Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nightmare? Oldest Wants to Become An Educator When He Grows Up!

My oldest son Robert is a senior at Grandview, and he is inching his way toward graduation
Having lived through the experience of a Preview Day at a state university in recent weeks (how do college students walk that much, but then that could explain the plethora of bicyles), and as the reality of my oldest going to that "green" place is sinking in, we have started to discuss possible majors. His choice, and it gives me pause and pride and then fear again, is to become an educator.
More specifically, he wants to teach math and coach football. If he is to go that pathway, and he could change his mind, as reportedly 80% of freshmen surveyed do change their majors, I want him to keep some things in mind on how he should conduct himself as a professional and what is best route to go. This has been hard earned knowledge. Why wouldn't I share it with him? (The taking it part is trickier.) I will start with these five things:
1. Look for entry level positions with a spirit of humility. You don't know all you don't know until you actually get out into the coaching ranks and secure that first classroom. Learning to drive a bus, write a lesson plan that has some sense of coherence, the appropriate tone to take in given situations. Being willing to take on the extra duty to learn how to do it, and this may involve laundry or field striping or sweeping the gym floor, will give depth and texture and appreciation to every strata, and competence is admired and noticed. Starting off at a middle school is a wise place to lay a foundation.
2. Show up for all meetings prepared, regardless of their importance, with a contribution to make that is about calm assertion. Do your homework on grades on little Johny, with a sample of work or an anecdote of misbehavior that doesn't judge but calls attention to need. Shake hands with parents, stay off your phone, talk quietly and if necessary forcefully, but don't let them ever know you would rather be some place else. Start all meetings the way you should run practice, which is to state an objective, then pursue it, with a closing restatement of goals at the end. Stay courteous, no matter what. And the time will come when faced with explosiveness, rudeness, wrongheadedness or just straight up nuttiness, you will feel the urge to bite someone. Always stay in character as the calm professional. When possible, "staff" ahead of time and de-brief with other professionals aftewards. You will find that you are not alone, and you will gain balance in your emotions and approach.
3. Teach as long as you can, as hard as you can, and as good as you can, MINIMUM, 90% of the time, as a goal you set. Now, I know that may be saying that one should take 10 days off a semester, but what that is referencing is the reality that there are going to be days that you are tired, ill, out of sorts on the content of the lesson or the pace of the class, and while you must do the job of maintaining standards of performance and expectation, there might be days for remediation, for that special food day, a day when many of your students are gone, and you can't move forward with a major lesson. Yes, dare to show a relevant movie or an irrelevant, as a reward, not as a rule.  Make those rare opportunities to bond, to give students a human side, to take a breather, to gird themselves and you for the next challenge, then move forward renewed. Take a "mental health" day, once or twice per semester, to recharge and come back stronger and clearheaded, if you feel the "thousand yard stare" coming on, and that is something that you will understand when you experience it.
4. Be a "go-to" guy on your campus. Serve on a committee, offer to drive that bus to that field trip, be vigilant on hall duty/lunch duty/bus duty, and don't forget to bring food to that gathering. Bring up that fight before it gets started. Cover a class when Mrs. Schwartz has to go to the dentist with her dog with a spirit of willingness and generosity. It is those moments that others will remember when they view you beyond your classroom or field performance, and it may help you keep your job or get the next one.
5. Dress for success every single day. Now, I know that may seem superficial, but there is a respect for your profession and those you are teaching when you wear that Zebra tie the first day of school, have the appropriate shoes, take part in theme days with some creativity and fun. Following a professional dress code may seem like a no-brainer, but I have known many, both male and female, who look like they just rolled out of bed, ate Sonic in the car, and smelled like old cheese on the way past toward the lounge. Doesn't breed confidence; does open the door to a pervasive disrespect.
These may all seem common sense or obvious, but way back in 1990, long before graying hair and children, I was young and dumb and full of gum. I learned hard lessons, and so will you. You will falter, and you may even fall. The getting up part, the grinding, the moving forward to the next challenge will define you. Along the way, wear a clean shirt, smile politely, and don't forget the school secretary's birthday.
One last word of advice, if you chose to accept this mission: above all, love what you do, or go do something else. There is no greater profession to do more good or harm than teaching.
Sure you don't want to be an engineer?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: A Week of Wonder

Often as I get into my school year, I feel like I am living in a fever dream.
This week as Joe Paterno's greatness suddenly became a hazy sadness, Rick Perry forget one of three things he had to remember, a kid with a fedora walked out of our school, because his mental dysfunction had enough clarity to know that he might be mistreated, were he to be locked away in an alternative setting. Dozens went to various meetings to do with basketball, while a grand total of 3 out of 500 showed up for a senior student transitional meeting. A brave battle with cancer begin for a female senior, with word coming to me of a freshmen with bi-polar tendencies stealing a car and ending up in jail, in part, because he couldn't follow rules about simply going to classes all day.
The spectacle that is a school setting can startle, can thrill, can stun into silence, and it can bring about a numbness that only be dispelled by hysterical laughter over a dark, twisted remark or a trip to Sonic for a Route 44. The sheer wonder of a week like this one is not in the depth of tragedy or the absurdity of  behavior or even the gut-wrenching pain, but it is that it is simply an ordinary week that will be matched or topped in a later time in a different setting.
It turned 11-11 on 11-11-11 a few minutes ago, and I was in a lengthy conversation with a student, whose teacher said he pulled out a newspaper to read in the midst of receiving instruction. He was outraged, miffed and defensive. The moment passed, and I didn't notice anything special about it, until an e-mail went out acknowledging it. Right after that, I received an e-mail that another student under my care was dealing with impending pregnancy. I wonder if she noticed anything significant about this date.
Yesterday, I had a conversation with a student about her successes toward graduating. Today, she was removed from our campus for not living in the district or having it confirmed appropriately. Close to 15 students that we have worked feverishly with on our campus have thrown their hands up and headed to a nearby district's alternative program, as we don't have one available. They will graduate under a different umbrella, I hope.
Circular reasoning when pointing out issues with freshmen, confident direction shown by seniors are all part of the day, and then sometimes the opposite is true. Up is down, white is black.
Then, the bell rings, I almost hit two students making out just outside a door in a alcove with it, and I get dirty looks, as I head for my car, and I can take the name tag off, unclasp the watch, and I feel sanity restore in my tired brain, as I cross the bridge for the ride home. I sometimes hang my head out the window and let the breeze soothe me. Then, it turns biting cold or I start to sweat. It varies, but it is the same.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

GO RANGERS! If Only People Cared As Much About Their Local School.

