Monday, October 26, 2015

The Dreaded Parent-Teacher Conference by Autumn Ernest #A3WP

I went to a well-known, highly rated credential program. Not once did we discuss or train on how to have a parent-teacher conference. I was allowed to sit in on a few conferences as a student teacher, but I was not part of the preparation or discussion. When it came time within my own classroom, the idea of sitting down and conferencing with 27 different sets of parents in my first year as a 4/5-combination classroom teacher was jump out of my skin frightening.

I talked with other teachers, I talked with my grade level, I researched the best ways to conduct a conference, but in the end it was just me on one side of the table and the parents on the other. My first conferences were a blur. I had packets of test scores and work samples, I tried to be positive, I tried to answer questions. I tried, I tried, I tried. In the end, I cried. It was difficult to be put in that situation. Lost in the dark and being expected to be the light for so many students and their families. I couldn’t answer questions about our testing program because I hadn’t been trained, I didn’t know some of the policies about the school, while many of the parents were part of the school board and knew more than I did. But, when I was done crying, I brushed it off and heavily reflected.

For the next round of conferences I garnered from the Internet a schedule of what to talk about and how long, areas to address and areas to avoid. I had everything written out and prepared. I had a timer and some chocolates. I tossed my hair over my shoulders, straightened my back and began. I was very straightforward. Here is this, here is that, this means this, this means that, thank you very much, email if you need to. There were very few questions and no emails from parents. I patted myself on the back for a job well done. No crying, no need for reflecting. Instead I had a well earned drink and toasted to a job well done.

A few weeks later a funny thing happened. I was put on the other side of the table when I went to my son’s preschool conference. His preschool is so hard to get into that he was actually put on the list when he was born. There are many great things about the program there. As a novice teacher, I was already intimidated by the preschool teacher, and at the same time eager to learn whatever I could from her.

We had to wait at the door until it was our turn. She brought my husband and myself in and we took the long drop from standing to sitting on the tiny preschool chairs.

She welcomed us and had us sign in.

She was very straightforward. Here is this, here is that, this means this, this means that, thank you very much, email if you need to.

Without understanding why, when we left I felt raw. My heart was broken.

Sitting on THAT side of the table, I realized that what I needed most from my son’s teacher was to know that he was loved. That he was valued. That no matter what obstacles he may face, he had a team behind him. At the end of the conference, I cared less about his scores and his work samples. What I wanted was to feel the positive relationship he had with his teacher.

So I cried and I reflected.

I realized that the reason the parent teacher conference is always dreaded is because we don’t know each other, the parent and the teacher. We don’t know, as the parent how our child is valued or how their education is valued. By introducing your teacher self, truly, you create a bond with the parent that you always make with each child. We teach our students, we take each of them into our hearts, and their parents allow that, they hope and pray for it. But, they need us, teachers, to show them how much we care for each child.

What it really comes down to is communication. I try to begin the year by welcoming parents and students personally. I email parents about successes more often than concerns. I keep track in my grading book to make sure that I have emailed everyone at some point. It can be difficult to do this with my now 100 sets of parents as a middle school teacher, but that 10 minutes a day keeps the angry parent away. By doing these small things, by the time conferences come around, parents aren’t surprised by anything because we have been in constant communication.

So, when conferences began that next year, I welcomed parents into my room. I tried to make sure we were seated in a circle instead of across from each other, and I would always start out with how much I enjoyed each child. Even with my challenges, because everyone had something that they needed to be praised and bragged about. I would tell parents how excited I was to be able to have this time to celebrate their child and all of their accomplishments. There were times that we needed to discuss some things that were harder, like behavior contracts or ways to increase their participation in class, but I found it was easier to do now because I came into each conference with the intent of love and celebration. I was able to develop a relationship with families, prior to the conference, where the dreaded parent teacher conference turned into just another conversation about our team because communication with parents had became commonplace.

