Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Arizona Rain

I’m sitting in this nice hotel in Mesa, Arizona. It’s early. 5:30 local time. It’s still not full light yet and it won’t be for a long time. The clouds are low and gray and full of rain.

Heidi and I just finished working with amazing teachers at a wonderful school in Mesa called Zaharis Elementary. We’ve been here before and we love these guys. They asked us to come out and do some staff development. Mike Oliver, the principal, wanted us to talk about Creating a Culture of Inquiry, Teaching for Social Justice and Kidwatching. These are three subjects I love, three subjects I live, three subjects I can get my teeth into.


I am not a fearless presenter like Heidi. I am not the visionary and planner she is. And while I have consulted many times and presented at lots of conferences, I am still kind of a fraidy cat when it comes to talking to teachers I admire and respect. Total strangers? Not much of a problem. But what do I have to offer? I am a teacher of little kids. I hang out with 22 little best friends for 7 hours a day. We read and talk about stories; we write and share what we have written. We sing meaningful songs. We ask questions about how things work and why the world is organized the way it is. We look out at the world and try to find answers. We rejoice in each other’s insights and strategies. Sometimes we fuss at each other and feelings get hurt. We laugh a lot. Sometimes we cry.

And we learn the stuff you know? The 3R’s and science and social studies and how to take high stakes tests. But between and among all the stuff we learn to live together and how to get along in the world. I am not saying it’s simple. It’s not. It’s complex and challenging and sometimes you feel like you have ten plates spinning at once. And sometimes one falls.

Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes I grouch at someone or misread a situation or don’t plan as carefully as I should. But it works. Teaching little ones is something I have grown into and something I love. I am blessed to be a teacher. Many years ago I went back to school to get my principal’s license. I took lots of administration courses and learned about the law surrounding public education, the financing involved and the protocol of being a school administrator. I had a semester long internship where I attended district meetings with principals and district office people. I sat in on discipline actions and met with parents along with my principal. The closer I got to being a principal, the less I thought I could do it for a living. I completed the coursework for my principal’s license but never applied for a job in administration. I have always been a teacher of children. I guess that’s what I’ll always be.

We met Mike, the principal of this wonderful school, and some teachers at a conference. When we finished presenting they were waiting for us. It was one of those rare times when you meet someone and you feel like you’ve known them all along, almost like you’ve found old friends you never really knew were there. Almost like you have to reinvent your past to let these new friends in because they’ve been there for years. We’ve known each other for a long time now and this mutual respect reaches across from SC to AZ. And I know it always will.


It is humbling to be asked to share with a bunch of teachers at this incredible school led by an insightful, caring principal and staff. What do I have to offer that they don’t already do very well? But Heidi has outlines and models and theory she has learned and developed and tweaked over the years. She has this brilliant, elegant, provocative way of inviting teachers (including me) into a journey of becoming, a process of outgrowing ourselves and always working toward something better. She pulls off this balancing act of making you feel good about what you do but pushing you to be even better, to go farther.

So what I have to offer is stories. Stories of the growth and change and development of my little friends. And not just how they have learned the stuff but how we have all grown in our humanness. I share stories of how second graders read more carefully, how they become so attached to their characters in a book that they are sad when a story ends, how a reluctant writer who complained about writing anything made a breakthrough and his friends appreciated his first three well-crafted sentences, how one child wrote that her new favorite author gave her the “courage to write” and that a goal of hers was to make her readers feel like crying.

I shared stories of how my class of little ones learned about the history of slavery and segregation and the struggles for Civil Rights and how our heroes became Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to attend an all white school in New Orleans in 1960. I shared how we came to believe that most of the heroes are not famous; that those heroes are the ones who broke the law to change it, who walked through the cold and heat instead of riding the bus, who sat at lunch counters where they were cursed and threatened and spit on and arrested and beaten and who had the courage not to raise a hand to strike back. I shared stories.

It seemed to work because most of the teachers leaned forward and laughed and took notes and shared their own compelling ideas, their personal stories of growth and change, their journeys and struggles. By Friday afternoon we had led five small group curriculum conversations and a whole faculty meeting. We shared theory and models and videos of children. We had one more small group to go. After lunch Mike took us on a whirlwind tour of the classrooms before our last formal time with the teachers. We walked through rooms where the children were at recess or lunch.

As we flew through we read the rooms. It is amazing what you can tell by the student work and art proudly displayed, how the furniture is arranged and what is hanging from the ceiling. It is so absolutely clear that this is a school where children come first, where their comfort and concerns trump everything else. Where children are not passive recipients of knowledge but active participants in their learning. This is a school where I would like to work, where I would love to have had our two boys brought up, where I would be old friends with the staff.

As we dashed through the classrooms I was filled with awe and wonder. Where the students and teachers were present, the kids wanted to rush up to Mike. Sometimes they did. Everyone got a hug or a high five. Every child was acknowledged and knew that Mr. O. cared for them.

