A Long Overdue Letter to My Son as You Begin Your Fourth Year of Teaching

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Matthew,

 I felt there were things that I wanted to say to you and the letter format worked best for me. So I did what good teachers do, borrowed an idea.(from you!)

I’m the one who told you that good reporters make a difference and help people.  I remember that conversation like it was yesterday, you were in your final year at the University of Maryland, a journalism major, a talented writer and enjoying a great run as the director of WMUC radio station as well as doing sportscasting for many UMD  teams.  We were talking online and you told me that you wanted to do something to help people. I knew what you meant and wasn’t shocked.  I knew that you loved NY and you would never leave it to do a journalism stint in a small town. I knew that you enjoyed your summer work at camp and that you really made an impact on the children that you worked with. I knew that you learned quickly, and absorbed and applied whatever was presented to you. I knew  that you were insightful, introspective and reflective. You had many qualities of a good teacher, so why was I concerned?   Going to school again and postponing your entry into the world of work was a part of it, but only a small part.  As someone in the system for over 30 years,nearing the end of my career, I saw that things were changing and not for the better. We were led by a chancellor and mayor who were business people with no knowledge of education. We were being inundated with new programs, mantras, buzzwords, etc, that weren’t educationally sound for the children. Teachers were demoralized, blamed for things that they had no control over. New administrators from the Leadership Academy were selected to run schools. Many of them had limited experience in a classroom, no less out of a classroom as an administrator. Seasoned principals were frustrated and those who could retire, did. The chancellor got rid of the true educators in his cabinet and replaced them with people who were smart and savvy about business, but not about educating children.  Yes, the climate was changing and not for the better, and I was concerned about you being in the middle of this muddle. I knew that you, as a new teacher, would go in with your idealistic view point and a headful of fresh ideas of how education should be.  I was worried that you would be hit by all of this and not be able to plod through it.  But you showed me differently. You showed me that you were there for the children, that they were your focus.  You showed me that you were a natural.  You embraced the children and took responsibility for their learning, academically and socially. You instilled a sense of values that would help them to succeed, not only in school, but in the world at large. You led by example. You quickly learned that a teacher wears many hats, and you wore many of them.  You spent hours with the guidance counselor, discussing the issues that your young charges were facing, trying to figure out how you could make it better for them. You baked for them, you laughed with them, you sang with them and of course, you taught them.  And after your very successful first year, due to the hiring freeze in general education, you were without a job.  Your co-workers rallied in support, the assistant principal called her contacts in her union and your principal tried to figure out a way to keep you. She knew what she would be losing without you being there.  In one year, you made an impact that was felt by many. Without you even realizing it, you were a change agent in your school.  All that being said, you were without a job until someone left and your principal was able to put you into a class, full time, as a day to day substitute. You were paid daily and were without medical benefits. Not the ideal situation but at least you were working and continuing to make an impact on kids. You grew this year, you were more confident.  Your lessons were more creative and crisper. You wrote a play that your class performed to rave reviews. Again, you instilled a sense of values in your students that would help them to succeed, not only in school, but in the world at large.  And, after your very successful second year, due to the hiring freeze in general education, you were again without a job.  You realized that if you wanted to stay in this profession that you loved, you would have to get enough credits in special education and quickly pass the needed exams  Since there was no hiring freeze in that area, your principal promised you a job, as long as you met the needed criteria before school began.  So back to school you went. You took your coursework very seriously and learned and absorbed whatever you could.  You passed the exams after taking one class and garnered the necessary credits in order to be hired.  And you were. Oh boy, as worried as I was when you first entered the profession, I was more worried now, but for different reasons. The world of special education was new to you and as much as your sister and I tried to help, you weren’t ready to hear what we were saying. You had your own ideas about how things should be done, which was admirable, but not necessarily the best for the children in your charge. You taught similarly to the way you taught the past 2 years because that’s what worked before.  Your rude awakening came after the first formal observation by your principal.  She knew you were a talented teacher but pointed out that different strategies needed to be used with the children in your class.  She wasn’t thrilled with what she saw.  When you met with her, you reminded her that the qualities that she saw in you over the last two years didn’t go away because you were teaching a group of younger children with disabilities.  You realized that this observation and meeting was a wakeup call. You regrouped, sought assistance from the coaches and more experienced teachers, reached out to your assistant principals for support and did intervisitations to observe the best practices of other teachers. You even let your sister and me help you out with lesson planning and  teaching strategies. You changed your way of doing business and your students benefited, as did you. They experienced a year of growth, academically and socially.  Again, you instilled a sense of values in them that would help them to succeed, not only in school, but in the world at large. Your principal saw the improvement in you and acknowledged it.  It again, turned out to be a  very successful year.