Awash in the excitement of the Texas Rangers and their heroic efforts and great success, I have had many friends drape themselves in gear, change their Facebook pages, throw the antenna flags up, and there is such a joy and commonality of all that hoopla. I am excited for them, as my beloved Twins had a horrific year, and I hope for great success in the World Series. The sheer exhiliration it brings can not be matched, but I will venture that the moments can not equate to the day-to-day thrill of being a Zebra or a Panther or an Eagle.
Living in Grandview, little girls and boys grow up wanting to be Zebras and compete for the high school teams or play in the band or wear the special jacket of the FFA. It starts early as an outstanding student in the elementary school is a MVZ: Most Valuable Zebra, of course. The clothing is black or white with stripes involved, and there is a distinctive Zebra sticker on most cars in town. (Think: Denver Broncos.) In recent years, Grandview's youth football association has been very successful, wearing the black and white, as the Little Zebras take on Godley and Glen Rose and Tolar and the like. Rivalries start early and are sometimes 4th and 5th generation in their hostile foundation. During the Homecoming football game recently, I counted about 1, 000 noses, and there are only about 1, 200 souls in Grandview, according to the last census. It is a living, breathing thing.
Every day is a great day to be a Panther in Midlothian, as they say, and there is a tremendous pride in wearing the blue and working for cake and camaraderie in my school, as the pay has stayed stagnant and slightly behind the area. The sense of community is still very strong, although we are now headed for the  8 thousand plus mark in total enrollment in the district. The Homecoming parade stops the town in its tracks, as schools let out two hours early. Graduation teeters above the 7, 000 mark in attendance, and all games and events are very well attended. I always felt a certain pressure coaching at Midlothian, regardless of where we were playing, because I knew there would be more fans than the other guy could muster, regardless of geography. If Mom and Dad and Gran Gran were coming out to the game, then the expectation would be to always find playing time for their darling.
Sadly, the community I live in and the one I work at may be an exception to the rule in our larger school districts, as many don't feel the same connection to their local high school. There is more allegiance to the Cowboys and the last two years to the Rangers. There is a growing sense of detachment, I think, to our public schools, and where that may take us alarms me. Someone without an excuse to cheer in the stands might have a tendency to not hold the value of investing in our schools dearly.
The only solution I see is if our politicians and monied interests and senior citizens, without kids in the schools, become fans again. We should make every effort to get the stickers out, the invites to the games,  and the accomplishments made to be a payoff on the investment of tax dollars. We must seek out old and new support, and we must work harder to get them to the pep rallies and the parades.
We must convince them that WE are a team, and we are all in this together.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Here's To The "Extra" People On Our Campuses!

Yesterday, I did a very, very foolish thing, as I took a couple of pain pills that had formerly belonged to Amy for a dental surgery, as my ankle was tweaking, with probable gout making an impact. (Too many Cherry Dr. Pepper's from Sonic had added up, I think.).
Nurse Judi, that is Judi Fiorenza, was summoned by the concerned ladies in the office, as sweat had started to drip off my ears profusely, and I had a nausea come over me that didn't make the monthly birthday cake we have taste near as good as usual. She patiently checked me over, encouraged me, dimmed the lights, and she gave me as good of care and treatment, as I would have received  at any hospital. When Amy came to get me to take me home, Judi walked me gently out and helped me get into Amy's car for the wobbly ride home. Then, I am sure she moved on to care for, along with Nurse Brenda, Jenkins, that is, the dozens of students that they take care of on a daily basis with calm and efficient kindness. (Thanks, Judi!)
These ladies are part of the "extra" personnel that the Legislature made many school districts take aim at in our last legislative bludgeoning, as there was an inference that having nurses to render care, librarians/media specialists to give academic support and knowledge, aides of many stripes to fill in the gaps in learning and relationship building, and tremendously hardworking custodians to make sure that the learning environment is pristine and appropriate, was "extra", somehow. The others on this list might include groundskeepers, bus drivers, day care workers, and cafeteria workers. I would strongly suggest that these folks in my educational experience are essential, rather than extra. They work long hours for often very little pay, making less than poverty level in many cases, and they are quite often the glue that holds a campus together, the human face that often reassures or provides comfort to not just students but the community.
 I get a great feeling saying hello to "Miss Joyce", one of our longtime custodians, when I am out and about, seeing her smiling face doing a probably very dirty job, as she has an ennobling, humbling quality to what she does, which she does very well. It is the Cindys of our office that have been a calming presence for many years in the front office of Midlothian High School, regardless of the principal in charge, dealing with budget and room scheduling and mountains of paperwork. That is, Carlisle and Rodgers, who are wonderfully professional and sweet and kind and good at what they do. It is Debbie Fallen at the front desk, who serves as the face of the school, dealing with often angry or unruly parents and students with a never wavering professional demeanor.  Julie Phillips is a great example of a special ed aide with a high energy and shining smile, who greets the students as they come into Content Mastery, no matter how large the number or attitude of the student. Cheryl Holt has worked for many, many years in the Counseling Center as a jack-of-all-trades, getting parents paperwork to register students, taking IDs, answering dozens of phone calls a day, filing countless paperwork, putting out fires and calming fears of new students. Her ear must buzz at the end of each day from her headset, and yet she keeps her sense of humor and wicked laugh. Brenda Lott has worked as a principal's assistant for more than a little while, providing niceties for functions and gathering t-shirts for dress code and doing a newsletter each week to encourage staff closeness. If she retires this year, as she says she is planning on, there will be a void left by her leaving.
I haven't done justice to all the many, many who make up our school district and the thousands of others who aren't seen by mindless demagogues in Austin as being only budget items, only "extra" people. I would take that extra and stretch it to extraordinary, and I would fight ferociously anyone who might suggest that the soul of our campus wouldn't be diminished by their loss. They deserve more respect, more noteworthy attention, and they deserve more money.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An Appetite for Destruction? No, Just Hungry for Knowing.

