Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Tomorrow's the next day of the rest of my life. Yours too, more than likely.

I was going to let my last post be it for the year, but a lot has transpired since October - and I think it's important to share the aftermath.

First of all, things don't fade to black and snap back to the way they were. Having experienced the highs and lows this full-time life entails, I made a trip to Wheeling to not only work with beginning teachers at Wheeling Jesuit University and Ohio County Schools, but to brief the upcoming  WVTOY on the year to come.

Elementary Education majors at Wheeling Jesuit
With the 2015 WVTOY Gail Adams and 2009 WVTOY MaryLu Hutchins
For the past year, I have run on adrenaline. It's kept me alert, motivated, and putting one foot in front of the other when otherwise  not humanly possible. When I finally didn't need to run on adrenaline was the equivalent of letting go of a just blown up balloon. I was exhausted, sick, and, keeping it real...discouraged. To use another analogy, trying to get a routine and relationships established in my classroom at the beginning of the year while being constantly disrupted was like trying to build a really tall tower with building blocks and someone knocking it down over and over just when you get it at the right height. All the fatigue and frustration that I should of felt full force all year sent me into crash mode for several months. The only time I didn't feel like I was falling apart was when I was falling asleep.

There were bright spots though, that reassured me that maybe normal was just around the corner. 

Grant Recognition from the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation

Classroom Management Workshop at Shepherd University

WVRA Conference...well, it's almost normal to make three stops at The Greenbrier in 12 months...right, Berkeley?

And there were field a year that has felt like the greatest field trip imaginable.

5th Grade Field Trip to Harpers Ferry

Arsenal where John Brown was captured 

It just wouldn't be a field trip anymore without a bear.

After Thanksgiving Break, I felt recharged. It was a relief to know that I wasn't going to spend the rest of the school year running on fumes. I've stopped checking my email non-stop in fear that I'm going to miss important dates and times. My luggage is taking a well-earned winter's nap in the basement. I go to school, come home, grade papers, sleep, and repeat. Things are almost back to the way there were, and most days I'm so busy that I could put this last year completely out of my mind, except...

I have close to 1,000 pictures from this year on my phone. It's amazing the thing even turns on anymore. 

There are 16,000 miles on the car. Just seeing the new reading on the odometer each evening when I enter the garage reminds me of what a journey this has been.

I have pictures in my classroom of life through the years. Among that collection now are ones with Homer Hickham and President Obama.  

Having been in every school in Berkeley County and to many counties across the state, places and names immediately bring faces and stories to mind. I think about people all the time.

These past few days, I've been at my residency at the National Harbor for my doctorate. In a year where I've gained much, there is still a lot left to learn. 
National Harbor in Washington, D.C.

Inside the Gaylord Convention Center

Then there's that bear. He's been everywhere this year, and what a story he has to tell children about the things he has seen and the importance of being the difference. One of my greatest joys is writing and drawing, and I am looking forward to creating something that allows me to share the joy of this journey, as well as encourages children to write, draw, and imagine.  

I still get emails - just not in mass amounts that take hours to go through and answer. Mostly, they are from college students. Some I met over the past year; others have found me on Twitter or through my blog. They share their stories, and they ask for resources. In me, they have found someone they can identify with, and of that I am most proud. When I met students at the Future Educators Association at their conference this February, something clicked. I saw a purpose for my story and classroom that otherwise wouldn't have been revealed had it not been for this journey. My goal going forth is to create something for beginning teachers to use as a resource to find answers, opportunities...and confidence.

I still represent the most vital profession to our nation's future, just now in a less demanding role.  That "less demanding part" is a relief. I have learned, grown, and found peace with every experience. Most importantly, I have found ways to keep serving people and challenging myself. I hope you've enjoyed reading about this season of my life this year. It was difficult to find time to write (and write well), but sharing what was going on made me feel closer to people, when many times I have been in a car or away from home for hours or days...and occasionally weeks. 

So this isn't good bye; it's see you soon. (I'm staring at the screen trying to figure out how to end this post). 

Okay, here we go...

To my teacher friends, have faith in yourself. Regardless of what changes and challenges persist in the coming year, there are classrooms of students that need you - just as you are. Choose to be exceptional, and choose to speak up. There is value in your professional opinion regarding what children need to be successful, but you need to share your voice. Resolve to present yourself professionally and with passion to your students and peers, because the only way the entire image of this profession changes is if we all choose to be the best we can be. Those kids in your room, whether it's the straight A student or the one that never stops talking, need you to be their role model for how to act, resolve and learn. Find reasons, even when it's hard, to keep holding on and moving forward...

