Blog post by Colleen Reiner, PTAC Member
I loved art class in high school. It was quiet and I could work on my project at my own pace.
One day, I decided to surprise my family by doing a pen and ink drawing of our 100-year-old Victorian house. This project requires you to dip a pen into an ink well and carefully draw all the lines, curves, and details. I was almost finished when a devastating thing happened.
I accidently got too much ink on my pen and ended up with a big blob of ink where my bushes should be. Immediately, I started crying thinking that my picture was ruined. Mrs. Strafford, my art teacher, came over to find out what was wrong. She calmly told me that mistakes were an opportunity to go in a new direction. We talked about how we could turn the blob into berries on my bushes and I envisioned a new picture!
So often, we all think that we need to be perfect and we are ruined if we make a mistake.
A few years later I was student teaching during my senior year of college. I made a mistake and had to go to the director of the childcare center. I took responsibility for my choice and talked about how I would rectify the situation. This woman was so kind. She listened, understood, and forgave me immediately. There was no hesitation in her decision.
Her take on mistakes was that we all make them. The important thing is to admit it, take responsibility for it, create a solution, and try not to make that same mistake again. That day, I learned how important it is to forgive others when they make mistakes. This helps them to move forward and make new choices.
In these cases, I had great teachers who helped me to grow in a positive way. They showed me that I didn’t have to be perfect and making mistakes was just part of growing and learning.
This summer I found just the right video to show my students about mistakes. Dr. Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, tells of the importance of making mistakes in her video, “Mistakes.” She states that there is evidence of the importance of mistakes in life. If you compare successful with unsuccessful people in life, the successful people have made more mistakes. I recommend that you check it out.
In my classroom mistakes are expected and celebrated. At first, students are afraid to make mistakes, let alone admit that they made them. We start by watching Dr. Boaler’s video. We talk about how our brain grows every time we make a mistake. I work hard all year looking for just the right mistakes to highlight. Students are so surprised when I ask to share their mistake with the rest of the class, and I’m excited about it! Eventually, they are pointing their mistakes out to me AND they are sharing how they solved their problem.
The mission of my school district is to make students lifelong learners. The best way I can do this is to teach students to step up to the challenge, be inquisitive, and persevere through mistakes. If we start early, and cultivate these characteristics in our students, we can all achieve this goal.
Blog post by PTAC Member Jolene Barron
Each day, like most teachers, I use my morning preparation time for some rather specific purposes.
I unload my overloaded teacher bag, which most likely just went for a ride in my car the night before.
Coffee. Must have coffee.
Review the day’s schedule. Make sure all materials are prepped and ready for the day.
Drink more coffee.
Think about and prepare mentally for any potential surprises that could come my way and alter my super organized and well-laid plans.
Sadly, over the years, I have learned that no matter how much I try to prepare for the unknown, I am never fully prepared for what actually ends up happening. The things I worry about typically aren’t even an issue, and the biggest situations are ideas and events that I never even considered.
Lately, I have also found myself wondering if today might be the day that my school is the scene of the next mass shooting.
Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland.
The horrific events that happened in each of these schools and others have completely changed the landscape of education. I would be lying if I gave you any indication that they have not affected my daily life as a teacher. In fact, it is something that I think about quite frequently. These days my mind constantly seems to return to thoughts of how I would protect my students.
I think of our school and classroom plans that have been formulated to keep children safe in active shooter situations and wonder in the back of my mind what we missed. I wonder if I’ll be able to keep my students calm and silent enough to avoid attracting attention. Will I really be able to protect them?
Often I wonder how I can keep my students safe if something happens to me. Will they know what to do without me?
The scariest thought that keeps coming back to me is, “What if our school is next?”
School safety means many things to many people. For some, it means increased security measures and screening procedures to protect students and staff. For others, it could refer to early detection systems or security cameras. Some believe that armed guards or staff members is the best line of defense.
