of this unit you can create change.  If you live in NYS, understand what the Triborough Amendment and Taylor Law are, what Right toWork means and how important opposition to a Constitutional Convention is to your livelihood and to your classroom.  Read up on tenure and social justice so you can throw some shade at your grumpy Uncle in the Make America Great hat at your next family gathering.
  7. You will not get rich.  You will make less than your college classmates who have the same or lesser amounts of education than you do.  Taxpayers will resent your salary and you will want to hide during school budget votes and November elections. You will cringe as politicians who want votes will hold up your salary as an example of why taxes in your community are so high.  You will also spend a significant portion of your hard earned salary on your classroom.  You may own your own laminator and every color Sharpie ever made, but you sweat out the end of August every year before your first paycheck in September.
  8. People will always think you only work 9 months a year.  Nothing could be further than the truth.  While school is in session from September to June (10 months - by the way), you will continue to work during the summer outside your classroom by taking hours and hours of professional development, writing curriculum, planning lessons, and preparing your classroom.  However much you work in July and August, your salary is for 10 months, not 12.  If your district pays you on a 12-month schedule, this means that you give your district an interest free loan every single week on a portion of your income.
  9.   You will always feel somewhat torn between your own personal children and your school children.  When someone asks about your kids, you will ask “My birth children or my kiddos?” or something to that effect.  You will drag yourself into work sick so you can save your sick days for when your own kids are sick and then worry every moment while you are home about what is happening in your classroom.  Every child that enters your classroom will be one of your kids for life.   Your kids will grow up as a teacher’s kid and will have insight into how a classroom functions unlike their classmates.  The good thing is that your own children will grow up knowing that your heart is big enough to hold all that love, and, hopefully, so are theirs.
  10. Last, but not least, Teaching is not a choice.  It is a calling.  It is a vocation.  Many teachers did not go into the profession or stay there because of the glamour, money and great schedule (sarcasm intended).  We do this because we love it, in all its beauty and all its ugliness.  15% ofteachers who enter the profession leave within 5 years and 40% of students with undergraduate degrees in education never enter the classroom at all.  Those of us who stay do so because we love what we do and truly hope that we will leave the world a better place than we found it.
* update:  This post was very popular on the Badass Teachers Blogsite.  It even became a podcast!  Listen here:  https://thericksmithshow.podbean.com/e/kate-saccos-top-ten-truths-about-teaching/?token=5aee596cadcf14a8b79e6eaddeaf11db

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Watching and Listening

I'm overwhelmed.  Totally and throughly overwhelmed.  So much has happened in our world in the past week that I am on news overload.  I'm sure I'm not the only one.  Several times in the past few days, my family has had to tell me to "step away from the internet".  There is so much news, so much spin, so much hate and so much confusion that I can barely process it all.  It is becoming surreal.  It has become challenging to know what is real, what is fake, what is hype and what is "alternate facts".

Here is what I know:  what is happening now is a direct result of many years of political apathy on the part of American citizens.  Politics is a dirty business so many of us have chosen to allow others to play that game.  And now... here we are.  As my father would say, "Up shit creek without a paddle".  He has a way with words, my father.  I'll admit it, I am complicit in this situation.  After having grown up in politics, I had developed a distaste for anything remotely political.  I shied away from it, choosing instead to focus on what I could manage, namely raising children and surviving.

Like many others, I feel that I have awakened into a nightmare.  Big money controls our country now more than ever.  This president, unlike other career politicians before him, is too impulsive and naive to even attempt to mask the situation.  His cabinet nominees and his White House staff are a testament to how he and our government has been sold to the highest bidders irregardless of their qualifications or their conflicts of interest.

We live in a large and diverse country.  The wheels of government turn slowly and the legal system will manage to, hopefully, temper some of what is happening.  In my opinion, it is a good thing that our citizens have been awakened.  It is important that not only the momentum continues, but that we remember that our President works for us, not vice versa.  We need to stay awake and not be lulled back into complacency.

We also need to remember that our children are watching us.  They hear and see more than we think they do.  Just last week my boys took out every building block I had available to build what they called a "Trump Wall".  It was funny but it was also sad.  They built a wall and decided who could be on which side of it.  This is not what I want my Littles to think is OK.  I teach them to tear down walls, look outside of skin colors and differences and to accept each other for the good in each of us.  Our children are watching how we behave.   We must be cognizant of that fact.  We must conduct ourselves in a way that is positive.  We must use this as an opportunity to teach them about discrimination, how to object in a way that is fruitful, how to stand up to a bully, and how to handle conflict.