  So now you are entering your 4th year of teaching, and  for the first time, you are on the official organization sheet and know the room you’ll be in. Although you are teaching a different grade, you will have some of the same children as last year. Your teaching is much more solid and focused.  I am not worried about you, I know that you will do a wonderful job and have another successful year. What’s most exciting for me,though, is to see a marked difference in you. You have changed. You have embraced a philosophy and mind set that I am so proud of.  You have become the advocate that your students need. You believe in them and want them to succeed and with your support, they will.  You will show those colleagues who are naysayers, what your students can do. Your plans to introduce the world of blogging, to continue to skype and to have your students become photographers, reporters and scientists, will blow the minds of those who think kids with disabilities are not capable.  Your theme, “Field of Dreams,”opens up endless possibilities for your students.  Endless possibilities for you as well.

So what’s the purpose of all this? I guess that I wanted to let you know how happy I am  that you followed your heart and made the decision that was right for you. I am confident that you are in the right profession. I know this is going to be an exciting, creative, innovative year for you and your students.  I can’t wait to watch it evolve and hopefully be a small part of it.  I would be remiss in my motherly duties if I didn’t offer some advice, so here it is. Don’t get frustrated with some of the things you’ll have to deal with. As hard as it may be, realize that there are things that you can’t control. Just stay positive and focus on what you want the outcomes to be. Take charge of what you can control. Remember, changes don’t happen immediately and often they are measured in baby steps. But that’s okay.  Positive changes are worth waiting for. You know that.

I am very proud of you.

Love,

Mama Ray

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The Excitement is Contagious

August 15, 2011 2 comments

It’s back to school time and the excitement is contagious. Members of my PLN are tweeting their wonderful ideas for this coming school year.  As I read their blogs, I borrow some ideas and links that I will share with my student teachers.

I am experiencing this excitement on a personal level as well. My son, @MrMatthewRay,approached his principal about using Twitter as a tool for professional development. Her receptive response spurred him to action and he is in the process of developing a presentation for the staff in his school.  Aside from that he is planning for his new class, intent on having them become bloggers, participate in the global read aloud, skype with another class and use flip and digital cameras to record their observations, work and to just take pictures.  My daughter, @teachallkids, just completed a user friendly IEP manual for the staff at her school. She went to advanced training in the use of the Smart Board and already wrote some interactive lessons for her students.  She also attended a class where she could learn to use her iPAD more effectively with her students.

As I read, watch and listen, I wonder how I fit into this.  Being retired, I don’t have the thrill of planning for a new school year for my staff and students.  That’s okay,though, I did it for many years, and though it was exciting and fun,I am glad that it’s not my responsibility any longer. I’m also grateful that I don’t have to worry about how the common core standards  fit into the curriculum of children who do not take standardized tests. Enforcing things that are not educationally sound for the students is over. Spewing “the party line” and saying things that I don’t believe is a thing of the past.  Truth be told, I don’t miss any of this.

What I realized is that, I do fit into the excitement of the approaching new school year.  Being retired I still  have the thrill of planning for a new school year, not for a school of staff and students, but for me.  So what will I do?  I want to be realistic in my expectations of what I can accomplish, so I will start small, hoping to surpass my goals and add to them as I go through this year. 