We were late for our final presentation on Kidwatching, but we had to see one more classroom. When we walked into Gwen’s first grade classroom, the lights were low. Gwen and her children were into a language lesson. But they stopped when Mike and Heidi and I walked in. They seemed genuinely happy to see us. They simply stopped what they were doing and shifted their attention to us. Mike made introductions and asked if they wouldn’t mind sharing what they had been thinking about all year, their “Curriculum of Hope”.

“Curriculum of Hope”

Many kids started to speak at once. What they said was breathtaking.

We’ve been hopeful all year.

We love hope every day.

We just can’t live without hope.

It’s just an ongoing process that we love.

There are opportunities everywhere to find hope in the world.

They spoke of talking to education students at Arizona State University about hope and the time they spend with the severely challenged at their school, focusing on what the kids can do and not what they can’t do. The children shared titles of books about hope and read us a beautiful poem about hope – although not many had to look at the words because they had it memorized.

When we rushed from their room to the library where we were going to present our last workshop, my eyes were filled with tears. – “A Curriculum of Hope” Luckily, Heidi went first because I had a hard time not thinking about Gwen and those beautiful children. At a time when pressure is mounting for unfair teacher accountability and everything hinges on high stakes test scores, when back-to-basics and time-on-task are coming back with a vengeance, Gwen was busy teaching her children about life, about hope. Hope - in a world of strife and inequality and unequal opportunity, where your success depends so much more on where you were born than upon worthiness. These first graders were learning how to hope.

Story AreaZaharis Elementary Library

When it was my turn to speak and Heidi gave me my non-verbal cue to begin, I probably looked startled because all I was thinking about was that classroom and those children and that teacher who are getting in the 3 R’s thank-you-very-much. But they are also learning about hope. So I got up and shared my stories and thought up with this group of awesome teachers who were there to learn, to get new ideas, to share their accomplishments, to dream.

I am left with the thought that they could learn a tremendous amount by looking sideways into each other’s rooms or into the eyes of their principal who is so smart and cares for everyone so much. When we left, Mike hugged us and thanked us sincerely. We made plans to meet and collaborate again.

When we were sharing our spring break plans with friends last week and I told them that Heidi and I were doing some consulting in Arizona, many were sympathetic. Working? Spring break? Colin was coming with us and we had worked in an extra day to go to Sedona. But today it is raining and cold in Mesa. There is a winter storm warning in the Sedona area. We’ll stay local, take a day trip in the cold rain, and avoid the snow.

Honestly, I feel great about this spring break. I feel rejuvenated. I’ve thought deeply about my classroom; appreciate my kids even more because, even though we have been apart this week, they have lived with me in their writing samples, and in stories and videos. It makes me anxious to get back to them. As I sit here in the lobby of this hotel and look out into the rain, I feel good about these new old friends and about doing this job that I love.

Even though there are mandates and decisions made by people who know next to nothing about how children learn, and there are cutbacks and furlough days and high stakes tests and all of the crazy stuff around teaching, when it comes down to it, we are 20 – 25 people in a room trying to outgrow ourselves by teaching and learning new stuff, practicing, sharing, questioning and raising each other up. It is a good gig. How could I do anything else?

As I gaze into the cold Arizona rain, I am filled with hope.


ruck said...

How lucky your "little friends" are to have you for a teacher, Tim. inI think that you are in just the right place in this world. I remember asking you to choose whether you wanted to go to kindergarten or, stay home with me and help take care of your brand new brother. You chose taking care of Dan with me. Perhaps that was a clue as to how you would spend your life. Ruck

Chris Hass said...

Man, I hope you passed this piece along to Mike and his teachers. I'm sure they would really enjoy and appreciate it. They all sound amazing. I'm jealous of your experience (although Maria and I have arranged it so that she's spending Monday morning with you and I'm spending Tuesday morning with you - no pressure or anything).

I appreciate and admire your comment about how this was the perfect way to spend your break and recharge your batteries. There's something to be said about loving the time we spend in the classroom with kids. It reminds me that summers are refreshing in many ways but really, really long.

Emily Whitecotton said...

A few things hit me in this post.
1. Principal? Whoa. Interesting. That is one job that I don't think I could get into. It would be neat to see how you took your lens of what kids can do into that world. It seems to be a world so full of the Can't.
2. "journey of becoming" What a great way to talk about this teaching gig. Being the lead learner in a class full of kids who are expected to learn and grow is a big deal because it requires us to learn and grow too.
3. "looking sideways" What a great way to talk about collaboration! That is what collaboration is though, looking sideways, not up or down, but next door to learn from the experience of someone else. That action reminded me of a part of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that I've been reading with some of my yoga friends: "...enlightening one another and always recounting my stories." When I add my light to yours and we share our stories, the light just gets bigger. When we live in that brightness, it enlightens us all.