A Chance to Be in the Room Where It Happens

In case you missed the reference in the title (from my trip to Chicago)

I am a classroom teacher. I have been now for twenty-one years. It is what I will be next year and likely the year after, quite possibly for another decade. It is a job I love and feel privileged to do.

For the past two years I have also served on the board of directors for two organizations, both affiliates of ASCD. I have sat in meetings with school district superintendents, district-wide leaders and coaches of all sorts, principals, and assistant principals. I have had the chance to be a part of planning the work and making decisions for these organizations. This is not a situation the great majority of teachers have the opportunity to do and I am grateful for it.

Yesterday I was in a middle school cafeteria after school with the president of Virginia’s Board of Education and two of the members (one of whom is the director of equity for my school district, the other of whom is a former secretary of education for Virginia and Tim Kaine’s wife). For an hour and a half these three individuals listened to those of us in the room and asked us questions about their draft Standards of Quality. In the room were representatives from a range of organizations in Virginia (I was there as a representative of the Virginia affiliate for ASCD) who had been invited to give feedback. At the end, there was half an hour for public comment.

I am confident these board members listen carefully to the public comments. I watched them take notes on what people had to say. However, those of us there for the focus group period had the chance to not only share our thinking, but to ask questions, and to respond to questions. We had the chance to weigh in significantly on these drafts.

I spent the day yesterday teaching third graders. We ran a small marketplace in our classroom during math to practice making change. We read a few chapters in our current novel and hated quitting because we are so near the end and it is quite suspenseful. We added new thoughts to our chart on characteristics of high quality writing. We went to art class and worked on weaving.

Then I snuck out a little early and drove to this meeting. I chatted with the members of the Virginia Board of Education, the superintendent and chair of the board of education of the school district we were in, and representatives from various organizations. It is possible some of those folks spend their days in schools, same as I do, but most of them likely don’t.

I am deeply appreciative of those who have seen me as one who belongs in the room where it happens. I hope we can find a way to bring more current teachers in as well.

(I believe strongly that teachers want teachers to be in these rooms and to have a strong voice. I also suspect that many teachers do not want to be in these rooms given the amount of time it can take, in addition to a job that is already demanding. I do not think that is a problem. Not all teachers need to be in these rooms. We need to do a better job of inviting teachers in and ensuring that those who want to speak up have the opportunities.)

I Can’t Stay Quiet

I am working on speaking up when I feel a need. I often think I don’t have anything to say that isn’t being said better by others or that it isn’t my place to speak up. I bought myself a domain and I enjoy writing so I need to get over this.

I have known I believe strongly in the idea that abortions should not only be legal but be accessible since I was a teenager. I was raped when I was sixteen (the first sexual intercourse for me) and was terrified I could be pregnant. I did not want to face the rape and that trauma and a pregnancy would definitely have complicated my ability to deny reality as a coping strategy.

When I was pregnant with my first child I wondered if I would change my thoughts on abortion. I have seen many women for whom that is true. Pregnancy and becoming a mother have moved some women to become adamantly anti-abortion. That was not the result for me. Pregnancy was not enjoyable for me. I had morning sickness for many months. With the first one I threw up more in the first trimester than I had done in the prior twenty-eight years of my life. And it didn’t end when I made it to the second trimester. After she was born I was more strong pro-choice than I had been previously. I believed no one should be forced to go through that.

If I were to get pregnant now it would horrify me and an abortion would most definitely be an option I would consider. We have two children (the only two pregnancies I have ever had – to the best of my knowledge as there are pregnancies that end in miscarriage before the person is even aware they are pregnant – and both were wanted and planned because I have been very lucky) and they are 15 and 12. To have a baby now would be so completely life changing I can’t even imagine it. And I am forty five years old. The chances of issues with the pregnancy or the baby get higher every day.

I support the idea of adoption but I don’t believe that is the right answer for everyone. Pregnancy and childbirth can be quite hard on a woman. Nine full months is a surprisingly long time to have your body not really be your body. And, in a case like my hypothetical pregnancy, the chances of adoption of a baby with quite possible health issues would not be fabulous. (Which doesn’t even get at all of the many young children out there without families and homes who are not being adopted.)