...because that is the difference.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Coming Full Circle...with Courage

Okay, no fooling this time. It's December, and I have T minus three days to finish this blog.

No sooner had I driven home from New Jersey I was packing (and substitute plan writing) once again to make the trek to Charleston one more time. 365 days later, the moment had arrived to light another torch. I had been in such a state of motion (drive, speak, drive, teach, drive, write, repeat) that it wasn't really registering that this was indeed the end.

Until the hail storm. Right around the Buckhannon exit. In the dark. I had managed to drive through every type of weather over the past twelve months, every precipitation imaginable, except hail. I had even bragged the week before about how I at least avoided "that one."

Driving three miles per hour in the pitch black in a hail storm, it hit me like the swollen white pebbles bouncing off the hood of the car. This was it. If I could get through this one last storm, I had made it.

The next morning, I spoke at the state board meeting about my year. Before going in, I walked around the Capitol Complex one more time. What was once so imposing a year ago had become familiar territory. It's where laws are made and voices are meant to be heard - even if those on the receiving end don't like what you have to say.

I don't like to "selfie," but when I do, it's with the Capitol in the background.

I spoke about the view I had over my year, comparing it to being at the peak of Spruce Knob. That view included taking in some of the great inequalities that exist across this state. There are good things happening in education in West Virginia, but that doesn't mean there isn't work to be done. You can't expect teachers and students to keep doing more with less and less; it's a set up for failure. In an era of high stakes everything in education, those that are directly impacted by changes have the least amount of voice. Some don't get a chance to be heard; others are afraid of the consequences of speaking up. Both need a champion.

Addressing the state board

This is random, but I love Ollie's Bargain Warehouse in Hagerstown. No joke, it lives up to it's slogan "Good stuff...CHEAP!" About two-thirds of the store is discounted books - maybe it's not quite two-thirds, but that's the reason I frequent there. It's a fun, fast way to furnish my classroom library.

When I was there this summer, kneeling on the cement floor to pick through a bottom shelf, a thin, errant book slid down from the shelf above. It had a pale, crumpled dust jacket - and a bright orange $1.99 price sticker.

As I pulled it out to remove it from my pursuit of non-fiction, my eyes caught the title.

Courage, by Bernard Waber.

It was a simple picture book, with a few sentences on each page. Nothing fancy. It had obviously been passed over before.

I looked for one without such a grimy cover. No such luck. What am I going to do with such an "un-fifth grader" book anyway? Hmm. Character traits? Analogies? I'll think of something, as I stuck it in my cart. I peeked - thank goodness beneath that embattled dust jacket was a smooth, glossy book.

Three months later, I was shoving items into a bag and tears out of my eyes. I wanted it to be awesome. One last time to address the teachers of West Virginia, and here I am, ready to hit the road to go - and I don't have a speech. Nothing written down at all. Once last time to speak, and in the midst of the crazy that is the beginning of the school year, that one important task kept getting pushed to the side. Now what was I going to do?

Be different, but more importantly, be the difference. 

As I reached under the table to unplug my laptop, an odds-and-end pile of random items that hadn't made it to school yet greeted me. Courage was, once again, a part of the misfit mix.

What makes the difference?

So I snapped out of my pity party frenzy. Geesh. What had made the difference, every time, this past year? It was starting right back at me, under the table, with wrinkled eyes, waiting for me to see it.

24 hours later, Courage became a part of my speech. Click here.

With my coordinator, Monica Beane, and the 2015 WV Teacher of the Year, Gail Adams

And with that, I officially (and gratefully) attained "has been" status. A year of amazing highs, lows, and tests came to a close. It's an blessing to receive this honor, and an accomplishment to be on the other side of it. Looking back, I don't know how I did it, except...

Courage is what we give to one another.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Countdown, Part 2: Princeton, and Back to Reality

I'm seriously back dating this post.

Life as it's been for the past year finally came to a screeching halt about two months ago. I've been in decompression mode ever since. My last post left off at the Grounds for Sculpture, so I'll finish that trip while doing some flash forwards about returning to the classroom.

In between sessions, a group of us took a walking tour of Princeton University, one last "whose life is this anyway" moments. Walking among the ivy covered buildings on a quiet fall afternoon, where if the walls could talk, they would tell the tales of some of the world's most brilliant minds. I felt like one of the multi-colored leaves clinging tightly to the tree branches above us as we passed the towering halls and students consumed in making their way to the next class.

