Thursday, December 28, 2017

Feed me

Ten years ago a tornado of a girl whirled her way into my classroom. She was a tiny wisp of a child, all sharp angles, black braids and colorful barrettes.  She arrived full of swagger and attitude.  On that first day, she brought with her a backpack, empty of the requested school supplies, and wore pants so large on her small frame that she had to hold them up.  Immediately Raven (not her real name) set out to control both the classroom and me.  

Raven challenged everything I knew about teaching children.  She was demanding - of my time and attention, like no other child I had ever taught.  Raven knew no positive ways of gaining attention so she sought out every negative way possible.  She was disruptive and defiant.  She refused to cooperate.  She was stubborn and naughty.  Gradually, we came to a semi-truce.  It took lots of patience, more than I thought I could produce some days.

Raven and her younger sister received free lunch and breakfast at school.  I soon came to discover that the girls would keep one item from breakfast and one from their lunch each day so they would have something to eat for dinner.  On weekends, they would walk hand in hand down the street to the convenience store to buy either cereal or chips to eat.  Often on Fridays, I would send home food for the girls with notes that said "your child won the leftovers from our class party" along with snacks from our classroom, so that they would have enough to eat until school started again on Monday morning. 

That little girl wore many items from my own daughter's closet that year.  My kids and I would shop for new clothes, take the tags off and pass them on to her and her sister.  She never acknowledged it, but wore them proudly to school.  Often her clothes were dirty and stained, especially her coat.  When it got too much to bear, I would take the girls' coats to the washing machine in the school cafeteria and ask them to please add them to the laundry load so the kids would have clean coats to wear home.  

Raven imprinted herself on my heart.  I had spent many years teaching in a school with a fairly low poverty rate and had just joined the faculty at a different school in the district.  The poverty rate was over 50% and slowly growing.  Raven was the first child I knew whose glaring poverty impacted her learning so significantly.  Throughout the school year, I came home and told my family stories about her.  Gradually, she came to trust me and started to behave better and learn to read.  Until the day that she told her mother that she loved her teacher and her mom hit her on the head with an orange juice bottle.  It took months of work to get her to allow herself to like me after that.  

Raven and her sister's home situation was less than ideal.  School was their safety net.  In school, no one beat them and they had regular meals to eat.  Raven hated Fridays and vacations, so her behavior would escalate at those times.  She never knew if she would have food to eat or if she would be safe.  She was always exhausted and would fall asleep if I turned out the lights to show a short video.  During school assemblies she would sit on my lap and nap soundly as soon as the lights went down. 

I had many precious moments with Raven in spite of all the challenges.  She used to sidle up next to me and play with my hair.  I'll never forget the day she was standing behind me with her fingers entangled in my hair and said "Missus Sacco, this be your real hair?"  After correcting her grammar, I told her that yes, that my hair is real.  She responded "No, it must be the weave. It be so long."  I nearly cried laughing.  

The following school year, I had Raven's sister in my class.  Unlike Raven, Moirai was not defiant nor disruptive.  She was not attention seeking at all; in fact, she tried as hard as possible not to draw attention to herself.  She was also tiny and always hungry.  She cried often, sometimes for extended periods of time, and was inconsolable.  Like her older sister, she struggled to learn and hated going back home.  On the last day of school that year, she gave me a card.  On the inside, she had written, "Ms. Sacco, this classroom is a special place."  I still have that card hanging over my desk at school.  

After those two years with those precious girls, there have been many children that have significantly impacted my life, my teaching and my heart.  There was Amir, who was so big in first grade that he was wearing a size 11 shoe and men's large shirts.  He stood 5 feet tall and nearly knocked me over when he came over for a hug.  Amir was also 6 years old and still sucked his thumb.  Every morning, he walked into my classroom and greeted me by saying, "Good Morning Missus Sacco!  I be lovin' you!"  Amir needed boots so I gave him an older pair of my husband's hunting boots and he wore them even to bed.  Amir and his brother and 7 cousins all lived together in one house with their moms and a grandma.  They were all receiving free lunch and breakfast as 3 out of 4 adults were unable to work due to health issues.  Amir's mom took the bus to both of her jobs and did her best.  Those free meals at school made all the difference for those children.