I’ll be completely honest here. I don’t know what the right answer is more than anyone else. If someone had an easy answer we wouldn’t see mass school shootings occurring on a regular basis.
I don’t think there is only one solution. No matter how hard we might try, nobody can come up with a lesson plan or a school safety plan that will adequately address all possibilities.
However, there is one thing that I do know for sure.
There is a fundamental problem in our society right now. Children and young adults are being bullied at an alarming rate. Young people are suffering from depression and a host of other mental illnesses. Teenage suicides are on the rise, and pre-teens are now taking their own lives. Social media has made it easier for students to bully each other from “behind the screen” and is causing mental and emotional trauma. Guidance counselors and a variety of additional programs are being cut from schools.
Our children are suffering. Most schools do not have adequate support services or procedures in place to help these students. They are crying out for help, but is anybody listening?
Consider this solution:
"Students need to be trained to know what to look for and to know what to do when they observe a potential threat. This is the foundation of preventing school shootings.... Numerous students have prevented possible attacks because they knew enough to report what they heard to parents or school personnel. Students are not the only people, however, who have prevented school shootings. Anyone who is alert to warning signs can be a hero by coming forward and saving people’s lives." (1)
I am happy to say that Pennsylvania is taking some positive steps in the right direction. Our state will be the first to launch a statewide reporting system in January, called Safe2Say Something, where individuals can anonymously report concerns for a student’s safety or threats of violence. (2)
It has been reported that 80% of school shooters and 70% of individuals who have taken their own lives told someone of their violent plans prior to taking action - yet no interventions were made.
It seems to me that putting a system like Safe2Say Something into place, where students can report potential threats anonymously, has the potential to be an impactful preventative measure. Threat assessment teams work and they don’t have to cost a school district any additional money. The same can’t be said for metal detectors, security systems, armed guards, or staff members with guns.
One fact is undeniable. Nobody who makes an attempt to improve school security is wrong. Whether we implement mental health supports or go so far as to attempt to introduce policies where firearms are carried by school staff members, everyone thinks they are doing what’s best for the children in our schools. Every single person who is trying to protect the safety of our students is doing so with the best intentions. But, I think some are losing sight of one elemental truth.
Schools are supposed to be safe places, but events out of our control have proven that schools aren’t impenetrable. Bad things happen despite any measures that have been put into place. No matter how much preparation has taken place, no matter what safety measures have been implemented, the next target will never be fully prepared for what actually happens.
Blog post by MIssy Halcott, PTAC Member
What did you learn in high school?
I learned that I wasn’t good enough to pursue my dreams.
Sadly, I am not alone in feeling my ambitions were not embraced or encouraged by the adults responsible for educating our youth. I have heard others share that their families didn’t go to college, so it was not expected that they would either. Instead, their educators gently nudged them in another direction, or they were told flat out that their plans were too lofty.
As educators, isn’t it our charge to educate our students and inspire lifelong learning?
We must be careful to not douse the passions and dreams of our students. Instead, we must give them the tools to deal with the inevitable roadblocks that everybody faces in life.
We must not be one of those roadblocks.
Teachers have the power to nurture students’ dreams and fan the flames of their passions. We can allow them to explore all their options in the safety confines of the K-12 learning environment.
We are often told that there are jobs that will exist in the future that we aren’t even cognizant of today. How can we predict what job paths are best for certain students?
The simple truth is that we can’t. We shouldn’t engage in any activities that stifle a student’s pursuits. Our mission as educators should be to engage learners and encourage them to reach for the stars.
We need to embrace the fact that the “lifelong learning” mentioned in so many Pennsylvania school mission statements means we are never our best selves and we are always growing.
Our students are always growing too. In order for their fullest potential to be realized, we cannot limit them or restrict their opportunities.
It is vital that we stop placing students on predetermined paths, and instead ask them what their intentions are. Then we can assist them in exploring the possibilities.
Career exploration should be about learning what opportunities exist for students, not curtailing or narrowing the possibilities based on grades, gender, economics, or our perception of their talents.
