Teacher Appreciation Week – Personal Journey One

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2012-01-09 22.16.38
Me in my first classroom – Bishop McNamara High School, Fall 1992

The first week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week. I often felt tension around this week when I was working in a high school as an administrator because, in my role, I felt my job – year-round – was to appreciate teachers. Though I was happy when this week rolled around for the school to dedicate itself more fully to teacher appreciation, I kind of hoped they already felt appreciated.

Silly, I know.

Almost two years removed from school work, I wanted to take some time to look back on the blessings of being a teacher – the immeasurable blessings – and the moments I recall fondly from my over 20 years in high school work.

To that end, during this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.

October 1992

I had always desired to be a teacher and had prepared to do so in college, but I was unable to secure a position when I graduated The Catholic University of American Teacher Education Program. Working a support position in a Washington, DC non-profit, I was pleased and surprised to get a call from a Forestville, Maryland, co-ed, Catholic high school to gauge my interest in applying for a job. Blithely excited, and not asking why the school found itself in the position of needing to hire a position almost two months into the school year, I eagerly accepted the interview and, as fate would have it, got the job. I cannot say I remember one thing from that interview – I believe I interviewed with the principal and the English Department Chair (two good friends who must have been about the age I am now back then; they seemed really, really veteran to me) – but I remember the feeling of pure euphoria upon receiving the call that I got the job. I believe the day I received that call is the most important day of my life that didn’t involve my family. I do wonder, if I had not gotten that job, if I would have ever made my way into education. It’s an impossible question.

I do know that I was offered a job, I had – quite literally – a weekend to prepare for it and was not at all ready for what would confront me the first day… but that’s a story for tomorrow.

Oh, and the reason the school was hiring? The teacher I replaced suffered a nervous breakdown. True. Story.

Monday,  October 5, 1992. 

I actually remember very little about the first day, not what I ate or how early I got to school (I am sure it was very, very early) or what I taught for my first period class. I hadn’t had time to decorate the room and I hadn’t had time to learn one name of one kid on any of my class rosters.

I do remember the fear.

And the mimeograph machine. I remember that, too. My first school still had one when I started teaching in 1992.

I remember the fear more.

Room 108, across from a bathroom and water fountain, two doors down from the Faculty Room, occupied by 35 student desks in 5 rows of 7. Every school has a Room 108. This was to become – for two years – my Room 108. I can picture it clearly. I can picture where I had the teacher desk, where I would stand to begin class, where I put up my decorations on the walls.

Classes were 47 minutes long. Seems a pretty short time, but minutes play out in distended fashion when you are a young teacher and the minutes that day lasted a long, long time. As I slogged my way through that first class, trying to learn who these kids were, trying to figure out what they had covered in Senior English (yes, my first class was with seniors) prior to my arrival, a sudden motion in the very last desk – the 7th desk – on the left hand side of the room caught my attention and I turned toward it just in time to see a young woman slip out of her chair and hit the industrially tiled floor.


Welcome to teaching.

I pointed to the biggest kid in my field of vision, had him pick up fallen classmate and asked him to carry  her down to the Main Office. Great first day judgment. Move the injured child. This Frankenteen ambled down the hall carrying his classmate while I ran ahead, panicked that my first teaching job ended immediately after I had said “Hello, my name is…” to my first class.

When I returned, the class was talking – not out of control by any means, but talking. I gave them some angry speech about how disrespectful they were to their classmate, how they didn’t know what was wrong with her and were talking and speculating and how they should have more maturity. I was pretty vocal – adrenaline will do that to you.

It was drugs, by-the-way. I don’t think the student ever returned to class.

I did, the next day and for many days after.

Trial by fainting.

Parent/Teacher Conferences – The First for Me

So, when one is hired to replace a teacher who left the job with a nervous breakdown fairly deep into the fall, one is guaranteed to run into Parent/Teacher Conferences very quickly into his tenure as a teacher.  So it went for me. Within two weeks of accepting my position, I found myself sitting across the desk from students whose names I barely knew and their parents who intimidated the hell out of me.

And they weren’t trying.

I am sure I remember these first conferences as more intimidating because of a solitary event.

I have a problem with recalling my students’ names after they pass through my class. Once they leave, I tend to dump their appellations from my memory banks. When they come back to visit after they’ve graduated – and many of them do come back – I have a terrible time recalling their names. I know I taught them. Sometimes I remember where they sat. But remembering their names? Not too often.