We also do a terrible job of caring for pregnant people in this country. With the maternal mortality rate what it is in this country pregnancy can be far too dangerous to be forced on anyone. This is even more true for women of color. (My mom, a nurse, didn’t want to know when I went into labor. She didn’t want to know until the baby had safely arrived. She is far too aware of the statistics.)

Without perfectly reliable and completely accessible birth control, abortion is a necessary medical procedure.

A Day in the Life

It has been a day. In fact, it has been one of those days that clearly illustrates what it is to be a teacher. I spent my morning administering a state standardized test. My kiddos took the first half yesterday and finished it up this morning. It’s their first one. I walk this tightrope around these tests of doing all I can to prepare them while working hard not to make the test stressful. It sucks. I’m pretty sure it sucks for them too, but I know it sucks for me. Whether I like it or not, test scores are used for many things these days. These third grade test scores are unlikely to impact their lives, but their sixth grade scores will determine whether or not they have to take a remediation course in seventh grade, thereby losing one elective. These test scores are considered when deciding if students can be in honors courses in middle school and high school. I think it is absurd and a terrible indicator of students’ potential future success, but no one is asking me.

So our school day, while only a small part was actually testing, was dominated by that testing. One of the crappier parts of being a teacher.

On the other end of things, a friend and former colleague was at her daughter’s college graduation today and ran into one of our former students. He was also graduating. And he remembered me (whether she asked him about me or he mentioned me unprompted I do not know). I taught him in fifth grade, eleven years ago. He has a college degree now (from a highly respected university). The idea that I played some part in his success is such an uplifting, reassuring thought. Especially on a day like today.

This evening my oldest daughter had a choral concert. It’s an extra fun one because it’s mostly show tunes with lots of upbeat energy. (Also especially helpful on a day like today.) It’s a community choir with kids from five on up to high school seniors. All of the choral groups perform and many of the kids sing solos or duets. The final soloist of the evening is another former student of mine. She’s a ninth grader now and I taught her when she was in first grade. Watching her on that stage, a place it seems she was born to be, brought tears to my eyes. I want so badly to think that I played some part in her success.

I want my students to be successful. I’m just not sure I define that in the same way many others do.

I want my students to believe in themselves.
I want my students to know themselves and be willing to see themselves honestly.
I want my students to love themselves.
I want my students to be happy.
I want my students to be able to think and question.
I want my students to be kind.
I want my students to be aware of others and empathetic.
I want my students to want to keep learning. Always.
I want my students to want to improve themselves and our world.

I want them to have the necessary skills to live the life they want to live and to have the confidence and sense of self to know what that might be and to work to make it happen.

The two former students who crossed my path today seem, as near as I can tell, to be doing that just fine. I hope my current third graders do as well, regardless of their test scores.

The Challenges of Mother’s Day

This past week one of my third graders asked me if we were going to do anything for Mother’s Day. We were not. I have rarely done anything with my students for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Initially it was because I’m not that with it. Those holidays tend to sneak up on me so I never had anything planned. Now it is more of a conscious decision.

from A K M Adam’s flickr

I had a student my first year of teaching who I will never forget. He was a fourth grader, so only ten years old, when I taught him. His mother had left when he was four and he’d had no contact with her since then. My memory is that he was still believing that she would be back one day. It broke my heart.

Creating Mother’s Day presents in the classroom seemed like cruelty with that child there. I know I could have offered him the chance to create the gift for some other important woman in his life. Or for his dad, who was doing all of the parenting. But it could still, so easily, have felt like a slap in the face to watch his classmates create items for their moms.

Mother’s Day reminds me of how very lucky I am. I spent half an hour on the phone the other evening with my mother. My parents are still positive, important people in my life. I adore my daughters. I’m sure I annoy them frequently, but we do pretty darn well together. They share what is going on in their lives with me and ask for advice. We enjoy spending time together. I even got lucky to have a wonderful mother-in-law. Mother’s Day does not cause any problems for me.

