Category Archives: Work

A Season For Wonder

The brutal heat of the last month broke this week in impressive fashion. Amid streaks of lightening and claps of thunder, the rain poured down and dropped the temperatures overnight from the zone of, “Oh, it’s 102 degrees; there must be a cool front” to “Fall might just come after all since my car thermometer reads in the double digits.”

As I type this from my porch, I feel like a refugee just returned home. I spent lots of enjoyable hours outside prior to the record-setting heatwave, reading or writing from the back porch, sitting by the pool. But instant sweat-inducing humidity coupled with pool temperatures reaching 95 degrees made the great outdoors pretty inhospitable for most of the summer.

But it’s not just the weather that made this summer one I likely won’t look back on too fondly. Professionally, the last year is one I hope to forget over the course of a long career. I can’t recall a more antagonistic climate for public education during my twenty years in the field. The combination of a takeover of our state legislature by the conservative faction, the loss of federal stimulus funding, and the reduced allocations for public schools from other sources meant not only struggling to reduce expenditures while maintaining educational standards but aiming to do so while under pressure to meet the unrealistic goals set by No Child Left Behind.

Unlike some in public education, I fully support the move toward making schools accountable for the learning of all students–even those who bring with them the challenges inherent in an impoverished upbringing. What I can never support is the labeling of schools as “failing” if students of poverty, students who have special needs, and students who are learning the English language do not meet the same standards as those without these challenges in exactly the same amount of time.

Some relevant examples from my recent experience analyzing my district’s test scores illustrate the point well. One of our elementary schools will join the dreaded “Needs Improvement List,” complete with the requirements to create a school-wide improvement plan and offer the opportunity for students to transfer to another site in order to escape this “failing” school. Why? Because this school is both large enough to have 30 students in the “subgroup” of English Language Learners, making it “reportable,” and it was unsuccessful in bringing these students up to grade-level in reading after between one and two years here in the United States. Just imagine moving to another country speaking little or none of the native language and taking a test a little over a year later–the same test that is given to students who have lived in your new country their entire lives. You fail? Well, your school must not be doing a good job. And, not only must you have the opportunity to go to a school that might do a better job, but all of the other students must be allowed to do so as well. This requirement exists even though the school has overall test scores that rank it in the top 10 percent in the state and the scores of the English Language Learners are actually higher than the state average as well.

We also have schools in jeopardy of joining the school described above if they do not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” this school year. Why? This time, it’s due to another “subgroup,” students with special needs. The twist here, however, isn’t quite the same. A complex flowchart allows IEP teams to determine whether a student should take the same state-mandated test as students not on an IEP or a “modified” version that better reflects modifications received during instruction. Schools and IEP teams receive instructions to use modified tests for all students who qualify using this process. This sounds good. Students are tested fairly and judged based on their individual needs. Schools receive feedback on how well their special education programs work. What could go wrong?

Bureaucracy, that’s what. To stave off schools over-qualifying students for modifications, only 2 percent of the student population may have their modified tests count “as is.” For the rest, any “satisfactory” scores above the 2 percent cap move back to “limited knowledge,” a nicer word for “failing.” The problem? Our district has approximately 16 percent of our students identified as having special needs. Many more than 2 percent of these students receive modified instruction or assessment. Why should the schools be penalized for allowing these students modifications? And, how do we explain to the public that our students passed their tests, but then they didn’t because of a loophole and some obscure method of calculating school performance.

Is it any wonder that the Secretary of Education gave up this week and declared he wouldn’t wait any longer for a Congressional fix to this mess? Is it any wonder I don’t hold out a huge amount of hope that what comes next will be better?

But wonder is exactly what I want. I want kids to wonder about how things work. I want kids to wonder what they might do if faced with the same situation as their favorite literary character. I want kids to wonder how it felt to live in a time when people crossed oceans and continents without benefit of airplanes, GPS, and instant Internet access.

It’s that kind of wonder that not only increases learning but creates the kind of people who lead lives future generations will wonder at. I’ve never known wondering which bubble to fill in to do the same.


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Summer Days Wasted Away

Over a decade has passed since I officially enjoyed “summer vacation.” Though I’d love to be paid for every time someone remarks, “Really?  You work during the summer.  What do you do?”  In reality, school administration is a full-time, year-round gig.  In my office–summer is particularly busy, filled with conducting professional development sessions, ordering textbooks, and planning for the upcoming year.