History has taught us that there are many famous athletes, scientists, artists, performers, politicians, and even educators who were once told that their dreams were unattainable.
Albert Einstein, a dyslexic, was considered a poor student by his educators.
Michael Jordan was once deemed too short to play on his varsity basketball team.
Lady Gaga was a self-proclaimed misfit in school.
Steve Jobs dropped out of college due to financial difficulties.
These successful people ignored the naysayers, powered on, and forged their own paths toward their destinies. The list of others who have triumphed over trials is endless. I often wonder how much farther or sooner success would have come if they had been given a leg up from those who doubted them in the first place.
Consider the power behind this quote from Alfred Doblin,
“I used to think great teachers inspire you. Now I think I had it wrong. Good teachers inspire you; great teachers show you how to inspire yourself everyday of your life. They don’t show you their magic. They show you how to make magic of our own.”
Why shouldn’t educators allow themselves to foster an environment of exploration and the magical possibilities of the future for their students?
I was fortunate enough to rise above the doubt that was cast on me when I was a student in order to become a successful teacher. Others were not so lucky. We must create environments where students to do not have extra obstacles to overcome in order to be successful in life.
Instead of anchoring our students to their futures, why don’t we instead anchor our students to the idea of chasing down their dreams?
Blog Post by PTAC Member Georgette Hackman
Teaching can be lonely.
This sounds odd because we as teachers spend our day surrounded by other humans, but the actual art of teaching is normally done solo. Many teaching days involve hours of isolation from other adults in a classroom of students, often with the door closed.
Rarely do we as teachers step out of our solitary confines to co-teach or network with the teachers around us. Often, with the demands the system puts on us there isn’t much time for contact and collaboration with other adults.
The first part of my teaching career found me with lots of teacher friends, but very few that with whom I had opportunity for deep professional conversations. Talking about specific lessons, collaboration and brainstorming were things that I tried, but in the end I did most of my planning by myself.
The Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has shown that American schools tend to not excel at providing the culture and opportunity for teachers to collaborate with each other. I certainly felt that in the beginning of my career.
Too many of my early attempts at collaboration were negative experiences. Instead of working to find innovative ways to help students, I was told over and over why my ideas wouldn’t work. The discussions ended there.
This caused me to believe that it was best for me not to reach out to others. Looking back I know this wasn’t best for my practice nor my students. I wonder how many current teachers feel this same way.
One year, on a whim, I applied for a week-long residential summer professional development session. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I love to learn and I love to travel, so it seemed like a
What I thought would be a fun week away learning new concepts ended up completely transforming my professional career.
So much so, that when I now reflect on my life as a teacher, I think of BPD (before professional development) and APD (after professional development).
What happened at this life-changing event?
How did it transform a teaching career in 5 short days?
What changed me really had nothing to do with the content. It had EVERYTHING to do with the people.
You see, at that session, I walked into a room and found myself surrounded by 35 other people
who were as enthusiastic as I was to grow as a professional. I found teachers whose passion for teaching matched mine. I found teachers who experienced the same joy that I experienced in lesson planning. I found teachers who wanted to sit and talk for hours about strategies and resources. I found teachers who couldn’t get enough of whatever could be done to help their students succeed.
In short, I found my people.
I was astounded. I went in thinking that I was alone.
I left knowing the true value of an authentic professional learning community.
Nine years later, I have attended at least 20 other PD sessions just like the first one and I have added hundreds of teachers to my Professional Learning Community (PLC). I have used what I’ve learned from these teachers around the world to engage and inspire the teachers in my school, my school district, and beyond.
I have even stepped into leadership roles planning and facilitating learning opportunities for other teachers.
I like to think of it as helping my fellow teachers to find their people.
Professional development isn’t the only place to build a PLC. As part of my professional journey, I have found that social media is a networking teacher’s dream.