I know that isn’t true for everyone. Mother’s Day can be a challenge for many. For people who have  lost their mother or have a difficult relationship with their mother. Or for mothers who have lost their child or have a difficult relationship with their child. Or people who want to be mothers and are not. Or women who do not want to be mothers and get a lot of crap for it.

I’m reminded of how I feel about Teacher Appreciation Week. If I am lucky enough to have good relationships with my mother and my children, I don’t really need Mother’s Day. If I don’t have good relationships with them, Mother’s Day is more painful than positive. So it is not a holiday I address in my classroom.

Teacher Appreciation Week, Bonus

Teacher Appreciation Week has never been a big thing for me. If I’m not feeling appreciated (by my bosses or colleagues or students or their families) it isn’t likely that this week is going to do anything about it. If I am feeling appreciated (which has been overwhelmingly the case throughout my teaching career) then I don’t need this week.

That said, sometimes things happen during this week that bring me great joy. On Monday two of my kiddos brought me orchids (for which I have a special love, as I mentioned that day).

The note he included with the orchid.

Midway through Monday, one of those boys asked me if I liked Snickers. I said yes. He said, “Don’t ask me why I asked!”

The next morning he was one of the first to arrive and he looked a bit chagrined. He said, “Ms. Orr, the Snickers melted! So I brought you these instead.” And handed me a snack bag of Lays potato chips and a granola bar. He said, “My mom said everyone needs a protein bar.” His mom, upon realizing the Snickers was not an option, clearly grabbed treats she could find at home for me. It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture.

Later in the day he gave me more details about the Snickers. If I understand correctly he left it on the cable box (or something of the sort) and it melted. He informed he had put it in the freezer and if it was okay he’d bring it to me the next day. He did so. It was still in rough shape, but it was solid.

This boy has only been in my class a month. I am bowled over by the care he took in celebrating this week and his generosity toward me. It is such a gift to work with children.

Teacher Appreciation Week, #5

My first full time teaching job was fourth grade in a highly diverse school. Our students spoke many different languages. They had such a wide variety of life experiences, even by the time I knew them at the age of ten.

I had so much to teach them, at least according to my district and state standards, but they also had so much to teach me. I am convinced children teach adults as much as we teach them all the time, no matter who they are. However, my students had even more to teach me because of how different our backgrounds were. They were living in the U.S. now, experiencing many of the same things I was, speaking the same language, eating the same foods, watching the same movies. But they had so much more. Another language, foods I didn’t know at all, religious observations with which I had no experience, and often travel that I couldn’t imagine.

Those students my first year of teaching, and their families, taught me how much I didn’t know. They showed me how many things I assumed based on my own life experiences. It was as if I had been watching a play performed on stage and suddenly the curtain opened to reveal so much more of the set. I knew such a small portion before.

Every day I learn more about lives that are different from mine and it fascinates me. I learn from my students and from my daughters’ friends. I know that I am still only scratching the surface of this world in which I live. Next year I’ll be teaching on an army post, teaching all children in military families. I will again learn about a world I don’t really know. More curtains will open for me, revealing more of what is there. I can’t wait.

I am so grateful to my students and their families over the years who have shared their lives with me. Shared their food. Invited me to understand a religious holiday. Explained to me a cultural difference. I appreciate all they have taught me.

That first class got me as a very green, baby teacher. I made so many mistakes that year (and still do, but hopefully not quite like that) and those kiddos were still willing to invest in me. I will always love them for that.

My first class of kiddos. (My school ID photo still looks like me in this picture. It really confuses my current students.)

Teacher Appreciation Week, #4

A few years back we had a group of kids in my grade that were seen as difficult. There were a larger than normal percentage of kids who had a history of behavior issues and academic challenges. I knew at the start of the year that I would need to work extra hard to build relationships with at least some of my students. Very quickly I identified a few who I thought would need to know I believed in them, cared about them, and had their back; kids who might not naturally assume that from the adults in their lives for various reasons. Those were the first kids to get postcards from me that year. Those were some of the first kids I ate lunch with. I went out of my way to have casual conversations with them. I invested a lot of energy in the first month of school to be sure we had a strong relationship. I knew it would matter as the year went on.

