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Next Stop: Administration

The teach goes on.

It’s now my seventh year in the classroom and fifth in special ed. It’s been a while since I’ve been anything like the presence online I once was, but I’m still here. Hi, everyone. I hope you’ve been well.

This school years features a unique, challenging, and exciting wrinkle. In June, I began classes in School Building Leadership. I’m in my fourth class now and I’m accruing my internship hours. Next stop: administration. By April, if I pass the required two part exam in February, I will acquire my SBL certificate from the state.

I’m heading to the dark side.

Or, I’m heading to a place where I can make a more widespread positive impact.

I’ll go with option two.


Perhaps the most valuable takeaway of the experience so far is that I’m able to begin crafting my own personal vision of what kind of administrator I should be. My thoughts and hopes are very much theoretical at this point, but no matter what happens, I must be true to my personal and professional values.

This is the kind of administrator I hope to be some day:

  • The kind that is a consistent, positive presence in the classroom and hallways. Students should know me as a concerned, caring educator. I should know them by their names. I should know about the wonderful happenings in their classrooms.
  • The kind that approaches problems from a positive perspective, empathizing with the plight of the teacher and guiding teachers toward their best for our students.
  • The kind that acknowledges he is not an expert in all topics, and that others who are must be called upon for guidance and aid.
  • The kind that participates in the formulation of a shared vision that all stakeholders support and practice, and that makes the vision the standard by which we operate.
  • The kind that promotes observations, class visits, and dialogue as a collegial means of driving the school forward. I firmly believe that teamwork makes the dream work. I must provide opportunities for teacher professional growth by articulating and demonstrating the mutual benefits of observations and dialogue. Collegiality must exist in the culture of the school so that the shared vision can be achieved.
  • The kind that values character, effort, drive, growth, and dedication over grades, numbers, natural intelligence, and scores.
  • The kind that looks for solutions to problems instead of allowing the problems to fester or grow underneath the carpet.
  • The kind that leads from behind, allowing people to shine while I proudly watch.
  • The kind that maintains a level head and does not rush to judgment.
  • The kind that expects the best of all staff and makes staffing decisions based on what is best for the students.
  • The kind that can keep perspective: above everything else, we are all human.
  • The kind that people will run through a wall for.
  • The kind that never forgets what it was like being in a classroom.
  • The kind that honors the opinions and needs of stakeholders – parents, students, teachers, other staff, community members – and also looks at things from a bird’s eye view.
  • The kind that does not lose grasp of the anchor of values that guide me professionally and personally.

I hope I’ll be back more often than I have been to write more about this captivating new professional journey. I hope you’ll be with me along the way.


The World of Special Olympics

The following is a guest post in the form of an open letter from Special Olympics athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens to Ann Coulter after this tweet during last night’s Presidential debate.

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.  So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow.  I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you.  In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child…

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Are You the Next #spedchat Moderator?

Unfortunately, other responsibilities make it impossible for me to continue my duties as #spedchat moderator. While I certainly enjoyed the months I served as moderator, the simple fact is I don’t have enough time to devote to hosting a weekly chat.

The good news is there are many wonderful Tweeps who are special educators and who would do an excellent job. Maybe you’re one of them! So I’m asking you to send me a note if you’re interested in assuming the duties of moderator. #Spedchat meets Tuesdays at 8:30 PM EST. You can express your interest by clicking Contact Me.

Here’s to many more fantastic chats in the future…


Let’s share the value we truly add – all those intangibles that can’t be manipulated into a number. Leave a comment on the original post linking back to a picture or blog showing your value.

More and more it is apparent to me that the fortunes of a few are being used to determine the misfortunes of millions. Why is this happening in this country?

Assailed Teacher

In the spirit of today’s State of the Union conference, which was very heartening to be a part of, here is the Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman in its entirety.

On top of being a good refutation of Davis Guggenheim’s fluff piece, it is also a good articulation of what social justice unionism is about and why teachers should be on the forefront of such a movement.

The popularity of the movie continues to spread. It has had screenings around the country and will only resonate more as the corporate takeover of public education continues.

Show it to everyone you know. Here is the Facebook page for the movie.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

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This is as compelling a case against value-added measures as I’ve read.

Letter: On teaching younger students…

This is the second in a series of letters I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues. The full text of her letter also appears on her blog.

Dear Matt,

Since we started with the subject of “changes” in my life, I have been thinking about changes in your own.

When we first met, you were a new teacher, teaching a fifth grade general ed class with intermediate to advanced ELLs. I was always impressed to peek in your room and see the arts & crafts, the student photography, the baking, and overall “homey”, creative atmosphere in your room. Your students were eager, conversant, and had many years in this country and in formal education.