And as busy as I am, I can’t help but remain a little bitter over the loss of the lazy days of June and July that I enjoyed not only as a student but also as a teacher.  I’ll slip away the last week of June so that DD1 and I can hit the road and tour a number of colleges she’s interested in applying to in the fall.  But until I have a few days away from the office, here’s a report of what I’ve been doing on my (not) summer vacation.

  1. Completed three of the six hours of graduate work I’m taking this summer–School and Community Relations down, Quantitative Research to go (eek! says the liberal arts major).
  2. Dug up the second set of now-dead barberry bushes from the new backyard flower bed and replaced them with double pink knockout roses, a specimen I hope proves more suited for the location.  I’ve never had trouble with barberry before, but two attempts at four bushes each led me to admit gardening defeat.
  3. Made up for my lack of successful shrub growing by finding several significant deals on plants now that the weather is really heating up in Suburbia.  I scored the aforementioned roses and some ornamental grasses and asparagus ferns I picked up to add to my containers for half price.
  4. Actually submerged myself in our backyard pool (completed just in time last fall for the weather to turn too cold to swim) and then progressed to floating about on a raft while reading. 
  5. Read The Devotion of Suspect X, a great psychological thriller from Japan (completed partially as described above).
  6. Sent two kids to camp for a month.
  7. Managed to cook dinner multiple times in one week–a record after my dismal performance in this area at the end of the school year.  Tonight’s offering, Summer Minestrone and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Yummy and very helpful in using up some of the zucchini and other summer vegetable I acquired at this month’s farmer’s co-op. I made the soup pretty much as is with the exception of following the suggestion to add the fresh spinach to the bowls prior to ladling in the soup rather than adding it to the soup itself and adding some garlic in with the onion and a bay leaf and some oregano and pepper for seasoning. 

Looking back, June hasn’t been so bad after all.  But I know what will be better–next week, when vacation is a reality rather than a state of mind.

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Why I Can’t Afford To Spring Forward

This past week defies description.  In addition to non-stop meetings, the agenda included an unexpected funding crisis, a wildfire,  and a funeral for good measure.  I spoke on Thursday to a parent group whose children would be directly affected by the potential loss of a federal grant that appears to be caught up in Congress’ argument about the deficit.  The school district narrowly avoided losing one of the support services buildings to a fire sparked by welders at a neighboring company, and Adventure Guy and I just arrived back in Suburbia following a ten-hour round trip to be with our best man and his family as they said goodbye to his father. 

Since, with all of the above going on lately, I’ve failed miserably at keeping this site updated, I thought I’d leave you with a few shots we’ve received from DD1’s ongoing trip to China.  These are from the group’s visit to Xi’An. She seems to be having a wonderful time, and I can’t wait to hear more when she returns home later this month.

Terracotta Warriors in Xi’An                    

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

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At My Service

Life could be much worse! After a full day of work and a rushed trip to the airport, I had a thankfully smooth flight and taxi ride to my hotel. Conference from tomorrow through Thursday and then straight to class when I get back to Suburbia Thursday night. I still feel like I’m paying for that “snow break,” but I keep telling myself I’ll catch up soon. In the meantime, room service definitely helps!


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Forever Touched

Since three o’clock this afternoon, eight amazing teachers have walked through my office door.  Right now, a committee down the hall is tackling a job I am thankful I don’t have to do.  By the end of the evening, I’ll know the next All-American Public Schools Teacher of the Year’s identity, one of only a few privileged with that knowledge until the big announcement at next month’s employee recognition banquet.

That’s a secret I’ll keep.  But it’s hard to hide the talents, the enthusiasm, and the love for students these dedicated people bring with them as they enter.  From teaching Chinese immersion classes, to bringing learning to life via new technology, to coaching Special Olympics or making math meaningful for students who may not have previously experienced success in that subject–this group captures the best of the teaching profession.

The papers don’t seem to print a lot of good news about American education these days.  I won’t deny some of the challenges we face.  But, tonight, I want to focus on the good, on the teachers that inspired us, on the teachers who inspire our children.