Twitter, Facebook groups, and Instagram are all ways to connect with inspirational teachers from around the globe. Memberships in professional organizations like the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee (PTAC) and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Network of State Teachers of the Year (NSTOY-PA) have helped me to add even more teachers to my PLC.
Finding other people who share your passion and commitment is exponentially transformative. In this act of networking is the recognition of our passion in the faces of others. Finding one another is powerful. Maintaining those connections is transformative.
Amy Poehler was 100% correct when she said, “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”
It changed mine.
Blog post by PTAC Member Colleen Reiner
A few years ago, the education department at Elizabeth College wanted to present me with a Distinguished Alumni award. My first reaction was to ask them if they had the right person.
I was surprised by the honor at first. My surprise soon turned to excitement as I realized the incredible opportunity this would afford me to talk about a group of students that are often forgotten in our school systems.
Anyone who has children or has worked with children knows that children learn and develop at different speeds.
When I think of my own children, my eldest daughter would be considered a daffodil or a crocus. She was an early bloomer. Betsy knew in 8th grade that she wanted to be a doctor. When her classmates were reading romance novels and adventure books she was reading books written by medical school interns and residents. She was researching colleges with the best acceptance rates to medical school while others were still thinking of what they wanted to do after high school. Betsy has followed her dream and is now in medical school.
My younger daughter is a rose or delphinium. Emily is a summer bloomer. She spent her high school years looking at her strengths and interests. After looking at six or seven different occupational paths she has finally found her passion and is focused on a career in chemistry. She enjoyed high school and is working hard at university taking classes and doing research.
I am a late bloomer. Like a chrysanthemum, I let all of the other spring and summer flowers bloom before me. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do my senior year in high school. There was no particular college that I had in mind. It was made clear to me by others that I was expected to attend college, though. After 4 years of college and a degree, I still had no idea what my calling was in life.
I attended college for 4 years and still didn’t feel ready to start a career.
I was fortunate enough to find teaching more than a year after getting my college degree. That year allowed me to mature and to realize that being a teacher was what I was meant to do.
In Robert Kraus’s book “Leo the Late Bloomer,” the protagonist is a tiger who isn’t keeping up with his classmates in school. His father is very concerned that his struggles will keep him from succeeding in life, but his mother keeps stressing that Leo will “grow in his own good time.” Of course, in the story Leo ends up proving his mother correct.
Like Leo and I, many of our students just need some time to bloom. With the right encouragement and nurturing, they will be fine. Our system expects all of our children to learn at the same rate, but as teachers we know that each individual learns and grows at their own pace. No child should be discouraged or penalized because they develop faster or slower than their peers.
A family friend once told me that his father was fond of giving the following advice. “Bloom where you are planted.”
I was planted at Elizabethtown College, where the motto was “Educate to Serve.” I clearly remember convocation when I first arrived. I don’t remember who I was sitting next to or how long the ceremony was that night. The only thing I remember is thinking how important it was to serve others.
During my time at Elizabethtown I germinated and grew strong roots. I joined clubs and groups, worked at the snack bar, attended my classes, and was exposed to a wide variety of different people.
It was a blessing to have wonderful friends and professors during that time. When I made mistakes, they believed in me, forgave me, and helped me grow. Those mistakes and lessons I learned from them made me who I am today.
Those lessons helped me bloom when it was my time.
When I have a student who is struggling in my classes, I always ask myself, “Could this be a late bloomer?”
I want to make sure that I am giving the encouragement, support, and assistance to each of my students that was given to me during the times in my life that I needed it.
Here are 5 ways that you can ensure all the flowers in your classroom, including the late bloomers, get what they need:
1. It only takes one person to make a change. We often talk about change and how it should happen. But we wait around hoping for someone to lead us in that change. Don’t wait for that person. BE that person.
2. Everyone makes mistakes. I certainly made lots of them, and I still make them at times. All of us do. Take responsibility, ask for forgiveness, learn from the mistake, and try not to repeat it. Model for students what learning from mistakes looks like. Hiding this part of yourself from them robs them of an opportunity to learn from you.