I will always remember the name of the kid whose father punched him during my first set of Parent/Teacher conferences.


I remember it because it was shocking, because it was so far out of my frame of reference (my father never struck me) and because it was my first failure as a teacher.

That the punch wasn’t a haymaker, an upper cut or a round house. It didn’t make the kid cry or knock him off his chair. And it was 1992. I’d had zero training (though I had a degree in Secondary Education) in mandatory reporting or calling social workers or even resourcing with my principal, dean or department chair in a circumstance like this. Now, 21 years into my teaching career, I’d know exactly what to do if confronted with this situation again.

Then, I didn’t. And I failed in my first duty: the keep the student safe. We learn from failures (Isn’t that what we tell ourselves?). But there are few moments in my life where I can point to a screw up and say: “That’s it. That’s the moment I grew.”

I can point to this one.

It’s not a shining moment of my career, to be sure, but it’s an important one.

EduQuote of the Week: May 2 – May 8, 2016

door quotes

A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dates all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.

– Agatha Christie


Teach & Serve No. 37 – Cool It

Teach & Serve 

No. 37 * April 27, 2016

Related Content from And There Came A Day:

Cool It

. Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.

Do you hang out in the faculty lounge at your school? Do you spend time in your department office when you know you should be elsewhere? Does your school have a water cooler and do you stand around it even after you’ve filled up your trusty Nalgene or Camelback?

There is something that happens, often something good, when people are standing around the Faculty Lounge, are sitting in groups in their departments and are hanging out at the water cooler. There is a kind of kinship that takes place at the cooler, a synergy in the department, community building in the Lounge.

There are a great many things that we are not told in “teacher school.” There are a great many things never shared in interviews. There are a great many things we have to learn on our on in this work. One of those pearls of wisdom that we are rarely told before we sign a contract, especially our first, is how perpetually  On we are when we are educators.

I used to say that teachers were On from the moment they stepped out of their cars in the parking lot in the morning. Then I had a teacher regale me with a story about how he followed the school’s bus through his neighborhood and the kids in the back of the bus were shooting “the universal sign of hello” at drivers, including him. They didn’t realize, of course, who he was. But that teacher felt compelled to deal with the students’ behaviors when he arrived at school. Clearly, the guy was On even before his loafers hit the macadam of the school’s lot.

So I modified this and said that teachers were On whenever they were in public. I mean, which of you hasn’t run into a student or, potentially worse, a parent at the mall or the movies and found yourself slipping readily into Teacher Mode? When we are in Teacher Mode, our voices change, our behaviors change, our psyches change. We are not just who we are; we are educator. Let’s make a good show.

When social media hit hard (I love sounding like a troglodytic dinosaur as I write!) and we dealt with our first teacher confirming a student Facebook friend and when I read the first inappropriate Tweet by a staff member, I revised this being “on” theory again. Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.

We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.

water coolerBecause of that, the moments we steal together at the water cooler, the metaphorical one or the literal one, are so very important. Educational professionals need downtime with one another. They need a place to be with one another, to download among those who get it. They need a haven. From time immemorial, the water cooler has provided this refuge.

Are all the words shared at the water cooler constructive? Is every moment in the Faculty Lounge positive? Does some kind of egalitarian philosophy of thought and language dominate the discourse in the department office?

Am I an idiot?

Without question, there are moments at the water cooler that can tend towards the destructive rather than the constructive. There are “sessions” (we know what kind) that occur in the Faculty Lounge which are not necessarily concerned with school or personal improvement. There are conversations in the department office which do not showcase us as our best selves.

But even these, even they have their place. Sometimes we go to the water cooler to blow off steam. If we do not take that outlet, away from the students, among our peers, the steam will explode in some other context at some other time.

If we don’t go to the water cooler to praise one another, to laugh at each other, to take ourselves less, not more, seriously, we are surely missing out on the experience of sharing the work with our colleagues.

In my new role, I have a home office. My commute is 20 feet down the hallway from where I sleep. If one discounts the pets (and they are not terrific co-workers), I work alone, almost in isolation. So, when Skype for Business lights up, when an IM message tone rings, when I reach out to contact someone in our Chicago or Washington, DC office, I am immediately energized and in a better place.

I want some water cooler time, to react, to recharge, to revive, to renew. I want that water cooler time. I need it.

We all do.