East Pyne Hall
Statue of John Witherspoon, Princeton's 5th president

Nassau Hall

Where's Berkeley?

College and career ready.  It's the new set of buzz words in education, and the driving force behind changes to standards, testing, and accountability. Students need to be competitive with their peers across the globe upon graduation from high school, and it's now or never. Coming back into the classroom on a full time schedule, in the midst of changes, stress, and uncertainty, while wrapping up my year representing West Virginia's students, has been the equivalent to being struck by a huge wave on the beach and being pulled into the ocean from its force. The wave is full of new things, different things, and all the emotions that people feel when they are bombarded, threatened by expectations that seem to be made up faster than they can be comprehended.

I think back to that afternoon on Princeton's campus, walking between some of the world's brightest young people. College and career ready. What truly makes you fit that mantra as a student? Is it knowing everything you need to know to pass a test? Is it proving on benchmark after benchmark that you've increased the expected number of data points?

What if we press and stress ourselves  and our students so much that, while they know everything they need to know, they have no desire, no curiosity, to take their learning further? I'd like to think that's what drives those who aspire to learn and improve - passion, perseverance, and curiosity. I recently wrote an article for EdSurge discussing how I feel the current state of testing is impeding what teachers need to have the freedom to do: teach.

There's a beautiful chapel on the Princeton Campus. When it was built, it was the second largest university chapel in the world, and the largest in the United States. Constructed of limestone from Pennsylvania and Indiana, it's not so much the Gothic architecture that is truly moving. A place of worship is a place to seek solace, to freely express beliefs, and the appearance of this structure among the historic buildings is a reminder of what many came to our country seeking long ago.

Princeton Chapel

I've run solely on adrenaline most of this year. And angst. Keeping it real, falling down between the train steps and platform in Germany two summers ago was just the beginning of living in high survival mode. I've just kept going, solving, improvising, and hoping that I wouldn't crack. There's been no recovery time in between. I've bared my soul to countless teachers and students this year about how I'm broken, because it was a message that needed to be heard and was just as important to be shared as anything instructional.

None of it has been easy or come easy. I look back at some of the situations from the past year, be it weather or people related, and I simply don't know how I got through it. I fight a very real beast every day. It's name is anxiety. I respect that religion and public school are separated, but I cannot deny that where I am and what I've been able to accomplish are a direct result of my faith. I did it - we  did it - but not without an immense amount of work. What I really need now to find is some balance - and some peace.

We continued our stroll down the sidewalks and buildings adjacent to the college campus. The wind started to pick up a bit by now as we took a walk through New England history.

President's Home

Nassau Club

Princeton Seminary


Albert Einstein's Home...and Berkeley

Exposed Beam Architecture 

Fade to Orange

Soon it was time to head back to say our good byes. Being pulled out of your classroom to travel alone and to make do by yourself as a "job" feels a little bit (just a little) like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, but instead of Wilson the volleyball, I have Berkeley the Bear (except I don't have deep, insightful conversations with Berkeley). How extraordinary to have had the opportunity to share this year with 53 other teachers that could relate to being abruptly named a spokesperson for the profession.
Lunch earlier that day with our groups from Scottsdale

Nebraska, Iowa, New Jersey, Maine, Ohio, and West Virginia

Final dinner with Virgin Islands, Delaware, Rhode Island, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, and Louisiana

"What's it like to be back? Do you miss it?"

I miss the people. I miss the faces and the stories that have now become memories, because they've become a part of my story. But the journey and all it entails is just something you travel once - and for good reason.

"How's it feel to be back with fifth graders all day long?"

I laugh. a lot. I want my classroom to be a happy place. Something so simple is really quite necessary. Adolescence is a trying, confusing time for kids. And on top of that, you have to become career and college ready. The only antidote to all that "heavy" is to find the joy. One of the national teachers of the year encouraged us during our time at Princeton to go not where we feel pushed, but where we feel pulled.

My "pull" is to find the joy, not just for my students but for anyone who teaches. So much of the joy and light of this profession is being overshadowed by looming numbers, expectations, demands, and fear. Worst of all, is fear, because that poisons all the good that grows among the thorns. I feel pulled to lift others to where they deserve to be - I just need to let myself down for a bit to get some rest.

"Well, now what are you going to do?"

