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Every Kentucky teacher needs a room with a view

It feels like it was about a hundred years ago. I faced a group of eighth graders, armed only with a 20-year-old grammar book full of practice sentences reinforcing obscure grammar rules that even I could barely understand.

I tried deploying the units I carefully designed in teacher school, my favorite built around Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Hmmm. These Tennessee twelve-year olds were not into Cat's Cradle or me.

Quickly deemed by my principal at a faculty meeting, “that crazy-ass Jewish hippie from California,” I found few companions—much less friends—among my colleagues. One social studies teacher was kind to me until he realized I wasn’t budging on that Jewish thing and concluded that I was destined for Hell.

My students? An equal mix of poor, rural white kids who lived near the school and middle-class, urban black kids who spent half their day on a bus to and from Nashville. They hated one another. They hated school. So did I.

What I did next—and how it flopped

During my third year, I advocated for an eighth grade Honors English class. If I could gather the kids who secretly yearned for a real academic experience, I reasoned, we could all learn something.

With my own money, I bought 25 copies of The Diary of Anne Frank. I hoped to bring my students to a place of commonality, to highlight the universality of suffering. Plus, they'd get a real live Jew in the room to make the story and history real. Then we'd get back to diagramming sentences.

Open house usually brought only two or three parents. That fall, I sat alone in my room, wearing my only suit, grading papers. Then suddenly, my room was filled with exquisitely angry parents. Their message? The Diary of Anne Frank was too challenging. I'd asked too much of their kids. I also heard a different, unvoiced concern—a much uglier one.

So I stood there, stunned, in a community of one, holding my breath.

I look back on that night and wish for a do-over.

I was so defensive. I answered every question with fear and anger instead of thoughtfulness. I wish I had listened more, asked more questions. Those parents came because they were mad, sure. But at the core of everything was our mutual desire that the kids learn, and I missed that rather obvious path to reconciliation.

But I survived—not just the night, but the next twenty years in this profession. I’ve taught in a prison, a middle school and, for the last sixteen years, at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Kentucky. I feel great warmth for my new(ish) Kentucky home.

The need for a broader view

Here’s something it’s taken me a while to realize: when we face the same struggles with the same people, we tend to invent the same solutions. It is stifling.

To do right by our students and ourselves, we require a larger community—a broader view.

A breakthrough occurred when I began to work toward National Board Certification with three other teachers in my department. Earning certification cracked the window a bit. Despite our various specialties, my colleagues and I had a common purpose and guiding framework, and the experience transformed us into a powerful local team.

Then, when our state implemented the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, I joined the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ)’s virtual community and found the window wide open. This community sought out and valued teacher voice—valued me as an expert and a learner—no longer an oxymoronic idea! Working with forward-thinking teachers from across the nation showed me the power in that often frightening word describing our new standards: “common.”

I know now that thousands of educators share my passion and enthusiasm. Share my frustrations. My view of what is best and what is possible in my classroom isn’t limited to what I witness in my own school, but instead can include the practices of educators all over the globe. Open to dissent and to myriad perspectives, CTQ helps me feel like I can breathe.

What’s possible in Kentucky

Within the Collaboratory are smaller lab spaces where teachers can collaborate and share with others in their geographic areas. The CTQ-KY lab offers an amazing opportunity. Right now, CTQ-KY includes almost seventy teachers. We are a “small class” in the 4,000-strong larger community of the Collaboratory.

Couldn’t you benefit from a fresh perspective on an old problem… or support in facing a new challenge? That’s what this space can offer you.

It’s okay not to have all the answers. As Emerson says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

Wouldn’t a space to test the wings of your opinions offer a safe place to learn to fly? I find support and space to grow as a teacher leader in the diverse spaces provided by CTQ, and the same can be true for you. We are eager to learn from your ideas, stories, questions, struggles, and celebrations.

I’m that “crazy-ass hippie Jew from California”—who’s committed to helping Kentucky’s kids succeed. Who are you? Let us know—and tell us what you seek.

All the best, Lauren

P.S. How to get in on this community:

  1. Become a member of the CTQ Collaboratory at http://www.teachingquality.org. (It’s the orangey-red button at upper right.) This solutions-focused community is open to all who are in favor of teachers transforming teaching.
  2. Once you're logged into the Collaboratory, join our local group of Kentucky teachers in the CTQ-KY Lab.

4 Comments

Rachel Losch commented on January 24, 2014 at 1:04pm:

Sharing a piece of yourself

Lauren,

I feel that this personal reflection really explains you. If I didn't know you personally, then I would want you to have coffee with me and discuss relevant educational issues from my perspective. Let the conversation begin with solutions!

What if I shared its post to invite teachers to join? 

Brianna Crowley commented on January 25, 2014 at 11:34am:

Beautifully told

Lauren,

Despite never having the same traumatic experience with book choice that you had, your story resonated with me. The arc of feeling first isolated and frustrated then welcomed, challenged, and heard mirrors so many teacher's stories who have found a virtual home here in CTQ and other professional learning communities. I wrote about my own journey here within the context of online PD. 

I love where you stated: 

I answered every question with fear and anger instead of thoughtfulness. I wish I had listened more, asked more questions.

I too have had those same reflections--both in my personal and professional life. When a colleague was reacting with defensiveness to a new idea that made total sense to me, I wish instead of reacting with anger, I too had listened more and asked more questions. This solutions-focused approach has been the most transformative aspect of my life since joining the CTQ community. I see the way this perspectice slowly changed me in all areas of my personal and professional life: seek to build not destroy, seek to understand not refute. 

Thanks for a beautifully written story with a powerful message. I will spread it as far as I can! :)

 

Jane Scottow commented on January 25, 2014 at 1:51pm:

Article

This was a wonderful article.  I enjoyed learning about you and your experiences.  I will send this to my Lauren and the boys.  She enjoys your writing and you as her teacher at WHHS.

Scott Diamond commented on January 25, 2014 at 5:35pm:

Resonates with me

I felt just the same my first year teaching - and as "bad" as my Jewishness was my "professorness." Two incidents clued me in to what was happening:

It was just before winter break, a few days after Hannukah had ended, and I was photographing the Christmas tree in the front lobby for the yearbook. The principal burst out of his office yelling, "Don't worry Dr Diamond, we will have a Hannukah symbol up in the library by tomorrow!" It hit me. He thought I was documenting for a lawsuit! He couldn't see past my Jewishness to see that I was HIS teacher.

A month later, the head of a university environmental institute came to my school for a meeting to support and expand a biodiesel club that I had started for my many low-performing students who were interested in farming or diesel mechanics. Whole families were attending the after-school club! She, I, and my principal sat down, and my principal opened with, "I hope this isn't about that biodiesel club!" That ended the meeeting. The university head simply said good bye to me and left.

I again work with kids like those kids, now at a schol where the at-risk are rescued rather than shoved aside. Not sure whay I wrote this, but your memory, Lauren, brought my memories back vividly.

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