Now you are teaching younger students in a self-contained Special Education bridge class. I know you kind of fell into this new kind of teaching; younger children, children with special needs, etc., and I have yet to see you teach this group. Are you still sarcastic and chummy? Or do you now see yourself more as a father-figure? Do the arts and crafts have an even more memorable impact on the kids?

Reading your posts, I find myself wondering : do you prefer this new position? If you could choose, would you prefer the older, more advanced youth with their own unique challenges, or remain with the second-third grade ages? Do you feel you are finding yourself as a teacher more now, or do you see this as a detour on your way back?

Looking forward to your response,

Answers from a New Mama Who Teaches

Yesterday, I penned a letter to a colleague of mine. Today, she responded. The full text of her response can be found on her blog as well.

Dear Mr. Ray,

Last night, during Parent Teacher Conferences, I was sitting across the table from a student of mine and her father. She looks so much like him! He told me how much he works while still always making time to practice math with his girls, and how he came here a year ago from Santo Domingo with his three daughters and, you know, I looked at their faces and I saw my husband with our daughter; I could see the same ambition, dedication and passion for better in their faces.

Reading your letter reminded me of an old song from U2, “Some Days Are Better Than Others.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

How do I balance being a new mom and teacher? Am I the same teacher as before? Better? Worse?

Motherhood is a new kind of mirror that has let me see myself as a teacher in new and deeper ways. But balance? Well, if you were to follow me around daily I think you’d see a lack of balance. With that word, I imagine someone serene and calm even in the midst of chaos. That was me in previous years; no matter the burden or inane task, I had a smile on my face.

I’m still smiling but now I am constantly multitasking in ways I honestly didn’t think possible; during preps I pump so my daughter continues to benefit from my milk, and when I’m home feeding her, (we often lay down in bed, thus hands free), I often check my work email or prep for the next day. I live with constant guilt that I am short-changing somebody, usually my daughter. At home, I get about an hour to eat, plan, and sit still until she needs to be put to bed. This means I go to bed too since she won’t sleep without me yet (fine by me since I then get to enjoy being totally present with her).

Notice I say “go to bed” since I don’t get to sleep more than 2-3 hours!

I feel sometimes like I went from being called a colleague’s touchstone to a whirlwind.

Gone are the nights and weekends full of creative chart-making, or innovation, or researching ESL lessons or strategies I might incorporate. Now my commute is where I try to research or blog.

But, despite all that, I do actually feel like I’m a better teacher. Now that I am forced to organize my time well, I don’t waste a single second, and while my heart aches for my daughter and wish I was home with her every moment, I am even more passionate about my profession than I was before.

My memory may have shrunk but my perspective on what I do has expanded.

Having a child has led me to look at myself or my lessons and think, “How would I want someone to teach my daughter this? How would I want her teacher to react over this?”, etc. My passions are much more personal, so in that way they are stronger.

I more clearly see what makes me a unique or effective teacher and what are the things, whether they are personal weaknesses or paperwork, that get in the way of that. (Yet, still, I’m often the one, surprised, saying, “Ohh, huh, that’s true” when someone points out the redundancy or “unnecessary extra” in our ever-growing responsibilities. I guess this camel’s back is unaware of the individual straws).

Also, as I get to know myself as a mother, I’m finding new ways to reflect on myself as a teacher. Like, I guess I’m more holistic than micro-manager. I’m more “she’ll learn how to sleep alone and through the night when she is ready”, rather than “these kids need to know how to XYZ by this preconceived date.” I notice and appreciate the details of the emerging people before me because I’m now experiencing all the amazing things they once learned to do as babies. I am just as passionate about explicitly teaching the skills and knowledge they need to be full participants in society, but I also know how there is a symbiosis between what I teach and what they are ready for. There is research everywhere that can prove almost anything.

It’s funny, because I used to think about this question all the time; other teachers, assuming I had no patience or empathy for my students, always used to say, “Oh, once you have kids, you’ll be a different teacher. You’ll see; you’ll be easier on them.”

Truth is, I believe I have always been very empathetic to their situation as learners in a new country, new language, etc., and I have never tired of having to repeat my words or re-demonstrate something because I know children need repetition. I never expected them to act like mini-adults. Second chances were always available in my room. But to me, this was common sense. Now I see it as the nurturing they still need, and rather than seeing it as a “scaffold”, I see it as a way of life.

So, am I better? Worse? I guess we can say I’m reinventing my concept of “balance”!

10 Ways to be a Terrific Teacher

Recently, Vicki Davis posted her 10 Ways to be a Terrible Teacher. I enjoyed reading her ideas, but today, I want to take a slightly more positive spin and share my thoughts on 10 Ways to be a Terrific Teacher.