I have a mission. I must learn more about the outside world of education beyond high school. It is a quest, so that I can pass along detailed knowledge to my students hungry for news.
Tomorrow morning, I will go to Le Cordon Bleu in Dallas to sample culinary arts cuisine, mingle with tech school recruiters, who will probably be young and enthused or older and fanatical about their special places and what it can mean for students. I will be sincerely interested, if not on an equal level of enthusiasm, because this is an area of knowledge for me that is very superficial, that of two or four year career programs. It is a dirty and dangerous job, but someone has to do it, and I am willing to take one for the team, as I am thinking that there may be some cream cheese involved or possibly something made with foam, like Marcel from Top Chef fame.
I will state that I believe in continuing education for all educators. To attend workshops, study online, go to conferences or symposiums or forums with "breakout sessions" or SPECIAL guest speakers can quite often make a difference, impart wisdom, inspire and motivate beyond a rote inservice. There is so much beyond the classroom that can make for a better, well-rounded teacher or administrator or even counselor, by exposure, by contact with other viewpoints, innovations and visions. An appetite for
(An example of what I don't get to go to would be that Temple Grandin, of autisim fame and an HBO movie, is coming to Dallas, and I would love to see her speak, but there isn't time or money. I am jealous of those who can afford to go.)
This year, I have traveled to UTA to hear updates from a College Board rep, with all the bells and whistles. Nothing really new, but there was an oppotunity for me to travel into the heart of the UTA campus, stroll through the student center with its bowling alley and hoards of laptop tapping, unshaven and largely catatonic Mavericks. This made me feel refreshed and envious, all at once. UTA has had some phenomemnal building going on, with a beautiful, new engineering building that made me think that the campus had reached a different strata. There was a giant cinnamon roll with a Mountain Dew inside for me that made me feel like my heart was going to stop, but it kept me focused, as well.
Next week, I will get to go to Maggiano's in Dallas to eat and gain insight about Texas Tech and Houston, while mingling and eating afterward on the universities' dime. I have heard great things about the menu offered, but of course I can't be bought with noodles and sauce. It will take pesto to really win me over to the desired goal of the exemplary status of the Red Raiders and the Cougars. I think there will be a free bag and maybe an environmentally friendly sippy cup.
Later, there will be a trip to UNT on a Friday to gather new information about the ACT and the Eagles' new stadium and restaurant management program. The parking is a bit iffy, but there is great care taken to make you feel welcome once inside the green carpeted student center. There is a plethora of information available, and some free t-shirts, sometimes. I confirmed my impression that Denton would be an appropriate fit for Robert, the oldest son, two years ago, while on a junket there. There will be a three-course meal provided, perhaps, to bookend the muffins of the beginning.
Ofter trips have been made in recent years to Baylor and its law school, TCU for an update and a dorm tour, the regional service center for some fresh ideas, and I toured a local mental health facility that specializes in suicide intervention. There have been cookies, Subway, Campisi's catered, and a variety of bottled waters, some of which I am not sure were actual brands.
I think the common threat that I have discovered while pondering the value of getting outside my three and a half walls of my office is that food is offered as a positive connection with the nourishment of my brain with invaluable and generous portions of creamy and delicious and buttery knowledge. Or, something similar. Hard to think with your stomach growling and your mouth watering.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Coaching Myself to Be A Good Parent

As the air turns much more crisp, and the days start to get shorter, I sometimes have vivid dreams late at night of coaching again, as I did for 15 years. I am in a gym, in a dugout, on a bus, and I am sometimes driving or playing with a dry erase board. I am dressed in a polo and shorts and a cap, or I am in a sweater vest with shiny shoes. Sometimes I have the feeling of being like Tom Landry, and I have channelled the wonderful-at-cursing coach from Bull Durham. I never get to finish a game, and there is more often than not no scoreboard. There is always a yelling crowd, and I can always feel piercing stares and burning eyes from parents, and this makes me itchy, and I make myself wake up. (I have that skill not often enough.)
Then, I go to a soccer game for one of the kids, and I set my chair up, get them squared away, and I proceed to stare at the back of a parent coaching from the opposite sidelines of the real coach. He is in anguish, yearning to run on the field. Another parent put an umbrella up, which inadvertently blocks the view of all others from about 20 percent of the field. There are equal amounts of imploring Juan and Tanner in Spanish and English to pass or run harder. It is passion, and then one of the boys has a ball kicked into his gut, and he goes down in pain. The response from the other team is to encourage their sons to run past and around the boy, now writhing on the ground, and it becomes something twisted.
And, I am taken back to nights of confrontation after wins by parents whose children didn't play "enough" outside of lockerrooms, in parking lots, getting on the bus. I can remember every moment of long, uncomfortable conferences, as playing time was hashed over, and childhood accomplishments were lauded as proof of my ignorance or lack of judgement. "T Ball Champion" of 1994 had a quest of being an Olympian, and I was in the way. Practice habits were discounted, reality of talent is an oblivious subject that inflames, and other children are doggedly drug in, despite repeated reminders, that privacy and respect must be maintained. I recall clearly screams from the stands, muttering in the workplace from teacher parents, a morning when a parent miffed at junior high playing time came to my home one early Saturday morning and scared Amy with a knock on the door. Crank phone calls, cold stares, Amy getting bumped while plregnant at a playoff game by a respected civil servant lady. My children heard things they didn't understand while playing in the grass, and my parents who patiently made sacrifices out in the cold heard condescension and criticism.
So, as I added my own children, I began to ease out of coaching to the position of counselor to spend more time with those I loved and was missing seeing grow, as I got weary and wounded to the point of exhaustion. A thought germinating was brought to life by a couple of parents who got a hold of  the ear of a weasel of an athletic director who liked to look at himself but not you in his office mirrors, and I was demoted my last year. My obsession was not enough, my desire too temperate, and I didn't like to play a political game and break bread and drink a few beers with John and Sam and Bob. It was really a blessing to be pushed the direction I was going a little more firmly, that of a parent in the stands. The hottest day on record that last game in May made the air that much sweeter on the charter bus.
And, so the question, becomes, what kind of parent am I now in the stands? I get anxious, angry, frustrated, excited, thrilled, exultant and morose. I cheer hustle, heart, gusto, and I concentrate on the demeanor and attention of my kids when their coach speaks. They get rebuked for not showing appropriate respect for teammates, for not being into games. We have quiet talks about what can be done different or better. I try to ask the most important question of all: did you have fun? 
After most games, I make sure that the chair is packed, that we have snacks, that we have what we need to head home, and I don't look back at the field or gym. On days or nights like that, what awaits me, if I am lucky, when I sleep is a deep and dreamless slumber.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9-11 While Moving Forward.