Since I work with student teachers,I need to do some planning for them. I want to expose them to the wonders of Twitter and the benefits of developing a PLN.  I hope to borrow my son’s PD on the topic so they can have a brief overview.  As part of their assignment, they will be asked to join Twitter and follow some people.   For each topic that we cover in our weekly seminar, I will ask them to find a blog that is related to it and share their thoughts  in their journal. I will encourage them to write a blog post once in a while. I will alert them to the chats that are available and hope that they partake in some. I will tell them about the free webinars and hope that one or two fit into their busy schedules.  I will introduce them to the incredible wealth of materials from @cybraryman1 and the world of advocacy from a parent’s perspective @specialedadvice.  I will ask them to think about how they can include their new found knowledge in the classes they are student teaching in, and in time, their own class. I know that during the term, more will come up and we will add to our bag of tricks.

So I guess, in planning for my student teachers, I outlined a plan for me as well.  Since teachers lead by example, I will do all of the things that I am asking them to do. We will learn from each other and with each other. Yes, the excitement is contagious and I, too, am looking forward to the new school year.

Re-entering the World of Twitter

July 30, 2011 2 comments

One of the things that I haven’t done since I lost my mother in January is to use Twitter.  I’m not sure of the reason, but whatever it was, I felt that I just couldn’t connect at that time.  Of course, I continued to read the myriad of educational emails that crossed my path on a daily basis and  even tweet some things that were of interest to me.  I promoted the value of Twitter to my student teachers and encouraged them to join.  I continued to retweet the blogs and photos posted by my son. But that was it. It just wasn’t the right time.

Throughout those months my son consistently tried to  convince me to go back on to Twitter.  He reminded me that I had people in my PLN who had a lot of important things to say.  He reminded me how much I enjoyed reading some of the blogs.  He reminded me that  I liked to be a part of #spedchat. He was right but I refused, always with some excuse, usually saying that I didn’t have the patience for it.  It just wasn’t the right time.

That was until yesterday, the first day of #RSCON3.  I participated in #RSCON2 and remember being in awe of the fact that people from all over the world were part of this exciting  day of sharing and learning.  Even though I  took so much away from that conference, I’m not sure that I would have participated in #RSCON3 had it not been for my son, @MrMatthewRay, and @pernilleripp presenting WisconsiNewYork: Collaborating and Connecting.   How could I not watch this presentation?   There was no question in my mind that I wanted to hear and see Matthew and Pernille in action.   When I signed on to RSCON3   viewing their presentation was my sole intent.  Something, though, drew me to other presentations.  Listening to the committed organizers and eager participants who want to make a  positive change  in the field of education was inspiring.   I was again struck by the fact that people from all over the world were learning together.   As usual, I garnered many  practical ideas to share.  But my real motivation for today was to hear Matthew and Pernille.  Watching them was wonderful.  Their organized, animated presentation took the audience through the steps necessary to replicate their skyping project.   They spared no details as they gave the listeners practical advice and suggestions.   Their honesty about their concerns was shared as well as lessons learned by their students and each of them .  I beamed with pride as I watched and listened to my son. This was the first time that he taught an audience of adults and he did well.  You can view the slides from their presentation here.

In reflecting, I realized that Matthew has figured out the value of Twitter and how to make it work for him.   He’s selective in what  he uses it for but  has made it an integral part of his learning and professional growth.  He truly has the right idea.  So kudos to you, my son, and a big thank you too.  You reintroduced me to the wonders of Twitter and I am committed to get back into it.  Not through immersion, but gradually, so I too, can  make it an integral part of my learning and professional growth.  Now the time is right.

Beginning a New School and Knowing When It’s Time to Say Good-bye

December 5, 2010 2 comments

I always loved my school.  It was started before the first special education law , PL94-142,  when there was no entitlement to a free and appropriate public school education until age 21.  Students with developmental disabilities remained in an elementary school setting until age 17.  At that time, if they were independent travelers, they could attend an occupational training center to learn skills that would hopefully help them to get a job.  Students who could not travel by themselves were out of luck, they stayed at home.  That was until a sage man, Murray Beer, saw the need to have these young adults continue in a school setting.  He wrote a grant and thanks to Murray, the Brooklyn ASTC was born in 1975.