3. Don’t give up on kids. At times change takes place right away. Other times, change may take a lot longer. Be patient with your students.
4. Give change a chance. Allow students to have agency in your classroom. The more flexible and open-minded you are, the more students have an opportunity to grow and thrive.
5. Model innovation and problem-solving for students. If they see that you don’t have all the answers, and they learn from you how to go about finding solutions to the problems in their world, they will have more opportunity to develop into their best selves.
On Saturday, October 6th, the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee was excited to welcome our newest members at an orientation and training in Mechanicsburg. Our new members represent a wide variety of locations and teaching settings in the Commonwealth - from Philadelphia to rural areas in the northwestern part of the state.
After completing the initial training, members are eligible to participate in helping PTAC provide substantive information and feedback to stakeholders in Pennsylvania that make education decisions. The diversity of teaching settings, expertise, and viewpoints in the organization allows us to provide decision makers nuanced and varied narratives from a wide variety of schools.
Membership applications to the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee are reviewed on a rolling basis and new member trainings are scheduled several times throughout the year. The application takes about 5 minutes to complete and can be found at at http://ptacvoice.org/apply-to-join-ptac .
Blog Post By REbecca Gibboney, PTAC Member
Nine years ago, I had my first sleepless night as a teacher. I spent the night reviewing lesson plans and hoping that I would be able to make meaningful connections with my students. When the alarm rang, despite the tired bags under my eyes, I was excited and enthusiastic as I greeted each student that walked into my classroom.
That was my first day of being a teacher in my own classroom.
My lessons were scripted and the bulletin boards were neatly prepared. I even had a mint bowl next to the door for students that arrived on time. I knew that the lure of a mint would be sure to motivate students to arrive before the bell.
According to everything I had learned in my pre-service classes, things were under control.
I greeted my first group of students at the door with my “pocketful of sunshine” enthusiasm. I was sure they would greet me back. I was sure they were going to dive right into those mints. I was sure they would get busy right away with the bell ringer. And they did.
But, weeks passed by and I kept pushing along with my content, because that’s what I was trained to do. I was still greeting my students with enthusiasm every day, and I still had that bowl of fresh mints waiting, but something changed. Students’ smiles were fading, their eyes were restless.
And my mint bowl was staying full.
When I caught my first student asleep during my lesson, I was shocked and asked that student to stay after class. There had to be a punishment for his actions, right?
“Why were you sleeping during my lesson? It took me hours to prep that lesson! Do you know how disrespectful that is? I don’t think I’m that boring, am I?” I prodded.
In my young, new-teacher mind, his sleeping was somehow about me. I was the wronged party. He was being disrespectful to me.
“I’m sorry Señorita. I was up all night having panic attacks and when I finally got control of them it was early in the morning. I really only had about two hours of sleep,” he told me.
This was a plot twist I did not expect. I changed in that moment.
That single interaction forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about teaching, learning, and school.
I learned that teaching cannot be scripted by a curriculum or a textbook, but teaching is all about making connections and forming relationships.
Nine years later I see things very differently than I did as a novice. My enthusiasm remains, but I know that learning is messy. I used to plan for perfection, but now I plan for complexity.
I know that the art of teaching -- the art of building the relationships that are vital for both learning and personal growth -- is both complex and messy.
I begin each of my classes every year by uncovering my students’ unique stories. I learn what is hidden behind those tired eyes and worn-out smiles.
I simply listen.
We, as educators, cannot truly teach without first understanding our characters that walk into our classrooms each day.
Teachers are the directors of our classes. Our students are the actors.
Each year, we start without a script. Yet, students bring their own. Every single student in our classroom has a story with plot twists, some more than others; and, these plot twists have shaped them into who they are today.
It is our jobs to understand those plot twists and shape their character.