I own more than one item emblazoned with the rather clichéd statement, “To teach is to touch a life forever.” Funny how those clichés tend to be true, isn’t it? So, I’d like to dedicate this post to my own teachers who made a difference:

  • To the senior English teacher who wasn’t embarrassed to teach us iambic pentameter by standing on her desk and tapping out the appropriate beat on her trashcan
  • To the junior World History teacher who tackled a new thing (to my deep East Texas school district) called Advanced Placement and encouraged us to jump in to greater challenges in learning
  • To the sophomore American History teacher who met us at our favorite TexMex place for $2.99 enchillada specials and got to know us a people, not just students
  • To my 5th grade teacher who decided we could tackle both algebraic thinking and diagramming sentences, even if neither could be found in her standard curriculum.
  • And to my 3rd grade teacher, who might not have taught me how to hold a pencil correctly, but who taught me an awful lot about determination while making sure I also knew my multiplication tables and how to research current events like the Panama Canal treaty.

When I think back through that list, it’s no wonder I wanted to be exactly like these women, a person of promise who inspired others to fulfill the promise within themselves.  What teachers made a difference in your life?


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Ms. Clean

Well, the children got their wish this week.  Snow days all around for districts across our part of the state.  Surprisingly, even my university cancelled both day and evening classes yesterday.  Honestly, I didn’t think the street conditions warranted that, since All-American Public School’s primary reason for cancelling centered on the ability to run buses on through hilly subdivisions with icy streets not addressed by the sanding, salting, plowing efforts of the city.  I certainly could have ventured out safely for the drive to campus last night, though I’ll admit I enjoyed staying home for a family dinner instead.

Today, without ringing phones or a packed meeting schedule to distract me from my efforts, I managed to sort through an embarrassingly old pile of papers, professional readings, and other things I always intend to “get to later.”  Behold, the lovely, clean status of my non-virtual desktop!

Next week’s calendar was daunting even before I had to consider rescheduling several things that should have happened while everyone was home cozying up around the fire.  Plus, thanks to the predicted melting today and tomorrow, I don’t expect a reprieve from Saturday’s all-day class.  With all that in mind, I plan to thoroughly enjoy the relaxed pace of the rest of my work day today.  With a desk that looks like mine, I deserve it!

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Every Other Day of the Week Is Fine

Is it wrong to follow a post about the challenges women face in getting ahead in the workplace with a complaint about work?  Well, not exactly a complaint about work per se, but a complaint about working.  I find myself the only one in my family who must report to work or school tomorrow.  While the children and Adventure Guy snooze away, I’ll make the morning commute as usual.  Our district includes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday for teachers and students but not as a vacation day for twelve-month employees. 

The good news?  The public views school as “closed” for the day, meaning I might actually have a fighting chance to see the bottom of my in box by the end of the day.  Outside of two scheduled meetings, I plan to spend the day planning for several upcoming events, cleaning off my desk, and sorting through my email.  I know, it’s hard to fathom such an exciting day at the office!

We enjoyed a calm weekend here in Suburbia.  Adventure Guy spent the time hunting with a groups of friends and family, returning tonight with a very tired dog and some pheasant he plans to grill later in the week.  On Saturday morning, I informed the kids that they should interpret my yoga pants, glasses, and hoodie outfit to mean I had no plans to leave the house for the day. Instead, I completed the reading assignments for my course that begins Thursday. DD2 and friends stayed up all night Friday at a church lock-in, which, of course, necessitated their sleeping all day Saturday.  Soccer Boy took advantage of a warming trend to shoot some hoops and ride bikes with his neighborhood friends, and DD1 and her boyfriend decided to take their new Christmas bikes for a spin on our riding trails. That left me with a quiet place to study, though I’ll admit to finding myself distracted by blog reading and other extraneous activities.

Today, the kids and I ventured out to church before DD1 clocked in at work, Soccer Boy attended a skating party with the church “tween” group,  and DD2 took off for tumbling lessons.  Now, DD2 and two of her friends seem intent on tearing my kitchen apart in the process of making red velvet cupcakes, and DD1 is out to dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday.  I think that vacation day tomorrow will be well-earned on their part!

P. S. I forgot to mention I also caught up with some of my television viewing over the weekend.  Did anyone else see Bill Maher’s show and wonder what James Carville was thinking when he chose the Mardi Gras-esque puple, green, and yellow rugby shirt for his panelist appearance?