10 years ago on September 11th, 2001, before it became 9-11, the day started out like any other first-of-the-year day for me, as the air was starting to become cooler in the mornings, and I was running a bit late.  Amy was home with baby Stephen, and I spent some time with her, as she was slumbering, as the result of being more than 6 months pregnant with the baby that was to become Annie. Time was sweet in the mornings before school in our little blue house.
I remember looking for a parking spot, listening to the radio, a few minutes late, when I heard that a plane had crashed into one of the WTC towers. Thinking surely it was an accident of some type, I hurried into my classroom and turned on the ancient TV that in one corner, and as things began to unravel, I realized that this was no accident, with the second plane hitting. Hurrying out into the hall to find someone to talk to about it, as I had first period off that year, I heard a lot of quiet and then the steady sounds of TVs on all over the building. A coach had rolled a TV out that was normally used for showing workout videos, and all around, you could start to hear the buzz. As I recall, there was an announcement and then a flurry of e-mails to keep things calm and on schedule, and that we attempted to do, as another plane crashed, and then another in the countryside in Pennsylvania. Amidst all this, Amy called me in a panicked voice, as the electricity had flashed off in Grandview. (Terrible coincidence, it turned out, as a transformer had quit.)
We went through our day on schedule, suspending real classwork in most cases, but following the bells, eating lunch, telling kids to get out of the halls, following routine. The day's specific moments after that first shock have largely faded from memory, as they have been replaced by other days, with tragedy or joy or mundane routine. Things returned to normal in the weeks after that in the school setting, while the world changed profoundly, and this made me wonder if that is what we should be doing: providing a calm in the storm, a steady and consistent wave of movement forward, a safe haven.  Should that moment have been more of about provocative learning? About connecting our lives to those who were going through horror in NYC, in DC, and on a lonely field outside Philadelphia?
Then, this past week, Jamie, who is my second grader, came home with an assignment to be a part of a mural that would honor the day and the victims, as she was to draw or get off the Internet pictures representing her thoughts on things. Now, as a 2nd grader, it hit me that she had no real clue about what happened then, and I was okay with that, but she wanted to do her best to help out, and we found pictures that showed one tower being hit by a plane, and then another picture with obviously wounded and suffering people helping each other through the ash and destruction. She wrote the word HEROES under that one.  As she got ready to get out of the car the next morning, with her poster contribution, she held it up, and she told me that there was an "evil man" and he planned things to hurt us. I reassured her that while this was so, that she was safe, and she hugged me and went into the building a little more serious than normal.
Yesterday morning, I was checking texts, as I was getting ready to head out the door, and there were two from another counselor and my boss about the very sudden, horrible death of one of students, a sweet-faced girl from what I could recall, (and I didn't have her as one of my students, but felt gut punched for this girl and her family and friends), from a unknown cause. We went into crisis mode, offering services to the dozens of students who came into our office or were in classrooms, and other counselors came to help, who had a connection to her, through her church or through a neighborhood connection.  We set a room aside, and we offered them some comfort or consolation, I hope, as there were tears and vulnerable stares of grief. During the time when announcements are made, there had been plans to have our "moment of silence" for 9-11 remembrance, but on this day, the decision was made to announce this sad loss, as we moved 9-11 to Monday. Tears flowed, and there was an air of somber weariness throughout the day.
And, I realized that we did what we had done on 9-11: we had continued living while carrying the grief with us, tucking it gently but firmly away, as it could not deter us from moving forward to what was ahead.

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Didn't Know The Job Was Dangerous When I Took It. I Would Do It Again.