As a teacher, it is important to take the time to listen to students’ stories. It is important to take the time to understand who they are and who they want to become.
We must coach students through their plot twists and teach them that those plot twists - good or bad - do not define who they are.
Teaching isn’t just about the curriculum or the letter grades behind a name. Teaching is all about uncovering a student’s story and empowering them to write their own.
Blog Post by PTAC Board Member Jake Miller
Last month the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) held a series of regional stakeholder convenings for educational partners in preliminary discussions about Chapter 49 in Title 22 of the Pennsylvania Code, the state regulations pertaining to educator preparation and certification in Pennsylvania.
Several members of the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee (PTAC) attended these meetings in order to learn from other education stakeholders in the Commonwealth and to provide the vital perspective of classroom teachers in these discussions.
The PTAC members in attendance used their expertise in the field to zero in on and provide narrative to three core issues: addressing the current teacher shortage in Pennsylvania, improving diversity in our teaching force, and ensuring that our new teachers enter the profession well-prepared to help our students succeed.
ADDRESSING THE TEACHING SHORTAGE
Kelly Dougherty, an elementary teacher in Southern Lehigh and PTAC member, reports the Chapter 49 conference revealed a quiet crisis creeping across Pennsylvania school districts. Pre-retirement teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers, and their empty classrooms are being filled with less-qualified educators. The pre-retirement attrition rate has increased drastically; 66% of teacher attrition is pre-retirement loss, which is startling. But the attrition rate is just part of the complex and multi-faceted issue of teacher shortages. Ryan Saunders, a Policy Advisor of the Learning Policy Institute, shared some statistics during the Chapter 49 conference which crystalised the dire situation of the teacher shortage. According to Saunders’ statistics, teacher preparation enrollment has dropped 35% from 2009 to 2014. This drop in enrollment means there are too few teachers to fill these abandoned positions. To fill these positions, the state grants emergency certification to candidates who have not completed a teacher preparation program, which means less-qualified individuals are replacing highly-qualified educators. “Unfortunately,” says Dougherty, “the highest concentration of pre-attrition loss and emergency certification occur in urban districts, a situation which increases the inequity gap among Pennsylvania schools. Districts with the greatest need for highly-qualified teachers are settling for less-qualified instructors and larger class sizes.”
IMPROVING DIVERSITY IN THE PROFESSION
There’s a desperate lack of diversity in our classrooms, and the Chapter 49 meeting highlighted such, says Jake Miller, Cumberland Valley history teacher and PTAC board member. Though nearly 20% of the Commonwealth is minority, only 6% of its teachers match that description, which is in stark contrast to neighboring New York and Maryland, both of whom are diverse and have diverse teaching populations. “Focusing on such an effort to recruit a diverse range of teachers has a three-fold effect,” says Miller. “First, many teachers of color are drawn to districts of color, and that’s where the highest need for the vacancy vacuum is greatest; second, teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color; third, teachers of color can help break the barrier in diversity in mostly white districts (which are taught by mostly white students).”
Karey Killian, an elementary librarian in Milton and PTAC member, noted that teams of diverse stakeholders at the meeting quickly identified common themes in their discussions. “These themes included a need for increased focus on mental health of both students and adults in our schools, discussions of alternative pathways to teacher certification, and the potential impact of teacher apprenticeship programs,” she says.
ENSURING NEW TEACHERS ARE WELL PREPARED
According to Sara Jones, a Titusville social studies teacher and PTAC member, “when I entered the teaching profession 20+ years ago, educators were expected to create lesson plans, plan and deliver instruction, assess student learning, and manage student discipline. This seemed like a full plate and I honestly did not feel that my teacher candidate training program did a great job in preparing me for the realities of being a teacher. At that time, secondary teacher training programs focused primarily on content courses and until student teaching semester, there was very little interaction with students or in schools.”