We were called the Adult Skills Training Center, a small school, 3 classes and about 15 staff.  We recruited students from the neighborhood and from the nearby Brooklyn Developmental Center.  We ran the gamut of students who aged out of their neighborhood schools and were sitting home watching television or hanging out on the streets getting into trouble to those who never attended a public school and under the Willowbrook  Consent Decree, were getting on a school bus for the first time.

I remember coming to the building with my colleagues about a week before the arrival of the students so we could plan and set things up.  The excitement was incredible, with energy and ideas abounding. We were going to do wonders with our unserved students.  We were trailblazers.   We collaborated and shared ideas and waited eagerly for the day that our students would arrive.  I still remember the first day,  some  students came via school bus, some by themselves,  wandering in to see what was going on, and others with parents who were so grateful that there was somewhere for their child to go during the day.  There was a zero rejection policy, all were welcomed.

We developed our own curriculum, consisting of functional academics and life skills.  We billed ourselves as a community based school whose mission was to promote social growth and to help our students to become as independent as possible.  Parents loved the idea, they yearned for their young adults to be independent and get out into the community.

Budget was an issue, there was little money for supplies. We scrounged for donations and used our own funds as well.  We wanted to do the right things for our students.  The staff worked as a team, pitching in whenever and wherever the need arose, handling behavioral issues, sharing students, and switching them informally so all could receive the proper supports.  There was no territoriality, we were a family and we wanted to do what worked for the students.   Parents were always welcomed and were encouraged  to begin a parent association.

Staying late or coming in early was never an issue.  We were so committed to our students, that was all that mattered.

We completed our first year, filled with learning , celebrations and happiness.  As we made plans for our second year, the dreaded budget cuts ensued.  I was not a permanent teacher, I lost my job; the fabulous  unit coordinator  lost her job and other staff was shifted around.  Staff excessed from other schools would be assigned in September.  What a terrible way to  end a glorious year of growth for students and staff alike.

As luck would have it, I was called back to my job at the end of September.  (This would happen for another 2 years until I became  a permanent  teacher.)   Like in most schools, there were personnel changes, some for the better, some for the worse.   At times things were difficult.   For me, what was  never difficult was to stay focused on the mission of the school, to increase social skills and teach functional academics to make our students as independent as possible.  It made sense.

Over the next 30 years, the location of the school changed.  The name of the school changed.  The population of the school changed.  The  focus on academics changed.  The edicts from the various chancellors changed.   I remained with the school but my role and title changed.  The wording of our mission and vision statement changed.  What did not change was my belief in what  the school stood for or my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents and  of course, my commitment to being a trailblazer.  Throughout my career, I carried with me (and tweaked) the lessons that I learned in 1975 and am proud that I always was and still am a trailblazer.  Keeping focused on doing the right thing for my students made it so much easier.   Then came directives from the  last chancellor, via the district superintendent, that I knew were not educationally sound for my students.  I found words coming out of my mouth that were their beliefs, not mine.  I was lucky, I had the age and years to retire so I wouldn’t have to continue to spew or implement what I knew was wrong.  Making the decision to retire was not an easy one. I loved my school and what it had become but after  so many years in the field, compromising my beliefs was unthinkable.  So I decided retirement was the right choice for me.  And when I left my school for the last time, I walked out with my head held high, hoping that my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents helped to make an impact on their lives.  I know that it made an impact on mine.

Adding to My Own Bag of Tricks

September 19, 2010 6 comments

When my son suggested that I sign up for twitter, I couldn’t understand why.    He’s the one I rely on to show me the things I don’t know how do do on the computer.  If the dvr has to be set on the TV, it’s him again.  If we still had a VCR, you know who would be responsible.  It’s not like  I’m totally inept.  I learned enough of the basics of computer usage to do whatever I had to do at work or at home, and that was enough for me.