As  the first two weeks have swiftly completed themselves, with a massive gathering called a pep rally to conclude it, and a Labor Day weekend ahead for some rest and grilling, I thought I would give a quick rundown of what a counselor might do. And, where I have come to where I am now.
When I reached a crossroads of my career a few years ago, as I had coached for 15 years, and we had just welcomed our 4th bundle of joy to the world, the choice I had to make was threefold: stay as a teacher, after a period of great activity and variety with what goes with coaching and teaching; go into administration, as many coaches have done before and trade coaching a game to watching students watch a game and not necessarily have more time to spend with my family; become a School Counselor and get an office and more of an 8 to 4 job (so I thought), with the duties that I thought would largely consist of doing schedules and listening to a few problems, here and there. Now, clearly you can see why I went the counseling pathway, as I viewed it much more favorably. And, I do believe that I have made the right choice, without question. But, little did I know, what would go into my average day and the adventures that were ahead of me, as I went through my classes at TAMU-Commerce.
Counseling classes in college consist of much theory, history, and then some practical listening skills honed, as I was assigned to work with other counselors, recording our efforts for posterity. (Those tapes WILL resurface when I run for President, I am sure.) I learned how to be still, focus on the person in front of me, interject appropriate comments, keep a supportive affect, and worked diligently to avoid "closed ended" questions. I was very fortunate to be hired during the time I was taking my classes, so I was able to put into practice my training on the listening part and  the sitting quietly in conversations with students, while others had to rely on sporadic exposure and balance their teaching jobs. I had to go from a very directive personality to a much more empathetic manner, and this I am still working on, on a daily basis.
Yet, there was a wide gap in my expectation and the reality of my job duties. I was very lucky to have a great set of mentors and veterans to work with, in a district that is considered to be one of the top in the state and an economically upscale place in Midlothian. From inside I discovered that there is a whole layer of life going on, and that perfection and women vacuuming in pearls was Beaver's world, not mine.
My job has included helping new students transition from their previous school, quite often in flight from a divorce or financial downturn. "Temporary residency" is a term in high demand at our school.  I have had two students die at the hand of drunk drivers, and I went to classrooms to tell the news, 7 times in one day, and offer support, and then attend the funerals. I drive by the roadside cross and graduation teddy bear of one everyday.
 More and more students need school supplies, and I work to get them what they need or communicate to teachers their plight.  There are students who have tried to harm themselves or others, and there have been painful phone calls to make, facilitating treatment outside  the school. Truancy and misbehavior and dropping out are daily occurrences, and my job is address, correct and prevent those, the best I can, or I try to help with the next move, when they leave us. Parents have set in my office and pleaded for help, or they have viciously verbally attacked teachers or their own student. In some cases, more and more, it seems, parents have simply walked away or abandoned their children, and more students "couch surf" than ever.
There is constant paperwork to complete, with schedule changes frantic and complex the first month of the year, and then again to start the second semester. Transcripts must be checked and re-checked, and graduation plans finalized, with my math skills called into use to determine the appropriate "plan." I have convinced several to hang in there for another semester or even an extra year to finish. I have lost several others. Testing begins in October with the PSAT and TAKS retests, picks up steam again in the 4th Six Weeks, and then culminates in May with AP and the new EOC exams, which I can't fathom how they are going to fit. This often involves sheer manual labor, with movement of tests boxes, counting of materials, packing and rolling giant carts. Test anxiety creeps up during testing with some students, and we also wrangle those teachers who aren't at their best during the mundane moments.
Special nights during the year include orientation for freshmen, graduation path/separation anxiety for seniors, and a College and Career Night with 80 plus schools. We go to classrooms to do guidance on testing, on credits, on planning, on goal setting, on the PSAT, PLAN test, and we play a GPA game. I have been in charge of the ASVAB, the military qualification test, for the last 4 years, and we give the ACT on certain Saturdays and the SAT on two others. Recently, we have had added two nights of football game supervision. We speak to the faculty on different required issues, such as bullying and dating violence. We also help them with follow-through on CPS reports. There are weekly meetings to attend as a staff.
Things come to a grinding halt, some days, and I have to crank the Pandora to keep my adrenaline up. So, where does this leave me, as I ponder the question of did I make the right choice?  My small, still voice tells me that I am chose the right thing, when I do the one thing I was really trained to do, listen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Girls Just Want to Have Fun, But Do They Get To?

Having two young daughters of my own, I have begun to develop a growing terror at what their experiences may be like in high school in several years, based on what the ugly underbelly of the average day holds for many girls I work with in a different setting from the classroom, where they can flow in and out and often seemingly blend.
Having coached girls for 15 years and seen them transform into young women, I learned of their insecurities, their body image issues, but was often amazed at their fierce loyalties, their innate toughness, the emotional and physical toll that they were willing to submit to in order to not let down their teammates, their families, and even their silly old coach. They were willing to get smelly, dirty, even bloody in their quest to be great, and I was enthralled at watching them transform into tough minded physical specimens of young womanhood. Confidence and power and fulfilment was what I got to see so many times.
Now, dealing with and meeting with the "others" on my campus, I , witness more and more the frailty that comes with their daily life as females. Sexual harassment, bullying from both boys and other girls in a dozen different ways, impossible standards of size or beauty, and generalized anxiety that comes from being 1 in a 1, 000 or so seems to overwhelm too many. In the last year, I have had conversations or helped girls deal with issues with anxiety attacks over testing and college, frustration and anger with a father who "only feeds me because he has to", a hopeful addition through foster care to our school after a long time being expelled for violence against a teacher, and a dark-eyed knot of anger flaring from one who made threats about a gun being brought to school. Pregnancies occur from all kinds of financial backgrounds, and there is optimism but also white-eyed terror from what is to come. Girls "cut", they find themselves in tenuous and dangerous relationships out of a craving for affection, and they sometimes are kept in a state of suspended animation/puberty by fearful parents, and I relate to that last one too closely. For what the future holds, I can not enable a rosy hue, a secure end, nor shield them completely from harm.
My best effort is try and normalize the situations with these girls, be in the moment with them, and hope that that when they ride out the storm, that they aren't too battered to continue forward. That in this brave, new world, only a few generations from a set pathway for females, that they embrace the opportunities in education and career that so many are now able to grasp. That their armor is forged from within and is of unbreakable strength. That they don't just survive but thrive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Prayer In Schools? As Long As There Are Tests, There Always Will Be.

As we get closer to the school year starting, I had an occasion to watch an episode of MTV's True Life on a lazy Saturday, and there was a feature on a young athlete, who had decided to forego home schooling to pursue more opportunity in the local public school, and under questioning, he believed that he would be fully equipped to handle the "worldly atmosphere". His story is not an unusual one, as at last count, there were about 300 thousand or so students in Texas who were homeschooled at some point, and many were for religious purposes. Keeping away from the evil influences in the public schools seems to be a driving force. This often puzzles me, because in my experience, religion and religious belief are alive and well on public school  campuses, despte the claims that banning "prayer in school" has led to a banishment of God Himself.
In my school I have observed that there are no less than 4 groups that meet before or after school to pray, to sing, to hold mini-worship services, from different denominations or in an all-inclusive manner (Christian) that is open to all. Every day there is a moment of silence that is clearly seen by all as a time of quiet prayer, and this is enforced quite consistenly across the campus. There is a Baptist backed mentoring group that works with "at-risk" students on a regular basis, and I have seen many community religous leaders come and eat lunch with students in the cafeteria. Bible Literacy is taught as a popular elective, and there is a religous service, Baccalaureate, for graduating seniors just before graduation.
It was my experience as a coach that most teams wanted to pray together before games, although I felt it my responsibility to step outside the room or away from the circle where it was taking place, so as not to condone it and make anyone that didn't share mutual beliefs to feel uncomfortable or judged. The nature of that reality, of course, was that every single student that I ever coached, always took part, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them, so that they felt connected or didn't want to risk being singled out.
I will confess that when I am speaking with student or parents and death occurs or there is great tragedy such as a cancer diagnosis, I try to assure that I am keeping them in my thoughts, when they know it means prayers. It is an intrinsic part of who I am, and I don't feel that spirituality, commonality, is threatening to those students I work with, although they may be coming from a place far away from that. They seek a connection beyond a physical presence more often than not.
Would all this be different if I worked in a school that had many Mulsim or Jewish students or both? That is a question that intrigues me, and I wonder when and if that might occur in my career. I know that our demographic is ever shifting, as a more Catholic presence is among our student body. Many don't come from any place of belief or church affiliation. The question for me, and this is a daily challenge: does my light shine? Mother Theresa may say it best: I know God will not give me anything I can't handle.  I just wish that He didn't trust me so much. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teach Your Children Well? Of Course, But It Isn't News.