It did. And those kiddos are still ones I love. (In fact, I stopped one in the hallway today to tell her I’d heard a rumor she worked super hard on her reading state test. She retorted, “It’s not a rumor. It’s fact!” I could have jumped with the joy I felt.) That isn’t to say we didn’t have rough patches through the year because we did. Quite a few. That isn’t to say I didn’t get into stupid power struggles with them on occasion, because I did. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any means, but I am certain that investment early in the year helped us through those tough periods.

from JD Hancock’s flickr

Then there was the one boy I had missed. I didn’t identify him as one who needed me to work so hard in the beginning. I read him as a kid who would trust me more naturally.

I was wrong.

I learned later his family had been through a rough summer with a significant tragedy before that year began. I totally missed that at the beginning of the year.

By late fall my error was clear. This boy and I struggled. He wasn’t strongly invested in our classroom community or in his own learning. Given the recent trauma in his life, that was reasonable. But I feel I missed an opportunity there. If I had invested in him the way I did in several of his classmates, from the first few weeks, maybe it would have played out differently. Maybe he would have felt more a part of our community. Maybe he would have trusted me more.

I can’t know for sure, but he is as strong a reminder to me of the importance of relationships as his challenging classmates are.

Teacher Appreciation Week, #3

One of the best experiences I’ve had as a teacher was looping with my students. Twice I got to start with fourth graders and go on to fifth grade with them. Those kids will forever have a special place in my heart because we knew each other so well.

One of those kiddos is on my mind today. He’s one of those never-forget kiddos. He’s long since graduated from high school, quite well gainfully employed, and with a kid of his own. But his fourth and fifth grade self has a special place in my heart.

He had an IEP and he struggled in school. Reading and writing were especially hard for him. As a 10/11-year-old he could see that other kids could read more easily, more strongly, more quickly, than he could. He could see that other kids were ‘smarter.’

What he couldn’t see and what it took me too long to identify was how deeply he thought about things. During read alouds in our classroom he stood out when he shared what he was thinking about the book. During social studies conversations about Virginia history or ancient cultures, his questions and ideas were stellar.

Reading and writing might have been roadblocks for him, but his brain is brilliant. I’m grateful we had two years together because it gave me more time to try and help him see his own brilliance. While we worked on necessary reading skills I would remind him of the things he understood.

When he headed off to middle school the next year we still got together. He came to our house and helped me stain the new pantry doors we had hung. I took him to the middle school play (an Anne of Green Gables thing that seemed a poor fit for the student population).

I saw him a few years after he graduated from high school and learned how tough it had been for him. He had teachers who clearly saw his challenges but not his strengths. He told me a story of advocating for himself to complete a course and get the needed credits for graduation. Listening to him his frustration was clear. But I could also hear his confidence. His belief in himself that he had earned those credits. Had earned that degree.

I recognize the importance of the academics we teach in school. I also know, especially from this young man, how critical the social/emotional learning is as well. I have to believe that some of his confidence, some of his ability to advocate for himself, came from his time with me. I hope so. I hope I gave him that. He gave me a lens for seeing the strengths of all kids. For recognizing that no matter the challenges every kid has strengths. My job is to see them and to build on them.

Teacher Appreciation Week, #2

For today, I’m reflecting on a series of students I taught when they were first graders. I spent 6 years teaching first graders after a decade with fourth and fifth graders. First graders are wildly different from who they become several years later. As a result, there were experiences I had in first grade that I had not encountered with older students.

I taught, then, in a school that was extremely diverse. Last year’s demographics, according to our county website, were:

  • Asian = 17%
  • Black = 15%
  • Latino = 56%
  • White = 10%
  • Other = 2%

Many of our students were first- or second-generation immigrants. Most spoke at least one language other than English. Some two or three other languages. It was a rich cultural experience to be in that school.

Our faculty, not surprisingly, was nowhere near as diverse. We were overwhelmingly white women.

The children I am thinking of today are all girls and all of them are Black. For several years I had one Black girl each year who challenged me. They fit a stereotype of the Angry Black Girl.