Our children are watching.  We must remember not to lower ourselves to the level that our elected officials would like to take us.  Try watching the news with the sound off.  Look at the angry faces.  Read the signs.  So much anger.  So much hate.  So many bad words.  This is what our children are seeing.  While they may not understand the words, they see the anger and the hate.  They hear our discussions and our opinions.  I know this because of how I hear my Firsties speak to each other at recess and playtime.  They use angry and loud voices.  They shout to be heard.  They say bad words that they hear at home or on TV and the internet.

We have a chance, one chance, right now, to teach our children how to understand what is happening.  We can teach them to be active in their community.  We can teach them the power of voting.  We can model for them what a peaceful protest looks like.  We can demonstrate the power of words.  We can teach them how to be kind.  They are watching.  They are listening.  Never underestimate that.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Remembering a Friend

Some people come into our lives for a reason.  They make their mark, change your life in some way and then leave.  Sometimes they stick around long enough to see the end result. Other times, they just set the pieces in motion.  

When these people arrive, they never creep in.  No way.  They come in loud and proud, demanding your attention.  You are often enthralled with their energy.  You have no choice but to join them on their journey as it becomes your journey too.

One of the talents of these amazing people is that they see something in you that you didn't see in yourself.  They know how to draw out qualities that you may not believe you have and help you to develop them.  They become your cheerleader.  They love you for who you are and who you can be. 

I was lucky enough to meet one of those people a couple years ago.  It was a chance meeting at a union event.  Through a series of random coincidences, I ended up at a conference in Saratoga Springs, NY for NYSUT.  There, I met Sonia Basko.  Sonia had recently moved to the Albany area to work at the NYSUT headquarters in Latham.  I wasn't sure how to take Sonia.  She was brutally honest, somewhat foul-mouthed, outspoken and totally confident.  Nevertheless, our paths continued to cross.  Sonia liked my blog and often tweeted out the link to her large group of followers.  She encouraged me to take on larger roles and to become more active in the union movement.

Sonia was a force of nature.  She could move mountains and often did.  She was a connector.  She connected people and events.  She believed passionately in social justice.  She was a true unionist and incredibly knowledgeable about how to use social media to promote her causes.  

Sonia was in my life for a relatively short time.  For others, she was there much longer.  I call her a friend because she was kind to me, made me laugh and believed in me.  For so many others, she was so much more.  On Saturday, we said goodbye to Sonia.  Sonia lost her battle with cancer at 43 years of age.  She was a bright star that burned out far too early.  

Sonia's life should inspire us all.  Sonia lived life out loud.  She followed her passions, inspired others and believed that she could make a difference.  And she did.  She made a difference in my life.  She made a difference for so many people that knew her and many that will never know her.  

If there is any message to be learned, it is this:  Take Chances.  Get Messy.  Believe in Yourself.  Live Life out Loud.  Say What You Mean.  Go Beyond Yourself.  Tell Others You Love Them.  Be You.  And, most of all, Leave this World a Little Better than You Found It. This is what we need to teach our children because this is what matters.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Begin Again

For teachers, the new year begins in September, not January.  September brings us a new class, new supplies, new school clothes, new schedules, new faces, and new names.  Our students count on us to be their guide into the brave new world that each child faces as they begin their journey each school year.  There is so much novelty that September brings, that when January arrives, the year hardly seems new anymore.  Instead, January signifies a shift.  For young learners, January is when many children start to really show significant growth.  In my little world, I refer to it as the "January Jump".  The kids arrive back at school after the holiday break a little taller and with a few less baby teeth.  Somehow, they look older to me even though we were apart for just 10  days.  By the end of the month, they all have made such significant progress from where they were just 5 months previous that it often astounds me even after all these years.  They are no longer climbing the mountain by learning to be first graders, but rather, they are cresting it and continuing their journey toward being second graders. 

January isn't a new year in my world, but rather a time for rejuvenation.  It is a time for renewing promises and for regeneration.  It is a time for examination of priorities and making promises.  As such, I find myself back at my keyboard after a 6 month hiatus.  During those 6 months, I changed schools and shifted my focus.  I took some time to start over with a new school year in a new school building.  While it has been an overall positive experience, I do miss the students, families and friends at my previous school.  Adjusting to a different school, with a new schedule and responsibilities impacted the time I had previously used for reading and writing.  In addition, the political climate made me feel overwhelmed.  My desire to be informed and politically active was in direct opposition to my desire to maintain my sanity.  

