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MARCH 28, 2012 6:26AM

How I pulled my head out of my _ _ _ at the ASCD conference

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My son, as always, came with me
I’ve been feeling like a real loser of a teacher lately. Teachers all across the nation have taken a beating this year, and at my 6th – 12th grade school in the Bronx it’s been a particularly difficult time. We lost our beloved assistant principal in April last year—he didn’t die, no, but that’s what it felt like. He went to become principal of another school.

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.


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What an inspiring conference! There are so many dedicated teachers, as you are, giving their best day by day...thank you! It does make a difference. (What a great experience for your son, too.)
I hope it all translates to a better workplace for you. I do think it can often be the little things that make a difference-a pat on the back, a hand on a shoulder, saying a person's name, remembering personal facts about them, complimenting a sentence. Good luck and thank for caring about your students and their school.
Inspiring. Hopefully there will be conferences like that that you can go to every year, for a booster shot.
Here is a thought.

Maybe you are at a point professionally where you began to be a person who needs great leadership to one that provides great leadership. Not that you can replace an assistant principal, but the best teachers can materially improve the entire school.

It seems like you have been connecting in ways that show personal initiative.

And I don't blame the boys for not warming up to 'Of Mice and Men'.
Here is a thought.

Maybe you are at a point professionally where you began to be a person who needs great leadership to one that provides great leadership. Not that you can replace an assistant principal, but the best teachers can materially improve the entire school.

It seems like you have been connecting in ways that show personal initiative.

And I don't blame the boys for not warming up to 'Of Mice and Men'.
Professional development opportunities, like you describe, used to be the norm for ALL teachers. The federal government used to support such endeavors for teachers as a whole and individually. ASCD is a good organization. I benefited a great deal from their conferences and publication. When you hear critcism--especially from me--it's about the system, not the real teachers, like you, whose successes could be enhanced and struggles could be lessened by enlightened leadership, not just at the building level, but at the district, regional, state, and national levels. As a professor of education and as a school principal, I used to find ways to get my students/staff to conferences because they often provided that feeling of kinship you felt with other teachers and they found inspiration. No better way to get 200% out of people already giving 175%...'cause that's what many teachers do--they give until there's nothing left to we have to give back and help them replenish themselves often. I am glad to hear ASCD is still inspiring.
Great article. It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own world/perspective and forget that we (as teachers) are not alone. I also like the coaching comment from Gawande - - this is very true and should be a boost of confidence. Your development as a teacher is constantly improving and it is a process.
Good reporting on this conference. I also liked the attitude with which you approached it. Often going into something unplanned and with a completely open mind results in a better experience. Philadelphia is a great city as well--and your post is funny, too.
I enjoyed reading this. Very inspiring. Thank you so much for attending my session and seeing fit to mention it. Keep on making it happen. Take your students to heights unimagined!
Atul Gawande. How I love Atul Gawande. When my world seems to be full of failures I read one of his excellent books and feel like my failures will add up to a success. For years I worked with my daughter. Helping her with her math, reading, history, and english. Believing anything and everything was possible with hard work and finally it has started to pay off. Thank God because I was getting so very tired ( She made Townsend Harris (amazing high school in Queens) and Bronx High School of Science ( she could have had Stuy but wasn't interested). Know as a teacher you are making a difference and as a parent I love to read what you write. I understand your successes and failures because I see them in myself and in my daughters.
I always find the professional conferences I attend energizing, so I'm glad you had a chance to participate. I was a kid who, like your son, got dragged around to stuff like that. It never bothered me, but now, as a parent, I think you are smart to compensate him for his time! I've read Atul Gawande's writing on peer review and coaching in the medical profession. How interesting to think about the parallels in the education world. Makes total sense! Thanks for another great post.
P.S. I shared this post on facebook and what has resonated most with my (many) educator friends is this line: "Rather than focus on remediation—and what the kids are missing—give them challenging work that’s relevant to the world and their lives."
What you experienced was a retreat. I've experienced this at Medical meetings, at artist's retreats, and other gatherings. Just realizing that others face the same difficulties, have the same dedication that you do, and have come to a similar conclusion (or something quite revolutionary) is inspirational as well as educational. I loved reading this.
" 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."
One of my best teachers did not fit into anyone's mold of a great teacher, I'm sure. Yet, she presented things to a fifth grader that he has never forgotten. Not many teachers can say that. R for "right on".
awesome thanks a lot for sharing.
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