I guess we'll all have to wait and see.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Countdown, Part 1: Next Steps, Grounds for Sculpture, and Chambers of Internal Dialogue

The buzzer sounds. Everything's a watercolor blur. A countdown begins as the blazing red digits flash by on the clock.

Or at least that's what it felt like as I drove to the last convening of the 2014 state teachers of the year for the Next Steps Conference, held in Princeton, New Jersey. Maybe it just reminded me of the final quarter of a basketball game because I had two speeches to write when I returned in 2 and-a-half days (and another 4+ hour drive to Charleston). And's because this truly signaled the end - an end that, at this point, I welcomed but dreaded because of the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Once I had woven my way up into the Garden State and successfully found the conference center with no GPS snafus, I started to relax. New England is beautiful in the fall. It was comforting to be among familiar faces again who understood the insurmountable joy and crushing stress this year had bestowed. The countdown clock slowed down, at least momentarily.

Chauncey Conference Center
Inside Chauncey Conference Center, part of the ETS campus
The purpose of the Next Steps conference was to give us time to reflect on our year and to think about what we would like to have happen next - with emphasis on the what we would like. Trying to conceive of having any type of balance in life, when your schedule evolves on a whim and often for reasons that are not of a personal priority, has been futile. You get use to it and accept the chaos.

But no one can keep living like that forever. It wears you down and renders you unable to pursue the things that matter because there's no energy to spare - which is why, more than anything, it's time for the next step.

Several former National Teachers of the Year led the sessions over the following two days. They discussed returning to reality, their classrooms, and ultimately choosing the path that best allowed them to pursue the things they were passionate about - while also having a life. While saddened that this was our last official time together as a group, I think we all heard a lot of things from each other and from the presenters that reassured us that the exhaustion we felt was warranted and that we would each, in our own time, find our next path.

The outgoing National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau, has spoken to our group several times this year, and his message was just as stellar this time as it has been in the past. Some quotes from Jeff that have continued to resonate three weeks later:

"Just because other people aren't, doesn't mean that you can't be."

"You're done climbing this mountain - [and] it's time for another. [You're] going down into a new valley."

"It's made you a better educator."
Jeff Charbonneau presenting at Next Steps. The bottom ratio is the approximate likelihood of being selected as a state teacher of the year. 

On the second evening of our conference, we visited the nearby Grounds for Sculpture, a unique sculpture park and museum. It is located on the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Not only is the setting stunningly beautiful, the works of art were all too lifelike - and occasionally larger than life.

Seward Johnson Center, named the artist who founded the Grounds for Sculpture in 1992.
Looks like Pi to me!

Where there are statues, there are loads of Berkeley photo-ops.

Why, yes; that is a 26 foot sculpture of Marilyn Monroe.

The table's a sculpture, but not the teachers/

Where's Berkeley?

Like I said...some of them were very true to life.

Chamber of Internal Dialogue - it looks like a little house, but...

One side depicts "The Scream"...
The other side is "Silencio"

Berkeley thought a nap sounded like a good idea at this point.
Dinner with Ohio, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
Although the evening was for fellowship and celebrating our accomplishments as our year came to a close, to have it in such a place was truly fitting.  Much like Seward Johnson's Chamber of Internal Dialogue, we as teachers are in contention with two variations of extreme emotion - silence of peace or (most likely) exhaustion, and the raging fury of angst, frustration, and fear of the unknown. In between those conflicting places of thought, we're handed each year...a ball of clay. A classroom. Responsibilities. The distinction and confusion of being named a leader in the profession. While we teeter between the two extremes in search of answers and balance, there's the expectation to perform and create. There are no directions, only your insight and the option to seek answers and help along the path you choose to travel - although the greatest help you'll find comes from within yourself.

I was given a ball of clay this year, to shape and mold, to squish back down when it didn't look right and start with the same blob that, in spite of being malleable, consisted of potential. What I shaped this year to be is truly the best that I could physically and mentally create. How fitting is it that, inside the Chamber of Internal Dialogue, is a small couch between the imprints of the two emotional works of art. It is that place in between that we all need to seek for rest and guidance. You can only see what you've created when you sit down and reflect.

Lotus Pond and Bridge created to resemble Claude Monet's "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lillies"

Sometimes the imprint we create is an improvement on the simpler aspects of real life, while other times our efforts reveal iconic-seeming achievement that's size and scope threaten to overwhelm. Yet it's the drive to continue creating, past the time to perfect the project you've been given, that serves as the inspiration to continue moving forward - even when you're down to just a handful of seconds on the clock.

The Class of 2014 - works of progress.