As a nation, we are about to embark upon a tumultuous journey in this new year.  As we entered the new school year in September, we found ourselves facing a truly historic time as the election drew nearer.  We were confronted with a choice between two candidates, neither of whom would address the issue of what the future of education would hold for our children.  Education was barely given a passing remark in the debates and was not in the top 5 issues in the election.  In the end, we now are about to be led by a man who has no interest in and no understanding of public education.  His choice to lead the DoE is actually worse than John King.  His promise to "get rid of Common Core" will lead to a simple rebranding of an already bad idea.  I shudder to think of what will happen to our children and our teachers under this coming administration.

As a result, I felt that it was time to resurrect my writing.  It is time to renew that promise that I made to myself to always be an advocate for children within and beyond my classroom walls.  During this new school year, I have witnessed first hand what happens when when educators work together to create change.  I feel that we are at the edge of a new beginning in our corner of the world.  We worked hard to make our voices heard and it is making an impact along with some positive changes.  Now, we must work together to make our voices heard on a much larger scale in this new year and in this new era that we are facing.  The only way we can do this is to speak loudly and speak often.  We must be what we want our students to be:  informed, confident, capable and strong.  It is our time to shift our thinking and embrace our strength.  Our children are counting on us.

#BeTheUnion #United #SpeakUpSpeakOut #BeTheChange

Monday, June 13, 2016

Promise Me

An Open Letter to Parents of Elementary Students:

Dear Parents:

The end of the school year is upon us.  It is time for me to return your child to you.  Please know that I did my very best to ensure that your child had a quality first grade experience in spite of all the mandates and curriculum requirements.  I tried to put some fun into our learning.  I tried to celebrate each day and the uniqueness of each child.  I used my experience and education about developmentally appropriate education and child development to help your child learn.  I have given them all that I had to give.

And yet, I feel as though it was not enough.  For you see, at the end of this school year, while I am completely out of my special lined paper, erasers, pencils and reading logs; I still have an abundance of glue sticks, colored paper and crayons.  What that tells me is, that although the children produced a large amount of writing and consumed a lot of books, we did not do nearly enough crafts and projects.  For that, parents, I apologize.  We did not sing enough songs, read enough poetry and make enough paper and glitter creations.  We should have.

I started the year knowing that I had 180 math lessons to teach in 180 days, 800 or more "steps" to complete in reading, quarterly reading assessments, daily reading assessments, 300-500 power words to introduce, 6 Domains to download, master, teach and assess, three genres of writing to instruct and assess, P.E. minutes to provide, health lessons to teach, science and social studies concepts and vocabulary to instruct, and many other academic standards and learning targets to write, refer to, and evaluate.  Along the way, I slipped in a few crafts, a little recess here and there, a couple dozen lunch bunches and some read alouds just for fun.  But it was not enough.

While the children gained stamina, reading ability, decoding skills and math fluency, they lost fine motor growth, social skills and the ability to self-regulate as every minute was planned and executed.  My pride swells for the growth they achieved, while my heart weeps for the childhood they lost.  I worried for them constantly, as I worried for me.  Would they be able to reach the benchmarks I set for them back in September?  Would they grow enough so that I could continue to be rated highly effective?  Would I complete the math program in spite of knowing that they needed more time to master the work as I plowed ahead on the pacing schedule?  Would they look back on first grade as a happy experience or would they wonder why they have so little in their memory box from that year?

Common Core, state and district mandates, standardized testing and education reformers are stealing our children's childhood.  We have replaced words like playtime, circle time, centers, math games, hands on learning, creativity and teacher made materials with words like rigor, grit, tenacity, stamina, fidelity, efficacy and k-12 marketplace .  Our children are no longer pupils, they are data points.  We are drowning in data instead of in glitter.

Parents, please know that I tried to fight for your child's school experience.  I wrote, I blogged, I spoke and I posted.  I cried.  A lot.  I put my reputation on the line.  I made friends and I made enemies.  My colleagues and I are torn between loving being teachers and being forced to teach materials and content that we know is not what your child needs right now.  We are caught between wanting to do what is right and needing to keep our jobs.   We keep hoping for a White Knight to come to the rescue, but all we seem to have right now is the Dark Overlord of Data and Standards.

So, moms and dads, as your little ones come home to you at the end of the school year, and the summer stretches before you, please make me a promise:  Promise me that you will let your little one be little this summer.  Let your child play outside, run, swim, bike, play hide and seek, hopscotch, tag and Red Rover.  On rainy days, get out that playdough, make cookies, paint, draw, color and glitter something.  Play board games and tell stories.  Put away the ipad, the review book and the math packets.  Talk.  Giggle.  Tell jokes and stories.  Give your child back his/her childhood for the next 8 weeks, because I promise you.... in September, the school day will be longer, the curriculum will be more rigorous, the expectations will be greater, and the homework will be harder.  Please let them be children.