As teachers get ready to report after a long, hot and busy summer, I wanted to clarify a few things about our profession, which I consider to be the most noble and quite possibly currently under attack more than any other. Every day near the end of the school year, it seemed, there was a news story about a criminal act regarding teachers, mostly of a sexual nature. Of course, the precious mission that teachers have often heightens the spotlight, and I wince knowing that one teacher who acts from a place of evil in their heart tarnishes the thousands who toil so hard. With full disclosure, I will say that I have seen my share of miscreants. And, then there are those who do our profession a grave disservice by not operating at full capacity. (I have been guilty of this, especially during the busiest times of seasons when I was coaching.)
I don't say this to inflame but to acknowledge that not all teachers are created equal, and not all have a purity of heart and a sense of purpose that drives them. I have known slack jawed yokel coaches who try to only push PLAY and pedophile alternative certification "second career"  wannabees who wear too much cologne to school. Some have wanted immediate gratification and thrown their hands up at the grind and the dedication it takes and rely on others for their lesson plans, and ease through their days on texting or going online to chat about the movie they are going to see. I worked with a lady who stayed drunk most of her days and muttered and slurred instructions and was confused by another teacher for an eccentric custodian, and I knew a prominent coach who dallied in "aides" early in my career who washed his car and appreciated his attention. An instructor long overstayed her welcome and began to curse at students and staff, and another bodyslammed a student who teased him one time too often. Dress code violators, slackers at putting in grades or turning in lesson plans, habitual "tardy to the party" ditzes, these have all made my acquaintance. AND, they are the vast exception to the rule.
Most coaches I have known have been diligent disciplinarians and been the mainstay of their campuses, taking on all learners and making a real difference in the classroom. Most teachers I know that have been through alternative certification programs, including my own wife, bring a fresh perspective and a meticulous work ethic quite often that carried over from their first careers as engineers or retired members of the military. They stay late, arrive early, go the extra mile or TWO, as we say at MHS, and they have a tremendous capacity for heart and humor and a love for their jobs and their students. Most are continuous learners, volunteer for committees, go to events to support their students and work tirelessly to make sure students feel cared for on a daily basis. MOST are wonderful examples to their students that goes far beyond lesson plans.
They spark interest, they inspire, and they are the foundation not only of their schools but their communities, and they will leave lasting legacies far beyond a single school year. Their moments are sweeter upon reflection, with time, and they are more precious because often they do it without ever truly knowing the fruits of their labors. They go on year after year, not making the news anywhere. Quietly, they breathe deep and go into the summer.  And, then they rest, recharge, sleep a little late, and they come back and do it again.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Year In The Life

It's drawing closer and closer...that first day of school will be here in less than three weeks, and soon it will all begin. My experience has led me to believe that the year is to be planned for, and that a good, steady pace is essential. Burning too bright can lead to disaster.
The school year definitely has an ebb and flow to it, as well, while I am thinking of that easy "9 months" that educators work, with a pace that is never a consistent flow, but rather short, dramatic bursts with long ennui and a dash of hysterical glee thrown in for good measure. The year starts with such promise in August with new clothes, new rules, new campuses for so many, and there is an excited, frantic quality as kids flow in seemingly forever and promptly get lost on their way to their homeroom. Schedule changes abound as students figure out that the summer assignment WAS necessary to be successful in P-AP or AP courses or if the reality sets in that they may have already taken that particular course and been succcessful enough to gain credit. We deal with the invariable "teacher hates me", and sometimes it is too true, or the all important lunch schedule takes first precedence, so the con begins to get the same lunch as their "boo".
Finally, things solidify, and most students are at least mildly successful, and then the WALL of expectations looms suddenly on the road for too many, as assignments are due the next day, projects require more time than HALO, and the test that wasn't studied for becomes a 13 or 42 or 56 (which is bragged about), and the failures start to pile up. An October break brings fried foods at the fair and some breathing room and a dash of excitement, but it is a long time to Thanksgiving, and the PSAT does not thrill or amuse. Thanksgiving does come finally, and  MISD's choice to have it weeklong is almost criminal in  that it allows for a completely stupifying time. The first day back is a running in mud experience that goes on forever, and it can be a day of great transition, as I have seen marriages break up, grandparents die, jobs get lost, and addresses change at a pace barely equaled by the beginning of the second semester.
Finals this year will come before Christmas again, and I get the feeling that there is a bit of panic amongst the staff to get all done sufficiently before the break, which is two weeks of bliss and wonder and a rest of weary bones and psysches. Oh, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Breaks come much less frequently in the second half of  the year, with Spring Break a storied time of excess and sun, and I hear that students sometimes have fun, too. There is a warmth and ease of the pace on the campus, and then there is a melee in the cafeteria with fists thrown and  hair pulled, as girls can and do fight over shiftless boys. Police get involved on the modern campus today, and I have seen Tasers and handcuffs make an appearance. I saw a principal walk back behind the police who had two under control carrying what looked to be a small dog but turned out to be a torn out weave.
 Many shut down and get their excuses ready to try and avoid summer school, while Seniors try to make their final push a meaningful one and some fall short, but most make it out the door, with a firm push from their teachers and counselors. There is a hubbub and papers fly and tears flow and screams of mirth are heard, and another year ends, with just a whiff of satisfaction from most educators but a sense of relief pervades.
And, then, as the sun sets in a stadium full of 8000 adoring people for the 500 plus who have survived and sometimes thrived, and speeches are made, and then the lights go out, so the fireworks can start, and young men and women run like kindergarteners in the dark to grab a friend and a view, I gain strength and peace and think of future years ahead with a calm resolve.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Here's To Dress Codes!