EduQuote of the Week: April 25 – May 1, 2016

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It’s easy to fool the eye but hard to fool the heart.

– Al Pacino


Teach & Serve No. 36 – Do I Engage the Mission Every Day?

Teach & Serve 

No. 36 * April 20, 2016

Related Content from And There Came A Day:

Do I Engage the Mission Every Day?

Knowing the mission isn’t enough. This is where Mission Statements often let us down. A bunch of carefully chosen words printed next to the crest or logos of our schools isn’t that exciting. Mission Statements don’t often motivate. Missions do.

All of our schools have missions. Most of them have mission statements. Often, these two items are not the same thing. Equally often, the overlap between them – the Venn Diagram as it were – is not substantial. Hopefully, though, if pressed to answer the question “what is the mission of your school?” you could do so in a direct and clear manner. And, equally hopefully, when you do so you are filled with a certain sense of pride, a sense of agreement, a sense of purpose.

There are teachers, administrators and educational professionals all over the world. Some of them know exactly why they do what they do. I would argue that the good ones – the best ones – knows precisely why they do what they do.

missionI am not talking about the critical topics of teaching techniques and management skills. Being highly proficient in technique and skill means educational professionals are good at their jobs. They can play the notes, as it were, of being teachers and administrators.

But, unless they know why they do what they do, they aren’t really making any music.

Schools that articulate engaging missions that speak to and inform what they are about tend to be schools that know where they are headed and know how they want to get there. Schools that involve their staffs in engaging missions and invite their staffs to shape and grow that mission tend to be schools that are energized and dynamic.

Knowing the mission isn’t enough. This is where Mission Statements often let us down. A bunch of carefully chosen words printed next to the crest or logos of our schools isn’t that exciting. Mission Statements don’t often motivate. Missions do.

As educational professionals, do we engage our mission every day? Do we understand our work as flowing out of that mission? Do we embrace that mission?  Do we share it with our colleagues and our students?

Are our actions, every day, informed by our mission?

Frankly, they should be.

If they are not, it’s time to ask our schools to refocus on mission. Otherwise, why are you doing what you do?

EduQuote of the Week: April 18 – 24, 2016

door quotes

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

– C. S. Lewis


Teach & Serve No. 35 – We Should Be Aware of Confidentiality, But Not in the Way One Might Think

Teach & Serve 

No. 35 * April 13, 2016

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We Should Be Aware of Confidentiality,

But Not in the Way One Might Think

Beware of the word “confidential.” Use it sparingly. Use it wisely. Use it only when you have to use it.  If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you’re doing it wrong.

There is some kind of deep power in knowing something other people don’t. There is some kind of magic in holding onto a secret, in deciding when to tell, and who. There is some kind of pull to being in the know, in the loop, in the inner circle.

We’ve all felt it, right? At one point or another, we’ve had those moments when we found something out before most others did or when we heard the story prior to it getting out. What is it about being in on the secret that is so enticing?

In school settings, there are hundreds of examples – daily – of things that not everyone needs to know. There are situations with students that should not be revealed. There are personnel issues that should not be broadly discussed. There are decisions that should not be shared too soon. In school settings, there are good reasons to maintain confidentiality – some of them legal, some of them moral and some of them valid.

But not all.

Beware of the word “confidential.” Use it sparingly. Use it wisely. Use it only when you have to use it.  If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you’re doing it wrong.

Schools work best when knowledge is shared. That’s kind of what they are there for, right? Schools work best when everyone knows as much as they possibly can know. How many times are we going to have to be confronted by stories of school personnel that had knowledge of warning signs about students that they didn’t share until tragedy struck? How many times are we going to see reports of colleagues suspecting something wasn’t quite right with a co-worker and they didn’t tell anyway until it was too late? How many times before we get it?

When I was a dean of students and, later, an assistant principal and a principal, there were many things I didn’t broadly share. Further, there were things that I was constrained to not share at all, by law and true concerns about confidentiality. There were things I didn’t share because they would be damaging or hurtful or illegal to share. There are things that should not and cannot be shared.

But these things are few. And these things are far between.

When the default position of a teacher or administrator when confronted by sensitive information is to hold all those cards as closely to the vest as possible, to prize secrets and horde them, to equate knowledge of what is going on in people’s lives with power, something is very, very wrong.

The work of an educational professional is not to work to keep things secret, it’s to work to bring things to light and understanding.