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Putting The “Mental” In “Mental Health Day”

Sometimes, a blogger needs a little help from her friends.  Today, I got just that from a friend who emailed and asked if I’d decided to take a bit of a blogging hiatus.  Decided might be a strong word, but, as anyone who checks the date of my last post can tell, life of late has proved to be challenging enough all on its own.  Writing about things at the end of the day is officially that “one more thing” I haven’t been able to force myself to do.

Truthfully, the old adage, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” explains most of my silence.  All-American Public Schools did not escape the rash of school finance problems that swept the country last year.  While we avoided the mass layoffs many districts experienced, saving jobs meant eliminating raises.  No raises makes for unhappy teachers unions, and–four years after my move from a school site to central administration–it’s crystal clear that I’ve now become “them” in the eyes of many of my colleagues.  As in “they” aren’t giving us raises, and “they” just don’t understand what it’s like here at the schools.  I wish this transformation had come with some sort of actual loss of feelings on my part, but that did not occur.  So the criticisms and the realization that many people I’ve worked with for years no longer see me in the same light hit hard. 

Things came to a head after I spent Monday evening listening to a scathing report to the Board by the head of the teachers union, Tuesday morning dealing with the media regarding a decision made by the Board at that same meeting, and Tuesday afternoon in clear disagreement with several teachers and one of my fellow administrators.  Tuesday night, I cried.  A lot. 

And then I decided the time had come to move on.  The weather here in Suburbia could not be more beautiful.  It’s a sunny, warm, Indian summer, with blue skies and just a hint of a breeze.  I spent Wednesday and Thursday knowing one thing for sure:  on Friday, I would not set foot in the office. 

After yet another media interview, plus an appearance at an evening PTA meeting for one of my elementary schools on Thursday night, I officially went on vacation.  I spent yesterday sleeping in, finishing the second installment in the Steig Larrson trilogy, and actually seeing a movie in the middle of the afternoon.  I can’t explain how much I needed that day. 

By dinner time, I found myself ready to enjoy dinner with my family–one which I actually had the time and inclination to cook–and, even better, I know I’m ready to embrace the challenges that are sure to continue when I return to work on Monday.  There’s definitely something to be said for taking a good, old-fashioned mental health day. 

That’s a lesson I hope it won’t take me quite so long to remember the next time around.

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Where’s The Pooper Scooper?

Signboard on a fence in Sausalito, CA: dog shi...
Image via Wikipedia

At one point, I turned to my partner at work and said, “You know things are bad when cleaning up the dog shit you found in the living room first thing in the morning proves to be the best part of your day.”

Yes, from an unexpected “present” this morning, to the argument with Adventure Guy regarding who held responsibility for said accident, to a meeting where people whined about trivial things, to a bigger meeting where I was unable to sway the big boss to my side of an issue, to news that will negatively impact our district in the coming days–this day would not make my list to relive any time soon.

Perhaps I should invest in a sign like the one here.  Or maybe even two.  I wonder how they’d fit in with my living room and office decor?

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I Manage To Fill The Time

If I got paid for every time someone remarked with an air of surprise, “Oh, you work in the summer?  What do you do?” I could solve some of our district’s budget shortfalls! Evidently people are convinced that once students end their year, the schools shut down and then magically reopen–complete with fully staffed classrooms, new textbooks and materials in place, students assigned to teachers and classrooms, and professional development ready to occur. 

This week, I’ve ventured out to discover the ins and outs of what the state legislature perpetrated on education during the worst budget year in our state’s history–oh yes, there are lots of new mandates.  I also attended a partnering workshop with districts across our area to discuss a new virtual learning consortium.  I’ve advised principals on hiring decisions and developed a job description for a new position before selling said description to the various people who need to buy in to it.  I worked with our directors of professional development and curriculum to finalize plans for our federal programs budget. And, unfortunately, I have several parents who are less-than-pleased because of a glitch in our enrollment process, so I’m working to smooth that out.  Tomorrow I meet with our communications director to provide input for the district goals poster design and drop in to elementary summer school to get a feel for how it’s going so far this year.

By Friday, I know I will have completely earned my shortened summer work week.  I can’t wait for vacation…Adventure Guy and I head out for our annual pre camp pick up trip for the lake on Tuesday.

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