With school starting in three weeks or so, my thought have turned to Back to School shopping for clothes. I am thinking one new pair of khakis will do for me. Tan, of course.
One of the best days of my career? The announcement that ties were no longer required as a part of my professional dress. For much of my first 15 years in education, I was required to wear a tie and dress slacks and dress shirt in  the classroom with a rare exception of wind pants and a colored shirt. I once had to change twice a day, as I taught, coached, taught, then coached again. I almost developed a resistance to deodorant.  It was quite often a relief to have a game to go  to, as I could stay in one set of clothes. With the advent of a more modern approach and integration into the realities of the professional world, polos, sweater vests, jeans on certain days, and even a t-shirt for a special cause have become normal and acceptable during the work day.
 I believe that it is quite often freeing, makes students and parents who are more often than not,  not dressed in "Sunday clothes" more relaxed and with a sense of connection. It is a branding, also, of a team, when done right, with all dressed in black bonded together, for appearance and for purpose. The relaxation has made for better morale, in my experience, with consistently high professional standards not suffering. Special days for fundraising causes has led to Jeans Days. Now, piercings and tattoos and too much cleavage or tight clothing beyond breathability or even oddly colored hair, that is a generation or two away from being acceptable in my school district and most, I think, but that time will most certainly come. (Parents are leading the way in those areas, as they quite often dress as if they are going to the bar after their academic conference or registration meeting.)
 The key connection will be made, in humble opinion, with the fact that many churches now have youth ministers with tattoos, and "Sunday clothes" does actually mean jeans and boots and a polo or nicely pressed t-shirt. I saw a pallbear with a "gimme cap on not long ago. Church will determine what is acceptable with state in a liberating manner. Some irony there, I think.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer Vacation? 8 to 4? Not So Much.

Three reasons to teach? June, July and August. Three more? Spring Break and Thanksgiving and Christmas Vacation! This has been the age old mantra repeated by teachers certainly but also, I believe, by those who would denigrate educators. With so much leisure time they say, you don't necessarily need a professional salary but something more "reasonable." The really smart students become something more financially worthy, say, a doctor or lawyer.( Of course, they do have their gigantic student loans to pay off, also, so they need the money more. Right?). Whatever the justifications, the truth about time spent as an educator is incalcuable and doesn't have a clock-punching quality to it. Looking at a average school day of 8 to 4, most teachers I know arrive 30 to 45 minutes before that as a rule. Teachers at the high school level get roughly 25 minutes for lunch or less and one planning period, hopefully, of about 40 minutes. Tutoring is before school and quite often after, and when the planning period or tutoring time is taken by parent meetings, ARDs, 504 meetings, site-based meetings, club sponsorship, faculty meetings, curriculum meetings, tech training, very little planning or paper grading gets done. Teachers at my school must input grades on PowerSchool on an almost daily basis, update their Homework Online, which is lesson plans and PowerPoints and lectures notes for students, and turn in lesson plans on a weekly basis, so much of that must be done before or after school, and that is often from home. So, that 40 hour work week? For the most part, 50 plus hours or more. Add in the exhaustive task of maintaining discipline, teaching difficult concepts over and over again, and the sheer pace of sustained bursts as periods change, and therein will lie the reason so many burnout of the job. Now, as the school year has stretched into June on one end, and there is always the need for dreaded inservices and meetings before school starts, and the school year really starts the second week of August, the days begin to move closer together, and the summer becomes more of an illusion. Throw in week-long trainings or AVID conventions or summer school or Summer Academy, and the time shrinks more. (In a week or so, Amy will go to San Antonio to finish her THIRD week of training.) Watching Amy "wind down" by grading papers on a Friday night, so that she can enjoy Saturday afternoon, answering e-mails from angry parents from home, updating websites during a free moment, the reality, when rest comes, is that I, like so many, am making it on adrenaline and caffeine and sheer desire. The party never really stops.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Parents Just Don't Understand

Having reached that part of the year where schools starts to intrude back into our conscious thought, I had to reflect on the need for "battle" with the four scholars at my house, and I do believe firmly that parenting is not something I get to quit doing, at any point, sadly, even though I Love Lucy is particularly calming, and I have reached a Zen state of relaxation.
Parenting in whatever form it may take, aunty, mom and dad, grandmother  or even great grand mother, is the absolute foundation of student success in most cases. Stability at home, with expectations and boundaries and discipline and support, can transform an average student into a wunderkind, and  the lack of the above can most certainly sink the mission before it is started. Working in a a school that has multiple means of knowledge of academic success, such as PowerSchool or Homework Online and Facebook and Twitter and many websites and robo-calling and constant feedback would seem to be almost overkill, but in many cases, the assumption that all are plugged in may be fundamentally flawed, as so many don't seem to have a clue about what is going on with their student until time has passed to a bad outcome. Emergencies seem to occur, when calamity itself could have been afforded with some simple due diligence. It is a ponderer.
My speculation takes me down a road too certain. My belief is that the gap is that there are no bedtimes in place and no restrictions on Halo and unlimited texting and cars that the parent couldn't afford until they were 30, and so many go on vacation when school is in session. I have failed to stay amazed at the number of times that I have seen parents simply give up when things get tough, when the law gets involved, when truancy letters arrive, when summer school tuition is due. It is the painstaking, diligent, hardnosed, caring parent whose student doesn't fit the high achieving mode that touches and surprises me and more importantly acts as a anchor for their child. This doesn't end at 40, much less 14, and those that hang in there, even feeling called to do an often thankless job, have my respect and affection and open admiration.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Money Does Make the School Go Round