Of course, these are visions of my ideal self and what teaching should be. In no way am I proposing that I am a terrific teacher or that I embody any of these ideals 100%. However, I see some of these traits in myself, others in colleagues, others in members of my PLN (both virtual and non).

1. Use your cell phone, iPad, and laptop in class. One of the comments I made on Vicki’s post was that since I committed myself to keeping my phone away during class time, I have been much happier with myself and my focus. This was in reference to my own personal use of the phone, which, in retrospect, was a flagrant violation of my moral obligation to attend to my students and my work.

So, of course, I mean this for strictly professional or pedagogical purposes. Although I am only in the infancy stages of using mobile devices in the classroom, the fact is they are tools of curiosity and necessity that need to be leveraged for student learning. My students are beginning to use my cell phone to document learning, as well as my digital camera. Which brings me to the next point…

2. Trust your students. I recently talked with a colleague about the iPads she and I purchased. She is someone I respect immensely and have learned so much from. When I told her my students love using the iPad (whether it’s for reading, practicing handwriting, or doing math), she replied with some form of, “You let the kids TOUCH the iPad??” as if I was crazy. To each their own, but sure I do.

Not only is the technology exciting to my students (most of whom don’t have the flashy new stuff in their homes), but I believe it is important to show in many ways that I trust them. One way is by letting them handle expensive items that I bring to school. Of course, we discuss how to hold and properly use these tools to limit the possibility of something happening to them. That trust, though, earns me respect because I am showing my respect for the students’ abilities to use my things safely.

3. Believe in the best of your students. And, by the way, in my class, students don’t need to earn respect and trust. These things are rewards of entering my classroom at the beginning of the year. I believe in the best of my students’ personalities. That way, when an inevitable slip-up occurs that causes our trust to be frayed, I have the opportunity to approach the student by saying something along the lines of, “This doesn’t seem like you” instead of “You’re always doing things like this!” Especially if the message the student most often receives is, “You messed up again,” I seek to make the message be, “You’re better than this.”

4. Mandates are mandated, but so are other things. Sure, we all have a schedule to keep, standards to meet, paperwork to file, and assessments to give. These things are pretty much inflexible. However, there are times when it is appropriate – no, when it is necessary – to deviate from the path. The most fulfilling experiences in teaching are the most organic ones. I remember my class releasing butterflies last spring. A visit to our school garden became a spontaneous lesson about the various plants and flowers – all because the students just wanted to know.

Other unplanned events need to happen, too. Sometimes class meetings are necessary. Maybe they don’t fall into the state requirements or your daily schedule, but a situation impacting the whole class can not be ignored. Meetings give everyone a chance to air their grievances and find common solutions. Bypassing these meetings when there is a clear need for them only encourages members of the classroom community to harbor resentment because their needs and beliefs are not being validated.

5. Be the last frontier for your students. Too many children come through our doors on the first day already with the mindset that they are worthless, that school stinks, that they are dumb, that we are dumb, that this person hates them and that person hates them. The buck needs to stop at us. We have to be the last ones who refuse not to believe in our students. If our students leave us the same or worse than when they came to us, we have failed them. Everyone of our students matters and not one of them can be left to feel any differently.

6. Take time for yourself and take extra time for your students. In the past it was suggested to me that I could periodically eat lunch with my students – “Mm, would they love that!” I always wrote this off as frivolity and scoffed at teachers who had their students join them for midday nosh. Who were these little children to impose upon my sacred 50 minutes without them, the only time when I could sit with people my own age and size and have intelligent conversation?

Of course, since I’ve begun the practice of bringing students to the classroom for lunch, I’ve surely changed my tune. Students see it is a privilege to eat with the teacher, and I would argue it is a privilege for the teacher to eat with the students, too. I find I learn so much more about their personalities and lives in unstructured social time than I ever could during hectic teaching and learning time. Lunchtime chats are informal, fun ways of getting to know your students – and for them to see you as more than just a teacher, but as a human being. Which reminds me…

7. You are human. Don’t avoid it. The days of the stern teacher with the lemon-face glare standing in front of the room rapping the board with a pointer are fading fast. Teachers I admire are at the forefront of the change toward a less formal structure. It is not always prudent to equate silence and lack of movement with a good learning environment. The teaching profession is evolving into guidance toward discovery rather than being sole authority of knowledge. Districts around the country are behind the times on this new mentality, but there are inspirational and amazing people out there who are turning the notion of teaching on its head just by acknowledging that teaching is not about our egos, but rather the students’.