That first year of conferences, as the teacher and the parent, were rough. They were also not something I could have been taught; I had to experience the pain for myself. Sometimes it takes some crying, offering some chocolate, maybe a glass of wine or two. But what teaching and parenting always comes down to, is our relationships with each other. This can only be done through communication. Communicating can be scary, it feels raw and vulnerable, but when it’s done through honest caring and commitment over time, it creates trust. We want parents to trust us because parents entrust us with their most valuable part of themselves, their children.

Autumn Ernest teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English at Dixon Montessori Charter School in Dixon, California. She has been teaching there for 5 years and is very lucky to be able to grow with her students. She is an Area 3 Writing Project Teacher Consultant and has taken courses with the Reading and Writing Project at The Teacher's College. She also trains local middle school teachers in the art of writing and cross-curricular collaboration.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Good Life #health #happiness #school

Last year during our Spring Break, I visited several schools to learn what other great schools were doing to make school more AWESOME for kids. (You can read the entire post here.) I always get great ideas when I visit other schools, and more often than not, I find something that wasn't what I set out to look for in the first place. Our first stop was The Cove School.

When I visited Cove  in Larkspur, CA, I was mostly there to research their flexible learning spaces and Google-inspired furniture and design as part of designing our new school. My friend Eric Saibel had also mentioned that we should check out Cove In Motion, a start to their day with a focus on health and wellness as a school. You can check out the kids and Eric below getting fit and having fun. Just 15 minutes every day. It was amazing!
Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?
Mrs. Fadeji in motion
A great way to start the day!

Inspired by The Cove School, Schools In Motion, and a TedX Talk by then 13-year-old Logan La Plante called "Hackschooling Makes Me Happy", we decided to "Dive In" to health and happiness as one of our key school-wide goals. Our focus on health and happiness encompasses several areas including mindfulness, fitness, and building positive relationships among our students, staff and families.

What does diving in to health and happiness look like at our school? We have started Star In Motion at our school and four days a week, we start the day with 15 minutes of movement, positive messages, and fun! Truly, that one visit on one day to see Cove in Motion has truly transformed our school. It's not by accident that the song that now starts our day together is The Good Life
Diving into health and happiness!

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3rd-5th Grades In Motion

What better way to start my day? 
And, every Wednesday is Workout Wednesday, where you'll find the whole school--teachers, kids, parents, and me wearing workout clothes and walking as a school outside to music. Usually you can spot some kids dancing with huge smiles on their faces! Some might say it's too casual- but we believe in modeling for our students and families. We're all in.

Walking on Workout Wednesday
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Kindergarten In Motion! Teachers, parents, and kids!
Workout Wednesday and the Whip Nae Nae-- here's Kindergarten and the 4th grade lunch!

Every once in awhile, amidst conversations around data, instruction, and the new CAASP test results and I wonder if I shouldn't be spending more time crunching numbers and spending less time focused on building a healthy and happy school. And then I look around and I notice that I'm spending most of my time in classrooms supporting teachers and kids because behavior problems have largely disappeared. Kids are happy. They love school. They run to get here in the morning! And we are receiving positive feedback from families, like this letter:

As a parent of two new Star Academy students I just wanted to thank you all for a fabulous start to the school year! They are more excited about school then I have ever seen them! When I pick them up each day they can't wait to tell me what they learned or to see if I know what their vocab words mean. Then after school [he] is showing me his blog with pride and [his brother] is practicing his piano with excitement. Each morning they have something to look forward to (Minecraft Club, Astronomy, Art, Spanish, a reading buddy, the list goes on and on!) 
Both of them are engaged, curious and proud of their new school. I sent this to all of you because its clear the entire campus culture is one of innovation and excitement about learning and walking through the halls anyone can feel it.

Kids are learning. Teachers are focused on instruction. Everyone is working hard and doing their best. And at the end of every day, if just one more child, one more parent, one more teacher can say...