Those teachers and administrators that get a charge from knowing more than everyone else have forgotten that and they are doing something foolish and potentially dangerous – foolish because, at some point, keeping secrets for no reason undercuts rather than strengthens moral authority and dangerous because, inevitably, things go wrong and things get out. Those teachers and administrators that repeat – as a mantra – “I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential.” are not doing themselves or anyone else any favors.

Teachers and administrators, here’s the thing: what must be, by law, confidential, must be confidential. Period. If it’s illegal to share, don’t share. If you don’t know the law, learn it.

When you know what actually must be kept confidential, file it and share everything else.


Share as much knowledge about students as possible. Share as much about staff as appropriate. Share as much about the state of the school as you can. Create an environment where sharing is the default position.

Beware the word “confidential” and only use it when you must.

EduQuote of the Week: April 11 – 19, 2016

door quotes

If someone is going down the wrong road, they don’t need motivation to speed up. What they needs is education to turn around.

– Jim Rohn


Teach & Serve No. 34 – Good and Great; Life and Death

Teach & Serve 

No. 34 * April 6, 2016

Related Content from And There Came A Day:

Good and Great; Life and Death

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.


Since the first day a grizzled, experienced and very, very veteran high school administrator shared with me his Good School/Great School Paradigm I have been fascinated by it, taken with it and convinced of its pure truth. Pulling me aside during an accreditation visit on which we were both visiting team members, this wise administrator for whom I didn’t work told me he believed that Good Schools are destined to remain Good Schools because they think they are great. He said that Great Schools are great because they ask themselves: “what can we do to be better?”

I am in love with this conclusion and I think it is absolutely spot on. The idea that Great Schools are consistently, constantly and consciously about improvement, about getting better, about changing is such a challenging, life renewing and exciting concept. I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

I imagine because I have to.

I worked in high schools for almost 25 years, man and boy, and that doesn’t count my degree work as an undergrad – those hours upon hours of observations – nor does it count my full time student teaching. It does count the five schools in which I’ve spent significant time. And, in all those years and all of that time, I can say that I can point to moments where I saw potential for greatness at the places where I worked, but it was rarely sustained.

Here’s the problem with being Great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that isn’t afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No school sets out to be Good. Likewise no school sets out to be lifeless. Rather, leadership build staffs primarily upon very good hires. Leadership institutes solid programs fostering good curriculum, good teaching and good discipline. Markers of success (enrollment, retention, standardized test scores, etc.) are met. The conclusion, then, is this all works. We know what we’re doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we’ve had success doing things this way and, really, isn’t this the way we’ve always done things? Shouldn’t we keep doing them this way? Why mess with success? Good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it isn’t pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school. While she was engaging and energetic when you were in her classroom 15 or 20 years ago, she’s still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves her class!” people say. “She really knows her stuff!” people rave. But is anyone asking why she’s still using the overheads she made during her first year of teaching instead of her digital projector? Is anyone asking why she hasn’t gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why she insists on keeping the traditional text she’s always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. She’s good. She’s all good.

Good Schools are like that and unless they start missing those markers of success, what is the motivation to change?

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.

desertGood Schools don’t change. They don’t want to. Because they don’t change, they are locked into what they are, locked into what they do, locked in. They are stuck in a place and a time and cannot even see the rest of the world passing them by because, of course, they are good. How do they know? They’ve told themselves they are. They’ve convinced themselves (because they have the high numbers and the nice facilities and the good kids and the credentialed teachers) that they are great.

But they are not great. They are dead and they don’t look to come back to life.

And they can stay dead and stagnant for a very, very long time. They can – and will – stay dead and stagnant until they are forced to change. They will actively protect their stagnation because their leadership has let them down. Their leadership has discouraged hard questions, resisted redefinition, and shut out creative dissent.

They are Good. And they are dead. Until there is a sea change, they will never, ever be Great.

I wish that I could say I’ve encountered as many Great Schools as Good Schools. I wish I could say that most of the Good Schools I’ve seen have found their way out of the desert and are on their way to becoming Great Schools.

But I cannot say that. I believe there are many, many Good Schools but there are few Great ones.

“Good Schools think they’re great. Great Schools ask ‘what can we do to be better?’”

What can we do, indeed?

EduQuote of the Week: April 4 – 10, 2016

door quotesCelebrate what you’ve accomplished, but raise the bar a little higher each time you succeed.

– Mia Hamm