More money helps in education and anyone who says otherwise has an agenda to either save money or attack the idea that public schools can work effectively. Air condition and heat a room properly, have the top technological advances such as Whiteboards or projectors or the use of computers, and you will educate better. Smaller class sizes means that each student gets more attention, and that the teacher is able to grade faster, give feedback quicker and have better classroom management. This is not brain science, yet witness the Legislature move to attack our schools as a means of  "cutting fat" or making schools become efficient. This year saw pay freezes and cutbacks and school closings, all over the state. Next school year may be worse.
This, as we implement a brand new series of tests in the STAAR, a 400 MILLION plus investment in supposed, new rigor. The Texas Legislature, in their wisdom and goaded on by Tea Partiers, hard right wingers and with the willful compliance of too many administrators and school boards looking for a easy way out, has now placed the fate of veteran teachers the honor and fair treatment of their careers in the hands of principals, as there will be no need to respect experience and longevity will not be considered as a quality, when it comes to contract time.  Watch the success and output of our schools become less successful after that, desipite the fevered work of educators, who will deal with a pressure not felt before in decades and less prestige and security, all at once.
I will have a freeze on my pay next year, while health insurance goes up 10%. This may mean I contribute less to retirement, go out to eat less, put off braces for one of the girls for another year, if possible. I can't put a dollar value on what I gain intrinsinctly from doing my job, but I don't think I will be able to hide my monthly anxiety about not feeling that I can see a light at the end of the tunnel where the feeling of financial security awaits.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

It's A Female's World!

Education is a female's world, even at the high school level, as the vast majority of teachers and staff and even a good portion of administrators are women, and this will increase exponentially over the coming years,  as more females are in college and going on to leadership positions. This can make for some truly wonderful daily moments, as my experience has been that women love to eat well, care about their appearance,  the daily niceties more, and while it may seem sexist, from a male perspective, they often  look more professional in an attractive, personable way to me. I have often been the only man in the room for meetings, for trainings, and I have rarely been embarrassed by their candor or the topic of conversations, (blushing on a few occasions but trying not to show it). and while it has been a gradual and steady adjustment over the years, I have reached a great comfort zone with the agendas and handouts with a steady balance of personal asides ("What shirt are we wearing tomorrrow?"), and there is a postive vibe more often than not. I will say that women in general have an endurance to do the job more than men, in my experience, although that passion can get wearyng, also. But, my mentors in recent years have been women, and I have never gone without insight when I have asked for it or help when it is needed. I will say that this has placed a firm femiinist streak in me, and I will be very accepting of a future political shift.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day To Day Joy

Day to day joy must be there for you to be an effective anything in a public school, because it is absolutely essential in developing relationships and in giving you a buoyancy that will last, in the face of much that is drudgery and mundane routine. There is always something or someone to laugh about or with through the course of most school days, and there is an excitement in connecting with students when they do well, when they understand a concept, when they show growth of any kind. I enjoy looking at yearbooks and do comparisons on how different the freshmen Joe Bob is from the senior Joe Bob. There is so much kinetic energy on a high school campus that if you don't feel it, you are either numb or in the wrong place. Kids sense this immediately, and they will very carefully, irrevocably, shut you down if you don't possess it. Thankfully, I haven't had that happen to me often, but I do see it more clearly now that I am outside of the classroom when I am talking to kids about their teachers. They will run through a wall for someone who cares about them and can convey their job about them. They will go through the motions or fall far short for someone who simply shows up and glowers and reads the PowerPoint. Finding those moments of humor, exhibiting that passion for your subject, having a easy manner with students may be straining and take a lot of work, but the end result can't be more satisfying. And, you won't have good days, because something will go wrong when you are on the way to work or you might be struggling with the flu and still trudging on, or somebody on the front row might get sarcastic with you, but your ability to keep "performing" will speak volumes to your students about fortitude and resilience in life.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Sad Reality

You do this long enough, and you are going to lose students. In the time that I have been teaching and counseling, I have had students die by drunk drivers hitting them while they were going home and driving carefully, and while one was riding his bike after work on a lonely stretch of road with a friend. One seemingly blazingly happy girl who played basketball for me took a gun and killed herself shortly after quitting her job. 4 wheeler accident, drowning, and being hit after running a stop sign onto an odd stretch of road. Another was on the back of a motorcycle and her boyfriend hit a rock while going 100. After every single one, I have felt gut punched and sorrowful and a little lost, but almost disconnected because more often than not, it is the kids who need to be able to grieve. You lose students to other schools as their parents' marriages disintegrate, and they move. Some have such dysfunction at home that they have no shot at functioning at school, and they drift away or go abruptly in a discipline firestorm or running from truancy. I don't ever get used to any of those things, but I have learned to keep moving forward and try to help those I can help and those that want to be helped or supported.

Let Me Introduce Myself

My name is David Moore, and I live in a small town in Texas, while working in a large DFW area school district. I just finished my 4th year as a high school counselor, and I just grabbed the plaque from the district that signified my 10th year of service there.
21 years total is my collective experience in Texas schools, with four stops along the way, as I coached for 15 years, before settling into my current district and changing my pathway, as my life had changed. Adding the 4th child was the final decisionamaker in getting off the playing field and court for me, as was the completion of my wife Amy's education and new job as a classroom teacher. I plan on detailing some of her experiences as well through this venue, with her approval.
Every now and again, actually, too many nights, I have trouble sleeping. This generally runs from about early August to the middle of June, with some short intervals of sleep gorging around holidays and the infrequent Sunday afternoon nap. In part, I know it is certainly everyday worries or concerns or irritations or even positive adrenaline rushes from the kids and Amy and her day, but more often than not, it is that I feel my brain is percolating with too many moments to do with my day at school. There are some things that I feel I need to get out, and maybe this will help that, so I thought I would jot down some of the things I have learned. Maybe then I will snoozle like the kids, which is instantaneous, but I would settle for the 8 hours that Amy gets, only, I don't want to wake up at 4 and watch The Portrait of Dorian Gray or some such. Let me just say that I love my job, who I work with, where I work, and what we try to do. Maybe I am just missing the scoreboard showing me with more points at the end of the game.