 I didn’t even know what twitter was.  He assured me that I would like it, that I could connect with other educators.  Still not knowing what he was talking about, I decided I had  nothing to lose  so I figured I’d give it a try.   After helping me to set up my account, my son  tried to explain the basics to me.   It’s amazing  how  this creative, patient, talented teacher forgets that he has  all of those qualities when he has to explain something to his mother.   Be that as it may, I, with his assistance, plodded through the initial use.   He suggested people that I could follow , which I was grateful for.   Then I tried to follow the tweets of  those people.   Oh my, not an easy feat.   As you know, those tweets come fast and furious and it is quite a challenge to read them all.    My initial reaction was, this is not for me, people are talking in stream of consciousness, it makes no sense.   Frustration was setting in and I just couldn’t make sense of my relationship to twitter.

The turning point for me was #spedchat.   Here I found my niche.  Though the tweets are fast, the topics are interesting.   Since special education is my field, I felt that I could contribute some valid tweets.  It is clear that the people who come into this chat are caring, committed educators who want to make a difference in the lives of their students and their families.   Along with teachers,  parents, administrators, advocates, and  organizations, participate in this chat.   They are the pioneers of change who are questioning the system.  They are the innovators who understand the importance of not accepting the status quo.  They are the life long learners who soak up knowledge.   Some are new to the field and others are close to retirement, or like me, retired.   No matter what, they are the people who stimulate my thinking.   Reading  their ideas, sharing  thoughts and insights, offering suggestions,  is what twitter  is about for me.  My son, who is a third year teacher, but is teaching children with disabilities for the first time, participates in this chat as well.   I find myself looking forward to Tuesdays at 8:30PM (EST) to get involved in the lively, invigorating discussions .  Thanks to  @spedteacher for organizing these chats and  @damien613 for skillfully moderating them. 

The other part of twitter that I find intriguing is being able to speak to people who are all over the world.   How interesting it is to hear how schools in other countries operate but more interesting, to hear the commonalities amongst the  fabulous educators who  are striving for what is best for their students.  All this, without having to leave my home.

So as I reflect, I must admit, I still don’t get all about twitter that there is to know and I probably never will.  (Hopefully reading  Twitter for Dummies will help.)   What I do know is that I am learning more everyday.  I am directed to posts and blogs that are inspirational  and useful to read. (thanks to @gret for her last blog which inspired me to write this one).  I can make comments on the blogs of children in Argentina (kudos to @gret),  as I read their thoughts and dreams.  I can share information with hundreds of people at once and get immediate feedback. And to think,  I, who didn’t know what twitter was a few weeks ago, now has my own PLN.

   I plan to speak to my student teachers about the benefits of twitter as a way to enhance their knowlege and experiences.   I will  encourage them to sign up,  read some blogs, try some of the chats and develop their own PLN.   I will  tell them that this is a guaranteed way to add to their developing bag of tricks.  

  Many thanks to my son for sharing the innovations of twitter, encouraging me to blog. and adding  something extremely valuable  to his mother’s bag of tricks.

The Other Side of the Table

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of thoughts are going through my mind after being a part of the first #spedchat last night.  There were so many wonderful strategies and ideas shared by a very committed group of educators.  One of the discussions that I gravitated to focussed on  parents being involved in the IEP of their child.  This reminded me of a true encounter I had about 20 years ago.  I was a unit coordinator.   I was in charge of a few classes at an offsite of our school.  I was an experienced educator in the field of special education,  taught for many years, wrote a myriad of IEPS,  attended many trainings on the IEP process and did  turnkey trainings as well.

 I was asked by a colleague of mine,  Ms. D,  to accompany her to her son’s IEP conference at the Committee on Special Education.  The purpose of this meeting was to discuss  moving her son, who was already in a class for children with  disabilities, to a more restrictive environment.  His school felt that he wasn’t doing well in his current setting;  too many behavior issues.   Ms. D  thought  that I could help her negotiate the process and I was happy to assist.  Sure, I was a professional;  I held IEP meetings in the school many times;  I  knew how to write IEPs:  this would be simple.  Nothing could have prepared either one of us for what we encountered.