The other part of your humanity comes from allowing yourself to show genuine emotion in front of your students. If you are someone who feels you can’t smile in your classroom until Christmas, man, do I feel sorry for your and your students. Smiles create warmth and belonging. Laughter does the same. The classroom should be a happy place, not a sterile, dreadful place.

8. Be a share bear. Yes, I said it like that.

If you are doing something awesome, share it. Chances are someone will be inspired by it and try to model their own practice after yours, or better yet, they will adapt for their own needs.

If your students are doing something awesome, share it even more! Let your colleagues know and let your administration know. Don’t seek to over-inflate students’ heads, but do seek opportunities for them to be recognized as the awesome people they are.

And, finally, if your colleagues share something with you, accept it with an open mind. You are under no obligation to use it, but at the very least, you might want to consider it. Teaching on an island is a dangerous endeavor, for when you seal yourself off from people and ideas around you, you run the risk of letting great things pass you by.

9. Actually, you do not know everything and, actually, you never will. So many teachers – including me – started their careers with an “I know everything” attitude. Maybe we were uninterested in what those who came before us had to say. Maybe we were defensive when our practice was criticized. Maybe we were insulted when our greatest lesson plans turned into out to be our worst lessons.

The easy answer is this: teaching is learning. A terrific teacher needs to reflect and evaluate. When the students push back with their struggles and defiance, the teacher needs to change himself, not them. When a parent approaches the teacher to question something, the teacher needs to listen intently, and not assume anything about the parent or downplay the concerns. When an administrator offers a critique or suggestion, the teacher needs to take it to heart and examine the reason the suggestion is being made.

10. We’re in it for the kids. That’s my mantra and it has been since day one. No matter how down we get, how infuriated we become by things we can’t control, how demoralizing our job sometimes is, we must never forget that we’re in it for the kids.

I have misjudged many people who I believed to be cold and indifferent toward their students as a result of their disenchantment with being pawns in a political chess match that seems locked in stalemate. The reality is these people care about their students just as much as I care for mine. We are all struggling for solutions to enormous issues, and in worrying so much about them, we sometimes forget just how much we can positively impact our children on a daily basis.

We must never lose sight of that influence. Our poor students have no idea about what is going on in this country regarding education, and we shouldn’t let our worries and misgivings indirectly affect them.

Let’s also not forget that so many children come from unstable homes where things are happening that many of us can’t even conceive as adults – let alone as children. So we need to be their beacon of hope, the light that shines brightly for them when their world seems enveloped in endless darkness.

While the reform dialogue so often centers around the negative impact teachers have on students, those of us on the front lines need to remember just how vital our positive impact truly is. Let’s also never forget: we’re in it for the kids.

Despite what anyone says about teaching, how it isn’t a full work day, how summers are free, how it can’t be much to watch a bunch of kids all day, we know that teaching is an immensely challenging profession. We all struggle on our way to becoming the best teachers we can be, but it is our endless striving toward that utopia that makes us better.

Surely you have your own ways of being a terrific teacher. I hope you’ll share them in the comments!

Ideas for Higher Level Questioning and Thought

The essential question: How do we get our kids to think deeper?

A big push in my school this year is the use of higher level questions. New York City is in the phases of adopting the Charlotte Danielson framework for observations, and questioning is held in high regard. I am excited by the new style of observation and expectations, as it is concrete enough that we teachers can really understand what is expected in order to help our students grow. I believe, if implemented properly, that the Danielson framework has great potential.

I recently had my first observation (in read aloud) and, less than two hours later, my first post-observation conference. I took away some solid and tangible ideas about where I could improve in order to help my students improve:

Even though it is not going to elicit a response of “yes” or “no”, “How is the character feeling?” is not an open-ended question. In the book I was reading to the class, the obvious, and seemingly only answer to my question would be, “sad.” Reframing the question as, “What different ways might the character be feeling?” invites a wider range of responses and requires greater thought to arrive at those responses. It’s a minor tweak that makes a major difference.

I must, again, better realize and challenge the abilities of my students. The point was made to me that my students’ answers to my questions were great, but that was indicative of their own ability, not my awesome questioning. Therefore, I need to ask questions that meet the rigor of their abilities. In other words, I must, once again remind myself that students will be limited by my expectations of them. If the language is there and the thought is, too, it’s time to push them more.

I can spark greater investment in partner talk by asking students to think of times they were in the character’s shoes. This enthusiasm can then be leveraged into whole class discussion based on any wonderful nuggets shared in partner talk, where students respond to what was shared.

Post-observations are intimidating to many people, including me. But coming out of this one, I felt right away that I was newly equipped with tools for my students. Even though my review wasn’t what I had hoped or expected, it is, most importantly, a springboard for my own professional improvement. If this is what Danielson’s framework will yield, then I am all for it.