How I pulled my head out of my _ _ _ at the ASCD conference
It was good for him, of course, but everybody had said he ran our school and we found out we weren’t just saying it—it was true. His absence felt monumental and tragic, and my best friend/colleague left as well. She went to Chicago to be with her boyfriend—another good move for somebody else that left us, well, me, bereft.
We’ve been maligned in the press all year, a couple of weeks ago the Post released teacher-rating reports that everybody acknowledges were questionable at best. It truly feels as if teachers have been on the receiving end of an abusive relationship this year. And like the abused everywhere, we’ve begun to internalize it—wait, wait, wait, wait. Let me speak for myself. But there’s a chance I may be speaking for others as well.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development … sexy
So imagine how glad I was that I signed up to go to the ASCD conference in Philadelphia this past weekend. I had to look it up just now to see what it even stands for (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). I had been calling it the ACDC conference and just wanted to go to be able to list it in my tenure folder. But it turned out to be amazing. It wasn’t the Burning Man for teachers or anything, but I sort of had a personal revelation in addition to learning a ton about my job.
My 10-year-old son and I went together, separate from the people at my school. They all left on Friday, and stayed in the same hotel—paired up together in rooms. The school paid for everything. Since I was taking my son I paid for our hotel, but my school paid for my registration, and I also got reimbursed for train fare. My son and I live right by Penn Station, so we set out on the 5:45 train on Saturday morning.
I wasn’t even sure where the conference was being held in Philly, but we got there in a surprisingly short time. Somehow I looked at the conference brochure a dozen times before I saw it was at the convention center. And my son and I had already started walking there, thinking that was the most logical place. This shows how well-planned I was. But that was part of why I think my time there was so successful. Everything just came together.
What are we supposed to do now?
The days and weeks leading up to the conference were chaos as usual at my school. The morning we left I printed out the registration receipt that would allow me to get my name badge and that was it. My son and I got admitted to the giant convention center and after that brief win stood there asking ourselves, now what? People were walking to and fro, seeming to know what was going on. “I hate teachers,” I said to my son. See, I had become self-hating.
But then we found this booklet sitting somewhere and it had all the possible sessions in it that you could attend. “Oh,” I said to my son. We sat down and I quickly paged through it. I found a session called “Pedagogy of Confidence: Transforming Urban Classrooms through Strengths.” I liked the way that sounded, it started in 30 seconds, and we went.
I went in expecting it to be stupid, but it wasn’t. It was really good. It talked about a lot of stuff I already do in my class. Rather than focus on remediation—and what the kids are missing—give them challenging work that’s relevant to the world and to their lives. And give them the background information to allow them to do it, connect it to their world in some way. I felt validated by this session, because I’m always bringing in work that some of my colleagues feel is too hard or that the kids aren’t ready for. And I don’t like to plan out in minute detail ahead of time but wait to see what’s going on in the world and tie projects to something current.
People care about our country’s underperforming boys
Next I went to a session called “Leave No Boy Behind: What’s a Teacher to Do?” This title appealed to me since just the day before I was ready to leave half-a-dozen boys in my class behind as they threw pencils and paper balls at each other during the last heartrending scene in Of Mice and Men. This session was given by a professor from Sanford, Florida—yes, that Sanford, Florida—and she talked about the neurological differences and maturity rates in boys and girls and what that meant for how they learned in the classroom. It was informative, practical and helpful, and she couldn’t have cared more.
After that a man named Barute Kafele delivered a session called “Inspiring Black Males to Soar.” I was totally moved by this man’s dedication to young, black males, and he travels around the country going into some of the worst schools to intervene and help turn them around. And he has remarkable success. He had a huge audience and he spoke extemporaneously for over an hour, telling of his own experience as a terrible student who hadn’t really read a book till he was 23. And I was equally inspired by the audience, filled with elementary, middle- and high-school teachers, assistant principals, principals, men, women, various ethnicities.
Teachers and administrators from all over the country were at the conference. And I changed how I felt. I was happy to be there among them. There was so much dedication and earnestness. The following morning I went to a session on literacy. It took me back to the classes I had attended in the blur that was my beginning as an NYC Teaching Fellow. But the general session that followed was what really made me soar.
I wanna be like that guy
This was in a huge hall with multiple video monitors—the whole conference was nothing less than top-notch and professional. The president and president-elect of ASDC spoke, as did a Canadian principal whose school had received a particularly prominent award. But the keynote speaker was the one who really got me: Atul Gawande, Harvard professor, surgeon, author, staff writer for the New Yorker, medical and educational researcher.
This guy stepped out on stage and I didn’t think he could have been a day over 40 (he’s 46). He was dressed somewhat casually, and came out from behind the podium immediately to walk back and forth as he spoke. He had a folded-up piece of paper in his hand for notes, that was all, and he spoke in an easy, calm manner. He was totally confident and totally engaging.
He drew parallels between the health care and educational fields. He discussed success (or failure) rates comprehensively, and illustrated that a fraction of a difference between success and failure on a given day adds up to a huge percentage spread over the course of a year. Thus he concluded that it’s the little, daily need for consistent success that will mean the difference between a winning school and a failing school, a winning hospital and a failing one.
I guess I’m okay, and I’ve got a great son
He also concluded that we all need coaching—teachers, doctors—and that the need for this never ends. We all need a second pair of eyes. It was then that I had my revelation. Besides being incredibly inspired by this guy—as a person who hopes to accomplish multiple things—I realized that I wasn’t a giant loser, I was just busy, tired and sometimes overwhelmed. And so were probably half—or more—of the people in the room.
I started NYC Teaching Fellows five years ago when my son was six. I’m a single mother. My life has seemed like one long, fast subway ride ever since. I wasn’t a loser teacher among other loser teachers, I was in a huge room full of dedicated professionals who may not always know what move to make next.
I never even knew I had the support of this phenomenal organization. I felt I had people at by back. It was a good weekend. And my son had a good time, too. I paid him $20 for sitting with me. And for being such a good kid all the way around.