The first year I didn’t notice it. There are always challenging students for a wide variety of reasons. I worked to get to know this girl and her family, to build relationships with them. It wasn’t an easy year but it was a good one.

The next year it happened again. I still didn’t really notice and approached the situation as I would with any student. Get to know them. Build relationships. Offer choices. Keep the academic challenges high with necessary supports. Again, a good year, on the whole.

By the time I hit the third year in a row with a Black girl who seemed, to me, to be angry and unhappy at school, I finally had to take a step back. I finally saw a pattern.

Look again at the statistics above. Black students are about 15% of the school’s population. In a class of 20 students, that means one or two will be Black. That meant my only, or one of very few, Black students was standing out in a less than positive way.

What was I doing? How was I contributing to these girls’ challenges? Was it something in my perception and expectations of them that set them up for this? What was I not doing to make them feel safe? Accepted? Believed in? To be totally honest, I’m still not certain. I am certain that I was a critical factor for these children. That my beliefs and actions were impacting them in ways I didn’t see.

I’d love to know what those girls are doing now. They are in high school. If their future teachers did a better job than I of seeing them and all their strengths, they will be soaring. If their future teachers didn’t, they may still be soaring but it would be in spite of their schooling.

Those girls helped me look more deeply at my own biases. At the expectations I had for all of my students. They made me more aware of how much I need to analyze and be conscious of my perceptions. They taught me some critical lessons.

Teacher Appreciation Week, #1

This morning two of my students brought me orchids for teacher appreciation week. (Little did they know I have special love for orchids because my dad always got my sister and me orchid corsages at Easter when we were kids. He picked them because we were Orr-kids.) I had some fun pens to give my kiddos this morning, just by chance as they arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon. As I gave them to my students one of the ones who brought me flowers said, “I thought it was teacher appreciation week!”

from Gretchen Lee’s flickr


It was perfect as I’d already set myself a goal of writing about students I appreciate this week. There are so many students who have taught me so much and have made me a better teacher and a better person. So I’m planning to write a post each day reflecting on them.

I’m sure I’ve written about this one before but it bears repeating (if only because it’s good for me to reflect on this learning again and again). I don’t remember this girl’s name, but I taught her when she was in first grade, so this was at least 6 years ago, could be as many as 10 years ago. I honestly couldn’t say.

She was only in my class for the first couple of months of the year before her family moved. From the beginning she was a thorn in my side. She never followed directions. She didn’t care about the work we were doing. She was a challenge and I didn’t know what to do. Also, I was mostly annoyed more than focused on what to do.

About a month into the year, when things slowed down slightly, I spent an afternoon getting things organized. I came across the cards the kindergarten teachers had used when making classes for first grade. Each kid gets a pink or blue card (yup, that’s how we do it) with their name, ESOL level, special education label, advanced academic level, basic information about their behavior and academic performance, and a place for notes.

I looked at the card for this girl, the one who was making me cranky on a daily basis, and was shocked. Her kindergarten teacher, a teacher I greatly respect, had written brief notes about what a hard worker and how helpful she was. What?!?

I went to this kindergarten teacher and told her of my surprise. She was floored to hear me describe what I was seeing. She couldn’t believe it was the same girl any more than I could.

About a week later I noticed this girl was doing great. She was following directions. She was engaged in our learning. She was happy. (It was only then that I saw how unhappy she had been.) Not too much later she moved. Another teacher said to me, “It’s so sad she’s leaving now when she was really getting it.” I said, “It wasn’t her that was getting it, it was me.”

Talking to the kindergarten teacher, hearing her perspective on this student, completely shifted the way I approached her and responded to her. It wasn’t actually a conscious thing for me, but it happened. I could tell because of the change that resulted in the classroom. It was me that changed.

It was the clearest example of the classic quote from Haim Ginott that I have experienced in my years of teaching. (There have been other examples. This one just smacked me in the face.)

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

I control myself. That’s it. Not only can I not control others, even the children in my care, I am not interested in trying. I control myself. And that can make all the difference.