“Over the next 23 years, the workload changed dramatically. However, being in the classroom meant that it kind of crept up on me,” said Jones. “Each year new responsibilities have been added yet nothing has been taken away and no more time has been added. Not only are educators tasked with helping students navigate the changes the 21st century has brought, with a focus on higher order skills, lifelong learning habits, and incorporating technology, we are also expected to complete additional administrative tasks, deal with more and more students who have experienced trauma, and provide more customized learning and problem based experiences. All while worrying about how we and our schools will be “scored” on these elements, plus things we cannot control.”
“While teacher candidates are much better prepared by the time they reach their student teaching experience today , they are also inundated with stories in the media about teachers walking out of the classroom to rally for a living wage, teachers that have to work multiple jobs to provide for their families, and teachers being expected to do more and more with less and less. How can we expect young people choosing career paths as college students to choose education when teachers more often than not are not seen as the professionals they are,” said Jones.
“Teaching in a small rural school district in NWPA, student teachers have never been in abundance. However we have always had one or two in most buildings each semester. This number has decreased dramatically in the last few years. We are now lucky to see one per building, per year. And the last two student teachers that have been in my classroom were totally shocked that they would have to do so much work outside the school day and that other aspects of their lives would be impacted by this expectation,” according to Jones. “At the Chapter 49 Stakeholders’ Meeting, the discussion surrounding increasing student teaching to up to a year was lively. While having more time to learn classroom management and content expertise is certainly valuable, does it outweigh the cost of additional time spent in college or seasoned educators losing an entire year with their students as the assist a student teacher.”
The Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee is committed to creating a direct pipeline between teachers and education decision makers in Pennsylvania. The narratives that Kelly, Karey, Jake, Sara, and the other PTAC members involved in this arena were able to provide undoubtedly helped other stakeholders understand the practical implication of the policies they were considering.
The issues we are facing in our commonwealth are complex and will require nuanced solutions. We are excited that PTAC teachers were able to take the first steps at these meetings in helping shape those solutions.
Blog Post by Jolene Barron, PTAC Member
As summer winds down, and a new school year peeks around the corner, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of excitement, and even a bit of trepidation, about what this new school year will hold.
Even though I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, I always get a bit nervous at the beginning of a new school year. It’s not about the content, or my colleagues, or even my district...for me, it’s always about the students and what kind of relationships we will share.
A few short months ago, I said goodbye to a group of children with whom I had bonded deeply. We learned together, we laughed and we cried together, but more than anything, I developed a unique relationship with each and every student in my class. Some of the relationships came naturally, but for quite a few, we had to work hard for many months to grow something meaningful.
No matter how difficult it may seem at times, the most important goal I have each year is to develop a relationship of kindness and respect with every child in my classroom.
Even though I am not a gardener, developing these relationships with my students always reminds me of the stages of plant growth. Our students come to us as seedlings. It is up to teachers to give those seedlings exactly what they need in just the right amount in order for them to thrive and grow. There are so many qualities our students need each day, but what I have found is that the needs of each student are often quite different.
Some students need a whole lot of kindness and empathy, while others need structure and high expectations. Some will thrive with praise, while others will shrivel in the spotlight. Some students bring so much baggage into the classroom, that they will require a great deal of patience and tenacity in order to break through their tough outer shells.
It is not always easy to determine what each student needs, but if teachers take the time to work through the possibilities, eventually, we will find exactly what each student needs in order to take root and flourish.
As students begin to feel comfortable, and they know that their teachers care about them, they begin to sprout. At times the growth is slow and steady. Sometimes you may question if any growth is occurring at all, but it is during those times that the roots are taking hold.
Students are seen taking risks, believing in their own abilities, and demonstrating confidence that wasn’t there earlier in the year. Students begin persevering in tasks that are hard, not necessarily because they want to, but because they know their teachers believe they are capable. You start hearing student conversations and are surprised to hear your words echoed in their own.
These are the times when you realize that your seedlings are starting to bloom as a result of the relationships that you started building with them on day one.
For me, the most important part of being a teacher is not about covering content.