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It will be worth it. Health and happiness. Every. Single. Day. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

What scares you? #cuerockstar admin #pinchme

Lucas Valley - Marin County

This was the view from Skywalker Ranch. Wow, just wow. Although the fields are more brown now, the view is no less spectacular looking back. Pinch me.

The first day, I found Yoda. Snapping a selfie, it was later pointed out to me that Yoda had poop on his head. Whatever. It's Yoda! And I was a happy girl. 

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This quote is one of my favorites- in fact I love it so much that I bought a shirt with it, and it's a quote I live by. It's not that I love living in a state of being scared, but I do think that in order to grow we need to do things on a regular basis that push us out of our comfort zone. I live in that zone a lot. Why? Watch this.

Did you hear her voice at the beginning? Sheer TERROR. Scary. Doubt. Fear. All of it. And she skis anyways. 

Did you hear her voice at the end? AWESOME! Ready to go again. 

Enter me. At Skywalker Ranch. Part of THIS team.

I felt like that girl, at the top of the ski jump, seriously. Scared to death. Nervous. I couldn't eat the morning of the first day as I tried to figure out how I had arrived there- pinch me. Don't get me wrong, I love to lead, I love to teach. Every day I want schools, teachers, and school leaders to be the best they can be for kids. I couldn't wait to start day one. And I was TERRIFIED. 

The morning began in the theater- I wish I had a good picture, but photos weren't allowed inside, really. Here is one of some dancing happening the last day that will give you a glimpse of the inside. Amazing.

The first day we kicked off the morning by introducing ourselves and describing our own Hero's Journey-- inspired by this video.

I struggled with this a lot- and although I understood the concept of the journey, I had a difficult time figuring out where I was exactly on that path. Instead of finding one spot in Joseph Campbell's image, I described my own journey from the ordinary world to the special world I now inhabit as Principal of Star Academy, an elementary school in Sacramento. I stepped up to the front and started to speak. Later, friends would tell me I sounded nervous, that my voice was breaking.

Yes, yes it was. My heart was pounding. I saw no one out in the crowd. I remember very little. 

Terrifying, yes. Would I do it again? 

In a heartbeat.

I wonder sometimes if someone out there in the crowd is thinking they could never get up in front of teachers or colleagues. And then, they hear me, shaky voice and all. What if just one person walks away thinking they might be willing to try

Sometimes things are scary. And worth it. Isn't this what we want teachers to do? And kids? And so, I go first.

People always ask why I get nervous. I lead professional development a lot; I should be used to it. It IS getting easier. I wish I was that calm, cool, and collected girl. But it still scares me every time. This time, I was in front of an audience I rarely see- school leaders, superintendents, directors, and was part of a faculty I deeply admire and aspire to be like. 

Check out the lineup below. Pinch me.

Truly, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I got here.  It was surreal to be a part of this team-- I'm inspired daily by these guys!

After the morning opening, we headed off to our sessions, and I found myself in a more comfortable space and leading a session on blogging. Of course, people always have this to say about blogging...

And off we went. People with nothing to say dove into the session, and started blogs! YES!

Here are a few tweets (and not all) from some of the new bloggers! Some started blogs for their school, others started blogs to communicate with their staff. Jeff Kubiak was even getting some encouragement from Twitter! Here's a picture, although blurry, of us during our blog sesh!

Ultimately, I discovered that this Joseph Campbell quote is true- and that embracing that thing that TERRIFIES us is a good thing. Being part of the CUE Rockstar Admin camp was super scary. The camp sold out  in two days and expectations were high. Were there times I doubted myself for saying yes and being part of it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? YES! Did I learn something even though I didn't attend a single session? 

I did.

And that's the magic of any Rockstar event. The smartest person in the room is the room. What an incredible three days spent learning and connecting with 80 passionate, forward-thinking, student-centered leaders!

Inspired, I am!