  We were greeted by a social worker who alleged knew Ms. D’s  son so well that he could make all of the recommendations for his educational future.  He rattled off the results of the tests, using terminology that was unfamiliar to Ms. D.   He listed all of the negative qualities of her 7 year old and made his case for why this child needed a more restrictive environment.   He monopolized the conversation and made Ms. D  feel like she was a bad, unconcerned parent.  (let me mention that Ms. D was a hardworking single  mother of 3, divorced from her husband, a drug abuser.)  If  Ms. D  asked a question, the answer was trite and flippant.   The psychologist  was a bit more compassionate  but certainly not an advocate.   I,  someone who is usually very verbal, was so shaken,  that I had little to say.  Ms. D and I left the meeting  feeling  angry and disheartened.  It was not the issue of her son being moved to a different school.  Ms. D felt that he would have greater supports and opportunities for success in an environment where the staff was more experienced in working with children with emotional disabilities.   She was optimistic about the change.  The issue for her was the way she was treated at the meeting.  The issue for me was the way she was treated at the meeting.

 As someone who takes every experience as a learning experience,  this was a big one.   I reflected on my school,  how we wrote IEPS,  how we embraced parents, how we made them feel (or not feel) welcome as partners in the education of their child and as stakeholders in the school,  how we valued their input and insights about their child…I realized that,  as much as I thought we were inclusive and welcoming,  there was certainly room for improvement.   Being on the other side of the table at that IEP conference taught me so much.

 A few things that I learned and believe:

 Parents need to be listened to,  no one knows their child better than they do.  They provide invaluable information that helps us to more completely understand and work with their child.

 Parents need to be acknowledged.  Though we may not always agree, we need to respect what the parent is saying.

 Parents need support.  Many have been beaten down by the system for  years,  told that their child is” less than” and made to feel that they are” less than” as well.  In our role as educators,  and in turn nurturers,  parents need nurturing too.

 Parents need ongoing information about the school,  its values, policies,  how the IEP process works and what their rights are.   Transparency is crucial.

 Parents need to learn and believe that they are the main advocate for their child;  their voice is stronger than any teacher’s or administrator’s.  Information about advocacy groups,  parent support groups and  agencies that provide service should be made available to them. 

 There is certainly much  more to add to this, which I hope some of you will. 

 So the end of this story:  Ms. D’s son flourished in his new school,  felt valued, and instead of getting a steady stream of negativity,  both son and mother received much positive feedback.   He is an adult now,  finished high school,  attended college and is a successful,  contributing,  working,  member of his family.  After the meeting I called the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education to complain about the lack of professionalism and insensitivity on the part of  the social worker and psychologist.  He assured me that he would address them.

Now,  over 20 years later,  I can thank that social worker and psychologist for the horrible way they conducted the meeting and treated Ms. D.   They certainly helped to change the way I  value and work with parents.

Back to School Books

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment

In my role as mentor to student teachers, I often find myself trying to share  practical skills with them; the things they don’t necessarily learn in their college courses but yet are so vital to their development as teachers.  To support their learning I send consistent forwards of relevant articles that I’ve come across as well as recommendations of  books that are “easy reads” and useful.

Periodically, through this blog, I will be doing the same.

Two books that I think are worthwhile “easy reads” for the novice or seasoned teacher, administrator or mentor are: 101 “Answers” for New Teachers and Their Mentors: Effective Teaching Tips for Daily Classroom Use by Annette L. Breaux and 7 Simple Secrets: What the BEST Teachers Know and Do by Breaux and Todd Whitaker. Both books share practical, easy to implement ideas and strategies to enhance learning for teachers and, in turn, their students. I am sure that you will find some tips in these books to add to your own bag of tricks.  I welcome your comments and feedback.