I am confident enough in my skills and abilities as a teacher to know that the content will be taught, but that isn’t the main focus in my classroom. I am focused on teaching my students to be better, kinder human beings, and to send them out into the world a better person than they were when they arrived.
It is almost impossible to achieve that goal without first developing good relationships.
So, as we begin a new year with a new group of students, please remember to take the time to nurture your seedlings and grow strong relationships.
I can promise that if you do so, you will have a great year with an amazing display of blooms at the end of the year!
Blog post by Dr. Joe Harmon, PTAC Member
Due to lack of opportunity, youth in rural areas of America are not as civically engaged as their suburban and urban peers.
I feel the burden of this conclusion by Kawashima-Ginsberg and Sullivan in their study published in The Conversation. They further dubbed rural areas of America “civic deserts.” The youth in these areas are less likely to be involved in civic opportunities or volunteering.
We cannot have a thriving democracy without civic engagement from all parts of our country.
I am an 8th grade civics in rural Pennsylvania. The responsibility to engage my students in civic action weighs on me daily.
Last summer I was introduced to the work of Dr. Peter Levine from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In one of his talks, he asked a simple question.
“What should we do?”
These four words have become a driving force and a mantra for my teaching. Something needs to be done, and teachers like me have the opportunity to help our students see the importance of involvement. I am committed to ensuring that my students turn our little part of rural Pennsylvania into an oasis of civic engagement.
Last fall I launched a new civic engagement project.
Students researched and brainstormed issues of importance at local, state, national, and global levels. Issues such as poverty, terrorism, bullying, and environmental concerns were listed by students. I challenged them to identify how issues such as these could be addressed at the various levels.
Then, I asked them to develop a plan of action and a pitch to their classmates to convince others to get involved in addressing their issue.
They were figuring out their own, “What should we do?”
My goal was for students to take action on an issue of choice and see themselves of agents of change despite their age. You don’t need to be an adult to have a positive impact on your community.
Students were asked to carry out at least two acts of civic engagement based on their plans - once in the fall semester, and once in the spring.
The impact that my students had was astounding.
The local bike trail was scoured for litter several times, while a nearby roadway was cleared of 500 lbs of trash. Students volunteered with their churches, packing blessing bags for underprivileged students. They built refugee gardens in an urban neighborhood. Many volunteered with organizations such as the nearby animal shelter and the community food pantry. There were collection drives for the local cancer center, a toy drive for community children in need, and a plastic bag drive to create mats for those living homeless. Students attended borough council meetings and school board meetings. They wrote letters to the President of the United States about national affairs and to their high school principal in hopes of changing the dress code policy. When it snowed students walked their neighborhood to shovel the driveways of elderly community members.
Two projects were especially impactful. One group of students helped revitalize a blighted cemetery that held the remains of several Civil War veterans. Their work was featured by a local news outlet. Another group developed a districtwide Twitter hashtag (#weareredbankvalley), which was used to build school culture and raise hundreds of dollars to benefit their 8th grade class.
At the conclusion of the project students blogged about their experience, reflecting on these questions:
One of the most important aspects of this project for me, as a teacher, was to develop intrinsic motivation in my students as civic activists. For this reason, I was careful not to assign extra credit or bonus points to their project. In order to recognize the efforts of those who were interested in going beyond the project’s scope, I allowed those who participated in more than the required number of actions the opportunity to opt out of a civic issues paper that is normally required in my class. Many students chose this path of extra civic participation despite the fact that no points or grade were attached.
As I have reflected on my original goal of increasing civic engagement in our rural area and how to improve this project in the future, I have come to the conclusion that student input is key. Even though they are on summer break, many of those who have worked so hard this year to make their community a better place have been eager to provide advice on helping next year’s class.
We still have a long way to go in helping our rural students have the same opportunities for civic engagement as their suburban and urban peers. I hope that the work of my students shows that when given that opportunity, students in rural areas can change their world for the better.