Not long after came Tina.  Another skinny little girl with a head full of curls.  Tina's family were refugees from a war torn location overseas.  The second week into school, I discovered that she had been stealing milk from the cafeteria in the mornings during breakfast because her family had little food at home.  She continued to steal whenever she could but mostly it was from my snack drawer and supply bins.  As a former refugee, she tended to be a hoarder and we had several discussions about not taking and keeping things that didn't belong to her.  Hunger was just one of the many issues that she struggled with daily.

So many of my littles over the years have been recipients of our school's free meal programs.  While I doubt I could provide numerical data on how those meals impacted their test scores or academic performance, I know that I could tell the impact it had on their lives.  Those free meals meant and continue to mean that many children are better able to concentrate during the school day.  They don't feel hunger pangs or suffer from headaches.  They aren't distracted by thinking about food.  Free and reduced lunches allow the kids to fit in with the other children by leveling the playing field in the cafeteria.  They can sit and eat and talk with friends.  Imagine the isolation a child would feel if they were without food during lunch time.  

What kind of a society are we if we allow our most vulnerable to go hungry?  Is it that much of a sacrifice for us to feed our nation's children two relatively small, somewhat healthy, meals a day?  Aren't we obligated as humans to care for others, especially those who can't care for themselves?

** Names and other details changed to protect the identities of the children described in this post.    

Friday, December 8, 2017

Five Things to Consider

At some point, every one of us has spent several years in a classroom.  However, being in a classroom doesn't make someone an expert on education.  The average person, parent or policy-maker doesn’t understand the complex details that go into making a classroom a successful learning environment.  

Policy-makers, from some school administrators, to our current U.S. Secretary of Education make decisions that have tremendous impact on teachers, students and classrooms often without including educators.  Recently, I was asked what I wish policymakers would consider when making decisions that impact Education.  In the spirit of the upcoming holidays, here is my (short and definitely incomplete) "Wish List":

1.     Poverty has a tremendous impact on learning and achievement.  Our nation’s demographics are continually changing.  Many students come to school hungry, without proper clothing and supplies. They not only are lacking in physical needs, but they are also without the vocabulary and parental supports that are necessary for them to be successful.  We must address poverty first and foremost as a priority.

2.    Before investing in technology, take a look at the furnishings and the buildings where classrooms are located.  Currently, a significant amount of money is spent on tablets, projectors, and smart TVs.  However, desks, chairs, and other furnishings often date back 50 years or more.  Access to technology is important, but infrastructures in classrooms and schools is aging and in need of updating to support student learning.

3.     Today’s students are exposed to more information, but that doesn’t mean children are smarter than previous generations.  If anything, children today are less prepared for academics than ever before.  They lack the social, motor and problem solving skills than students of previous generations. Time is needed for the teaching of soft skills that may not necessarily be able to be quantified into hard data.

4.     Basics are important.  Printing, cursive writing, scissor skills, shoe tying and imaginative play all help to create pathways in the brain to greater learning.  Kindergarten was meant to ready children for future academics.  By skipping these skills, students are less able to problem solve, learn to delay gratification, increase core strength, gain stamina and complete tasks successfully later on. 

5.     Teachers are professionals.  We have graduate degrees in Education, including coursework in child development, educational theory, statistics and much more.  We would like to be respected for our experience and knowledge.  All that “playing” has sound educational theory behind it.  Just because we teach children does not mean we are the same age as our students.  Treat us professionally and include us in the decisions you are making.  You will be impressed what can be accomplished by doing just that.
Readers:  I would love to know what you think is important for Education Decision Makers to consider when making policy decisions.  Please comment below or email me.

Note:  This blog was originally published on EdWeek Teacher Blogs as a response to a writing request.  The full post can be viewed here.

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: