Father, are we there yet?

father are we there yet

The decision to quit my job was not taken lightly, but it was the result of a heart change that can only be credited to God. My heart will always yearn to be at home. I love watching my babies grow into themselves, knowing I made the very best of the gift that so many people either take for granted or desperately wanted, but never got the chance to experience. When I went back to work after a year off from teaching, I wanted to help alleviate some stresses on my husband and help our family with the prospect of buying a bigger home. In hindsight, it was not what I should have done because it was out of selfish motives and apart from God’s plan, but I’ve learned that God provided grace in that time period of naïve disobedience. Though we never did buy that bigger house, our family lived comfortably for two years. We went on vacations, bought my husband a new car, enrolled our preschooler into dance classes, and never worried a single moment about finances. I met wonderful people at work and quickly grew to love each one of them for unique reasons. My husband’s work schedule finally changed to “normal” hours, allowing us daily family time no matter if it was a work day or not. I felt appreciated, valued, respected, like an equal contender in the household hierarchy—arguably I might say there were many occasions I felt like the queen bee, on a level no one else was. The transformation from humble homemaker to alpha female was disturbing.

Two months into my second year back to work, a tension began to build in my heart. I wasn’t even sure what the tension was about. My husband and I had just joined small groups at our church, with the theme at the time being empowerment. I quickly learned that the empowerment I felt was actually not empowerment at all, but pride. I was priding myself on being so good at all of these things that I didn’t realize I had long fallen off the path God carved out specifically for me. I still wanted more than anything to be with my little girls each day, but I was pushing that feeling down in order to be the best at whatever I did. Work came home on nights and weekends, even to ballet class Saturday mornings while my toddler played in a nursery and my preschooler danced her heart out. I was choosing myself over them, but did it in such a way that it was masked with the deception of dedication, strong work ethic, and sacrifice. The only thing I was sacrificing was moments and time I can never get back. For a while, I became the least humble person on earth—and I had no idea whatsoever. I’m sure my self-serving pride oozed onto the ground everywhere I walked, much like a slug.

One night, at small group, when the tension was at a climax, I shared with the group what I was experiencing. I remember the words coming out of my mouth, feeling like they were someone else’s, as the word choice was not my own—“I just can’t figure out if the tension I’m feeling is from God calling me into His will and I need to be obedient to this tension, or if this tension is the enemy and I need to persevere and resist the temptations because they are selfish.” I also talked about how I was praying daily for God to reveal to me what He wanted me to do. If it was God, I would take the terrifying leap and quit my job and abandon the comfort zone. If it was the devil, I would carry on with the way things were, knowing the tension was actually temptation. The other part I wanted support in was the waiting for an answer. God had already kept His promises of asking for wisdom and He shall provide so many times leading up to that moment, and there I sat feeling like the roads all abruptly stopped, with no hint of which way to take the next steps. Waiting caused me to create another layer of tension to heap on top of my current tension.

all was still

Our small group, for the next couple of days, sent devotionals or scripture that they encountered all related to God telling us to wait. It was so life-giving to know that God was using these women to provide comfort to us all as we each sat in our own figurative waiting rooms for various things. God let me know that His way of communicating with me on this would be Him speaking to me through other people. There were so many moments of peace in the waiting that came from the words of these women. Then, four days after our small group meeting, I sat in service listening to the message. I honestly don’t remember the topic for that morning, but I do remember the moment our pastor made a break in routine; he in the middle of his message announced he felt led to pray. As a part of the prayer, which seemed so off topic for the subject that morning, he began to say, “That tension you are feeling is not the enemy. It is God placing His desires in your heart.” I was undone. There it was. The clear, undeniable answer that God promised to provide, using the same unnatural words I spoke days before to affirm He was the one speaking. I began to sob, I mean an all-out ugly cry. Yes, it was odd to think of the unknown being my family’s future, but the real reason I wept was because I no longer had that tension. It was instantaneously swept away. I knew what to do to obey Him. The relief of such an ominous burden had been lifted and the peace filled me to overflowing. When He says cast your burdens on me, the feeling of actually doing it is unlike anything I can explain. I was finally released.

If this were fiction, this would be the point where all things fall into place and we live happily forever after. But, I am a sinner. The peace did not last, because my flesh and the enemy were at work to create more conflict in the midst of my encounter with God. It took a lot of work on my part, devoting myself to time in scripture, journaling, and praying to hear guidance from the Lord. My world felt like I had been sitting in an insanely loud concert venue for days on end, and suddenly without warning, all noise ceased. The silence became painful, and I was struggling to find a way to adjust. God provided this pivotal moment, and then suddenly, all was still. I pleaded for the next steps, but He remained silent.

For 7 months, I acted like a fool. Sure, I faithfully continued my reading, journaling, and prayers, and kept my eyes and ears open for God’s instruction as to the next steps; and since financially my not working at all was not an option, I had to figure out what work I could do during this new season. But, every couple of weeks, I would get what I thought was a sign from God telling me what I should do. There were times I thought I had a sign to look into going back to school for psychology, or building up my embroidery hobby business, or being a professional editor, or working in a private school, or studying ministry, or blogging, or private tutoring, or babysitting, or teaching pre-school. I thought I was given signs when someone gave a compliment, when I enjoyed doing something new, when a random idea popped into my head, when I saw a literal sign on the road, when I was successful at doing something.

This is not who i am

Then, as I sat submerged in a pool of my own confusion and defeat, I felt the urge to skim through my old journal entries. That’s when God finally did give me an answer. He wanted me to see that I was treating Him like the coordinator of an ultimate treasure hunt. I spent every day looking for hidden clues, secrets, innuendos, and missing evidence that He meticulously placed for me to find, piece together, and decode as His plan for me. God put His finger right on that realization and reminded me, “This is not who I am.” The feeling I had during that prayer months ago came rushing over me again. When God says it’s time for you to know, He will ensure you know- without question- that He is the one speaking. I felt ashamed, but He quickly comforted me when I realized that part of this 7 month waiting period was to teach me how to wait in confidence of who He is (obviously because I still have some waiting to do). I only thought I was waiting all this time, but in reality I was impatiently seeking answers that were not yet ready to be given.

I wonder if God, being the good father that He is, looked at me like a child who sat in the backseat of His car, asking over and over again “Father, are we there yet?” and after having heard enough finally felt it was time to explain that we were not even close, but gave a firm reassurance that we would eventually arrive, together. I’m still in the backseat right now, but instead, I’m trying to enjoy the ride, relax, maybe have a snack and even take a small nap, and trust that as soon as we do arrive, God will wake me up and announce “My Beloved, we’re here!” Then, I can unbuckle, jump out, and follow Him to do exactly what He had planned all along.

Bye, Felicia (Part 2)

part 2

**Side-Note: This blog was never intended to be an education blog, but rather a personal account of our family’s journey into obedience and walking by faith that God will provide for our family as I leave public education. I felt led to write about this and thought it important to explain some background before diving into our story. While there will be times I am led to write about education, I will mostly be writing about our lifestyle changes and whatever else the Lord wants me to say.

I also want to point out that the concerns I’m expressing are not my attempt at degrading a specific school or district. I have heard from countless Georgia educators and a significant number of educators from nearly every region of the United States since my last post. These are concerns reaching a national level, which are often beyond the control of local level boards of education. That being said, many educators are fearful of speaking out against what they know to be detriments against children for fear of irreversible consequences. I am not attempting to be that voice by airing out this dirty laundry, but rather taking a risk I feel God has impressed upon me to take. Whatever happens as a result of that risk is in His hands.**

 

There’s a word that has recently been given a new connotation. It makes every educator cringe, knowing that this word now resembles nothing close to what it once did. I, for one, used to love this word. It was what kept me motivated and focused on my mission each day, something that felt like a personal trainer, pushing me to be better tomorrow than I was today, and to do it all for a purpose much larger than myself.

Accountability.

I bet some of you just grimaced, didn’t you? What’s a shame is I bet if you reflected for a bit, you’d realize there was a time when you actually yearned for more of it.

Those educators who are passionate about this profession are also often quick to label colleagues whose priorities and skill sets are not in alignment with their own. When you take evaluator feedback seriously, you ensure that every day for the rest of the school year you will exhibit improvement on that one growth area (and to be honest, there can be times that the evaluator only wrote it for the purposes of being able to say she provided feedback—but it was a stretch).

professionalism is critical image

Then there’s that one teacher on the hall that doesn’t seem to give a flying squirrel about anything being done the right way—the one whose lesson planner, you imagine, is filled with a confetti of ideas and not one polished to perfection lesson to call her own. Or maybe it’s the teacher who every child adores because she spends her time going off on tangents of personal stories and never gets back to the actual skill or standard for the day. The students know all it takes is one question masked with the deception of caring to get this teacher distracted for 55 minutes. But for most of us, it’s the teacher who never seems to have anything organized, who can’t come up with a single idea for collaborative planning while complaining about the logistics of every creative venture the group proposes, and can’t seem to be bothered to leave sub plans let alone preparations for lessons on the days she is here. There was a time when that person was your metaphoric chalk screeching against the board. Where was the accountability for THAT teacher? Why was I the one drained at the end of the day after pushing myself beyond human limits BUT still managed to pull her load too for the sake of what’s best for the kids? Those passionate educators were probably clogged with resentment by the fact that there seemed to be no consequences for THAT colleague.

What do we want?         Accountability!                When do we want it?                  Now!

Then enters the TKES evaluation system. Initially, we were told things like, “Most of you already do these things every day” and “This will help us focus our support on those who have specific growth areas.”

All I heard was, “We’re finally going to do something to prove who is doing their job and who isn’t.”

(As a disclaimer, I must stress this train of thought is NOT who I am any more. I was a full-of-herself rookie on a mission to show the world what I was born to do. God used some big lessons to put me in my proper place. I now see the importance of investing in such colleagues and dropping everything, no matter the time crunch, to either listen or help them if I know how because that is what is best for EVERYONE.)

 

To put it simply, knowing TKES was coming was not a concern; it was a welcomed friend.

It didn’t take long for this wolf in sheep’s clothing to devastate many flocks. It wasn’t the elaborate daily lesson plans, the introduction of the mandated 3 or 4 part lesson model, the forced use of protocols during weekly collaboration time, nor the stringent implementation of common core standards without any resources or definitive support that devoured us. It was that word, turned profane, and the way it was both interpreted and executed.

The way educators are now held accountable for their performance in the classroom makes as much sense as if the country decided to evaluate FEMA workers based on the number of natural disasters that occur each year or a doctor based on how many people contract illness.

To be fair, there are components of the evaluation system that make sense, such as professionalism. Teachers have the opportunity to be some children’s first role models outside of the home. To hold us to a higher standard of professionalism is critical. The way we carry ourselves and behave is under constant surveillance by countless impressionable children, so to be further evaluated by an administrator should be required.

Communication is another reasonable standard for evaluations. Part of our role as facilitators of learning is speaking with the very people who love our students the most, parents and guardians. Teachers get busy, parents get busy, and before we know it a student is slipping from our reach. All too often teachers are told game-changing information at parent conferences that we wish we knew months beforehand because we might have approached things entirely differently with that student. The level of accountability TKES encourages for communicating is integral for some teachers, as without it, the exchanging of potentially critical information may never take place.

The true failure of TKES is the conflagration of student data. Whoever came up with the phrase “the data doesn’t lie” probably never heard the more accurate adage “a lie by omission is still a lie.” As the person on the receiving end of the consequences of the student data, I’m far more burdened by what the data does not tell the state.

A significant portion of a teacher’s final evaluation score rests on the student growth model, currently set at 50%. The way it has been explained countless times is that students are compared to similarly achieving students somewhere else in Georgia to determine if that particular student has shown high growth or low growth (personal improvement from previous year to current) and high achievement or low achievement (total score on most recent state test). This formula has two tragic flaws. First, whatever method is used to determine which students are “similar or comparable” peers has no way to account for life happening. Second, the formula has no way of measuring or documenting apathy.

conflagration of data image

Data can easily be sorted to determine which schools are similar achievement-wise and socioeconomic-wise; furthermore, data can be broken down to look at students within those similar schools to match students who typically perform in the same range. What I’d like to know is if the comparable student to one of mine also had her father, and sole caregiver, die days before state testing began and what formula was used to factor this emotionally crippling event into the student growth. What differentiated tool of measurement was used to recalculate the growth for a student who was moved across the nation to live with a distant relative because his father didn’t want to deal with him anymore and now this young student is so confused and devoid of self-worth that trying to focus on a meaningless assessment is the least of his concerns? Any advice for the girl who is still trying to fully recover from a traumatic brain injury, yet still is mandated to take the test? What about the new big sister who’s worried about how the open heart surgery is going on her infant sister? The student beside the empty desk where his best friend battling cancer should be? The truth is nothing is or will be done for these students, including the apparently insane concept of considering them exempt from testing while they try to focus on restoration or healing.

Months later, when the bubbles show up in the State Longitudinal Data System, none of those circumstances will be reflected by a teacher’s final evaluation score; never mind the fact those children are still trudging along with minimal emotional support, but plenty of data-driven academic interventions that will do nothing to soothe their broken souls. No, educators and state officials can’t provide them with a new guardian or neurological medical attention, but we can meet them where they are and show compassion by not forcing state assessments down their throats until they are consumed with a hatred for learning, which often is a direct result from the delusional coercion of teachers to focus on student academic achievement over student emotional needs. Both needs are important, and only one need is fostered, which seems equally as absurd as an insurance company funding the rebuilding of a home after a fire, but forbidding the installation of smoke detectors.

Critics often argue that things such as the above described are not the norm and would not significantly impact a teacher’s performance rating. An inference I would have to draw is that the person making such a statement spends little time working with children in a setting in which they are also evaluated on his/her work with the children. Teachers hold far more influence over a child than most people. One sentence worded insensitively one time or said in a particular tone can greatly affect a student’s sense of self-worth or esteem for a duration of time. What do adults typically do when they get together with other adults? Complain. Children hear these conversations and robe themselves in them. Are life’s problems isolated to adults? No, and to imply such a thing is narcissistic. Children often bear burdens far beyond their developmental capabilities in invisible ways. To presume that children suffering in any capacity is an out of the norm situation is obscene.

bleeding dressing image

Beyond skewed data failing to account for life-triggers, it also ignores the presence of another rising enemy- apathy. The overexposure of high stakes assessments and data analysis coupled with long lists of broad standards and little time for exposure or in-depth analysis and the abuse of remediation opportunities has created a generation of children desensitized to education. What incentive is there to do your best when you barely have enough time to get comfortable with a skill before a new, seemingly unrelated skills is torpedoed at you, and then another? The consequence of such pacing is that students forever hold onto a very shallow understanding that is nearly impossible to apply to a higher level thinking situation because the foundational concept is still murky. There are some schools that have adopted policies allowing students to re-test until they score a passing grade, which has greatly inflated grades and perceived levels of achievement. If you knew you would not understand something before even beginning or that you could just take another test after seeing what to study, would you put forth your best effort knowing eventually you will be passed? How would a prepubescent 12 year old respond to this? And more importantly, why would a teacher be held accountable for a student feeling this way? The result of this issue is teachers being forced to place emphasis on assessments and students who relinquish their own accountability. Education policy makers are creating an epidemic of indifferent, unmotivated learners who assume the purpose of schooling is to pass tests (unless they fail—which is then a result of their teacher’s shortcomings) and not to prepare for the demands of adulthood and society by acquiring necessary skills, including personal work ethic. When you have an alarming percentage of students who boldly declare that they shouldn’t have to read directions on a task when the teacher can read it for them or students who justify not completing work with the excuse they do not like the concept and would rather get zero credit instead, the problem goes far beyond the realm of a teacher’s responsibility. What is the only logical resolution? The department of education would say to ensure that students with an apathy for education assume the responsibility for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation score.

Public educators are not asking for the removal of all accountability—we actually crave it. In fact, all professions have a method for evaluating employee performance at some level. What educators want is for the tool of measurement used for evaluation to reflect things we can directly control or influence through our role in the classroom. We do not control the curriculum, the resources and supplies available, household situations, tragic events, health issues, or the circumstances leading to a distaste for personal accountability. We do control our classroom environment, the way we interact with our students, the relationships we build in an effort to break through learning barriers, the methods we use to plan meaningful lessons, the manner in which we conduct ourselves as role models, the frequency of communication with various stakeholders, and our content knowledge of what we teach. All of these areas of control can be evaluated through classroom observations, no standardized testing required.

Policy makers have created a festering and gaping wound; TKES is the salt poured and rubbed into it, and educators are the simple bandage that is being blamed for the lack of healing and spread of infection. If the department of education is wondering why wounds are not being healed, they need to look farther than the bleeding dressing. Until then, they can expect the continued demise of our children and the disintegration of a love for life-long learning.

Why I’m saying ‘Bye, Felicia!’ to being a public educator (part 1)

Bye felicia blog photo

There’s no denying that the word ‘crisis’ is a powerful word, nor that it’s often overused. But when people start talking about the teaching crisis in Georgia, there is no mistaking a major problem is beyond the boiling point.

When I graduated from college mid-December 2008, I knew there was a near impossible chance of my getting a full-time teaching position, especially during a time when there were far more teachers than there were positions. Being the passionate, on-fire-for-educating-children graduate I was, I landed a job almost two hours away from home right away. For 3 years, I never knew if my job would be secure or not. Last one hired first one fired (or in the education world RIF’ed) loomed over my head constantly. Thankfully, my principal fought for me each year, signed me up for endorsement classes in order to make me more marketable, and encouraged me by telling me she would write glowing references anytime I needed them. My job security might have been grave, but my morale was astronomical because I was more than appreciated, I was valued enough to be defended.

Years later, after having two little girls and cancer, I really needed a break to revive the fire. I took a year off to get better and enjoy being a mom. During this year, I volunteered teaching at a weekly after-school Bible club, taught Sunday school to elementary students, and started a little side business for my embroidery hobby. Finances were tight, my heart was full, but I couldn’t stay away from teaching in some capacity.

After that year, our family decided it was time for me to return to teaching full time, but this time I would be picky about my job since more jobs were available. I wanted to only consider schools in the county I lived. Within 36 hours of applying, I was contacted by the principal of the middle school districted for my house. In less than a week, I had an interview and a job offer. I was exactly where I was meant to be.

That first year back was exhausting, but the fire was roaring. I was nominated for teacher of the year the first year there—and I wasn’t even eligible. Parents were supportive. Students were dedicated. Administration was on our team.

The next year, the state fully implemented the new teacher evaluation system and some alarming directives on how to evaluate the teachers. I was determined that with my heart for teaching, this would not change a thing; teachers have to be flexible and adapt after all.

Any guesses on how long it took my roaring fire to become ashes and soot?

Less than three months (and that’s being generous).

How could this happen to me? I was born to teach. How could I, who at 7 years old taught her little sister how to read and write, add multi-digit numbers, and even states of matter all before sister was old enough to be in pre-school, transform into a person who can’t fathom the idea of toughing it out until the end of the semester– let alone the end of the school year?

I couldn’t get past the fact that I felt my career identity had been demolished, and more importantly, my heart experiencing such a dramatic change in a glimmer of time.

 

Here is part one of a series on my reasons for why I cannot continue to teach in public education (and, I suspect, why others can’t either):

  • Every day is spent playing defense.

 

When you are naturally talented at what you do, it can be difficult to hear about your own shortcomings or mistakes. The teacher evaluation system, however, went beyond pointing out flaws. Of course I wanted feedback about how to improve! I will never claim to be the best, the image of perfection, the role model for all. I know I have growth areas. What I don’t need to do is defend every decision I make.

Literally. Every. Single. Decision.

Have you ever had to justify why a colleague needed to stand in your doorway while you ran to the restroom after 6 hours of holding it? What about an explanation for why a student, who has failed every subject nearly every year, is currently failing your class? What is it you are not doing that this student is absent so frequently? Why did your class sit at this lunch table instead of that one? Why did you give this student a silent lunch? Follow up: We need a written statement explaining your reason for our files. Did you use data to decide on that homework assignment?

Teachers know all too well that it truly doesn’t matter if a problem is out of your control or not; you will be held accountable for an explanation and a solution.

evaluation system quote

I always received good marks on my evaluations, until the state trickled down a complaint to administrators saying too many level 3s were being given and they expect more 2s instead (which is considered a “not-passing score”). Coincidentally, I received my very first 2 on one category the next evaluation. When I exercised my right to complete a written response to the score and posted it onto the state platform, I immediately received a private email from my evaluator suggesting a conference. I declined. What was the point? Did I really need to waste my already thinly spread planning time to have someone who barely knows what goes on in my classroom tell me what I already knew? “We can only score based on what we see in the snap shot of time we are in your room.” Of course, the safeguard for that was supposed to be the incredibly detailed lesson plans I have to have posted outside my door each morning. God help you if an unexpected change causes you to do something that isn’t specifically outlined in that plan either. So, why was it that when I pointed out while the administrator did not observe this particular component during his segment of time in my room, the detailed information was provided in the lesson plan that I had to write to ensure my marks were not lowered due to lack of observance? I have a suspicion that the administrator felt a little defensive, like I might be suggesting he wasn’t doing his job thoroughly. WELCOME TO MY WORLD, BUDDY.

Now, an “outsider” to the education world may think, “Maybe the problem is you. Maybe you really deserve those marks.” To be realistic for a second, teachers talk. And talk. And talk. We are surviving these trenches together. So, when something like that happens we start investigating as to if this is a personal issue or yet another blanket injustice. Every teacher on that hallway that I spoke to about this matter also received at least a 2 in one category on that same evaluation round, most of which had never received anything lower than a 3 before. Sorry, the common denominator here is not me.

How would you feel if you had always dedicated yourself to doing the best you could possibly do, have superiors recognize that fact, only to have some mystical state level person dictate your score and they probably have never even driven through your county, let alone sat in a classroom under the same expectations as you are right now?

Seriously, you’d be angry and offended. And don’t even get me started on how the evaluation scores will directly impact the amount of money I receive on my monthly paycheck.

What you wouldn’t feel is motivated. Why bother? Here’s another great non-educator response to this dilemma: “You do it for the kids, of course!” Those people clearly have no idea what they are talking about. The evaluation system is so far removed from what is best for kids that it’s disgusting.

I don’t write my standards and essential questions on the board each day and then redundantly type them on my lesson plan, and then ensure every child hears me mention them at least twice during the period because it’s best for them. They will have disposed of that information by the time they walk into the next class period- and I know that.

I do it because I am told I have to and it will be evaluated.

I don’t sit down to look at the scores of every single student I teach on every assignment I give, then use those numbers to justify my reasoning for deciding on the next task and then ensure that I write a detailed narrative component on my lesson plan and mention it during collaborative planning and log that information as well to prove the decision I made about next week’s lessons is data based because that’s best for my kids. I could have looked at my gradebook and known the same— but if you don’t document it, it didn’t happen.

I do it because I am told I have to and it will be evaluated.

Education should not be.jpg

In fact, what I consistently don’t get to do, is exactly what I know to be best for my students.

I DON’T get to sit down and listen to them cry about how their parents are getting divorced because of an affair, and now they have to choose who to live with. If I did, I wouldn’t be “using instructional time wisely.”

I DON’T get to allow a girl, who is leaving for a week to go to China to meet her new adopted sister, to complete an alternative authentic writing assignment because it doesn’t align with the county required prompt that they use to analyze district-wide data.

I DON’T get to  use teachable moments to impress upon the students the importance of honesty, integrity, work ethic, kindness, or any other ideals that are “not in the standards.”

When children are no longer viewed as children, but rather a number, a piece of data, a risk factor for my student growth model based on the state test, children are no longer the reason education exists. Education should not be a business, nor a competition, nor a data mine, nor an overall dehumanized semblance of infrastructure.

It’s supposed to be a place where mistakes lead to growth, where children discover themselves and their talents, where practice makes perfect, where character development is critical. These are things you will not see in a public education facility anymore. These are things that have no value in the state’s eyes. These are things that drive quality teachers out of this field with hurricane like force, and I am just not willing to board up the windows and ride this one out, because it’s like I’m saying I support these practices as best for children. Educators should not be attached to that abysmal lie.

And this is only scratching the surface…