TCCA Evolve: A Conference FOR Educators

This past weekend, I was able to attend a FREE conference for educators in Houston, TX called TCCA Evolve brought to us by the Aldine Independent School District.  I went with a colleague from my district, Statia Paschel, and it was an all around, amazing experience.  We were able to meet other educators in our Professional Learning Networks (PLN) and grow it at the same time.  There are things we are going to implement in our classrooms immediately, so we do not forget the jewels we learned.  It would be phenomenal if more large school districts offered something so amazing for educators.  We don’t make enough money to be able to afford larger conferences in other parts of the country, so attending a conference with an incredible keynote like Ken Shelton, without need of asking for a P.O., is liberating for those of us hoping to be change makers in a system that desperately needs us!

So let’s start with the incredible keynote.  Ken Shelton, an African American, shared about his adolescent years in school in California.  Thirty years ago, much to the dismay of his high school counselor, he was the only black student in his AP and Honors courses. He shared about the positive and negative impacts educators had on his life, especially the educators in his own family.  He led us to think deeply about the labels we use to code children and how they may hold our students back from the earliest of grades.  One thing, as a new first grade teacher, that stood out to me was putting kids into “intervention” classes when really they may need more support.  When people go through intervention it is because they are doing something self-destructive, so the negative connotation at an early age is sending the wrong message to our students and their parents.  They need more support. We can offer that.  Another strong message from Shelton was about equity in education, having courageous conversations (yes he said that and it validated my heart’s cry), and how are we using our technology to ensure that students of color are getting the mentoring and relationships they need to succeed.

His messages were so timely and necessary.  I felt so privileged to be part of this and grateful to Aldine ISD for making this available to us without charging a price that would mean more financial sacrifice.

The sessions I was able to attend fired me up to put the things Ken Shelton challenged us to think about, in practice.  I can’t wait to Mystery Skype and use Buncee to help students become the leaders in their own, creative learning. I can’t wait to find out what all the other teachers I met are doing in their classrooms, too.  I was able to partner up with a fellow friend and Flocabulary MCE, Amy Storer, and co-lead a session on Flocabulary and how the impact of this edtech tool has changed the course on so many of our students’ lives.  We were all challenged to implement these new ideas into our lesson plans in the next two weeks (or they are more than likely to be forgotten).  This is so true! I truly see the value of this kind of professional development to drive real change in our current systems.

Attending the learning sessions was great, but meeting and conversing with fellow educators was my favorite part.  Getting time to share with my friend Statia, to the teacher I sat next to during the keynote, and the educators who were excited to be part of our Flocab session, and finally being able to collaborate more with a friend who lives hours away: these are the most memorable parts.  I am not into technology because I love technology.  I am into edtech because it allows for relationships to grow.  Edtech used well can make academic content relevant for our students and shape their thinking into more empathetic people as we meet their social emotional needs.  It can also help foster relationships with our students and the other educators we meet that challenge us to grow, along the way.  Talk about a win-win! Every PD should be filled with these relationship takeaways for it to truly stick in our brains as we put the things we learn into practice.

There was one more amazing experience I must share!  I have never been to a conference with so many African American educators and leaders!  This has to be more normal for real change to take place in our education system.  It’s not just our students of color who need to see representation to succeed, it’s also our fellow educators of color. Ultimately, for all of us to succeed and continue to change our system, we all need to be learning and listening to one another.  I’ve been to some good conferences, but this element has been missing from them all. So well done, TCCA and Aldine ISD.  Well Done!  See you next year at TCCA Fearless 2019!

Courageous Conversations: Race Matters

Of the blog posts I’ve written, the only one that keeps being read and shared more than any of the others, is Why Race Matters for This White Teacher and I hope you’ll check it out, too.  To summarize it, I had to come to terms with my own prejudice and be proactive about changing that narrative so I could better care, reach, and teach my students of color and help heal the divide that continues to play out in our country.

This past week, I was able to participate in a courageous conversation about race in a room full of female educators, all school leaders and influencers, and mixed races, though most of us were white.  I call it a courageous conversation because that’s what Jon Washington, a local community leader who serves and supports our Garland Area Alliance of Black School Educators (GAABSE) called it in the the aforementioned blog post. To me, a courageous conversation is where people of different races can talk and share without being scared that someone else is going to attack them or shut down their experiences.  It’s a conversation that allows for free speech, a safe place for vulnerability and questions, and one that everyone leaves with an insight of new perspectives that can serve as a catalyst of change. (There’s also a book called Courageous Conversations that I’m definitely going to read soon.) My reflection is we need to have more of these in our professional developments as well in our private lives.

The purpose of this  PD session was to address the need that students of every color and religion need to see themselves in print, in the books in their classroom and school libraries.  And these books need to be read by the majority and minority races. These books don’t need to be about slavery and oppression, though that is important, but we need more about heroes of color who helped shape our society and world with the important contributions only they could bring. We need more books in our libraries with kids of different shades of melanin who are just everyday kids like the ones turning the pages.  This act alone fosters social emotional learning in literacy and unity  among all students.  This is not something to be downplayed, this is what is going to help shape our world where all of us truly feel like we belong and matter and have something unique to contribute, especially for our students of color. 

But before we could get to those jewels, we needed to understand that prejudice, in the form of microagression, does exist, and that there is a difference in the way white people and people of color are brought up in our country.  If we can’t talk about this, if we can’t listen to others with different perspectives and accept it, then we can’t challenge it, and break down the stereotypes, and the overall importance of this class wouldn’t be worth anything to the attendee.  The conversation that took place was powerful and sense-awakening.  There were tears of sadness, frustration, and hope.  I could be wrong, but I think it was the first courageous conversation that some of these women had ever been part of, and that alone is promising of more to come!

One Step In the Right Direction

Something we white educators can stop saying right now is Color doesn’t matter to me, or I’m colorblind while professing to care for all of our students. It is these kinds of microaggressions that tear down the spirit and esteem of our students of color.  Not long ago, my friend Tacha (who is half Haitian and half white) shared with me how she was constantly confronted with questions like What are you? as an introduction question! White and black people would make statements like You think you’re white or You think you’re black… so in her youth, she would try very hard to disguise her heritage, even to the point of being embarrassed to be seen with her Haitian father.  Her little sister, who was darker skinned than she, would say You are white and I am black because that is how society was shaping her own sense of skin color. That would infuriate Tacha and she would tell her sister, We are the same, but the damage was done as society would not let them be exactly who they were, both ethnicities. Subconsciously, Tacha understood it would be to her advantage if she passed as white. I write this to say, that whether it’s microaggressions or direct, racist remarks, the truth is our students of color are facing a world in our public school system that says we see your color and we don’t like it, and you will be judged as less than for it…. 

Refusing to see and listen to this is ignoring the experiences of so many brought up in our society today.  It’s only by trying to see this perspective that we can be change-agents.  We ourselves can stop perpetuating this subtle form of racism that is actually destroying our youth of color and the hope for all of us to find unity.  So friend, instead of saying, It doesn’t matter what color my students are, try saying and believing, It matters what color you are and you matter to me.

A Call For Partnerships in Education

I can’t speak for everyone involved, but I do believe that for some of us who were part of this courageous conversation, we left changed and better equipped to see life through someone else’s unique perspective.  We left with a greater respect for our sisters of color and an appreciation for their strength of character and leadership.  Our eyes were opened to the need for all of our students to read and choose books that showed a character like or unlike themselves.  As a white female educator, I feel more certain that in this day and age, I need to be bold in tearing down the walls our ancestors erected hundreds of years ago, yet not that long ago, and whose foundations are still in place.

For my friends, colleagues, and students of color, my role to partner and fight for equity and equality, in all parts of education, has never felt more clear or important.

It’s Not Magic

Not trying to brag or sound conceited in any way, but I’ve been told by administrators & colleagues that I have a “magic touch” when dealing with parents who can be a little hard to love. They’re the parents used to getting negative, weekly phone calls. They’re the ones who started screening calls & stopped answering 98% of the time. They’re the ones who get mad at their kids for being difficult while silently praying for help & wondering why teachers can’t seem to see the beautiful, little boy that lights up their lives….If you’ve taught for six weeks, you’ve met them. You might already know how the teacher from last year feels about that mom.

Well, that mom or that dad needs you. If you’re like me, you know that every child placed in your care is there for a Divine reason. Maybe they’ve had five years of office referrals and detentions, but as of the first day of your class, you have amnesia about their history & you prefer to keep it that way.

That doesn’t mean they magically turn into a new kid with impressive behavior (although that actually has happened), or that there aren’t moments you consider a new profession while dealing with them. It’s not easy dealing with challenging students & their battle-weary parents. But it’s not impossible, either.

Years of being a receptionist and trying to make a dollar in direct sales, before and during my teaching years, helped me develop a comfort in uncomfortable phone calls and meetings. When your commissions depend on trying to make a sale, you’re trained not to take the first “No” to heart! Just picking up the phone to make a sale, or talk to that dad, is enough to keep the weak from taking the first step. But when you’re hungry and need that check, or need that kid to open her mind & heart, you pick up that phone, use your best manners, and don’t you dare hang up without progress being made! Crazily enough, you even develop a professional tone along the way. I mean, if you don’t quit.

You also need to be aware that if you are going to judge a child from last year, you’re going to receive last year’s anger plus more. Be proactive. If you know a child has a negative history, find one good thing to praise, early (like first day of school early), call their parent and let them know you see something good in a child they love. Just that one action can disarm that mom and get her on your team.

It’s not magic. It’s refusing to engage in nasty emails. It’s responding to hateful messages when you’ve calmed down. It’s remembering you’re dealing with hurting, festering, wounded souls and if you can’t find anything positive to say, all you’ll see is the armor put in place to protect broken hearts. Armor put in place to protect that kid you can’t see as a young person because they’ve wrecked your classroom or cussed in your face. Armor put in place because they’re at the end of their ropes too, they’ve tried spanking, grounding, nothing but books to read, and that kid still won’t behave for them or you!

It’s not easy, it’s not magic, but progress can be made. Hope can be restored and it’s going to take a prayerful heart, sound wisdom, and perseverance. Oh yeah, and lots of help.

Here is what I do and maybe you’ll see something that works for you, too:

1. Pray for your heart to be strong, for your student, and pray for their parents.

2. Make sure the first few meetings or calls are positive even when not received well. Those parents have their guards up, and will continue to have them up, until they see you as genuine.

3. Call or conference when issues arise. Email and texting should only be used as a last resort in these situations. Talking in real time prevents misconceptions.

4. Share your plan of action, ask for their input, and keep consistent in your efforts to keep them informed.

5. Love that kid. When her parents see your sincerity and progress made, you’ve just won them over.

I could not do any of this without my Faith in Christ leading me. There have been times I’ve wanted to give up, but persevering has shown me that kindness and compassion will go a long ways when dealing with the parents who had lost hope until they met you.

On Trusting God When It Hurts

There was not one moment this summer when Mac & I found a good time to eat outside on our patio under the umbrella enjoying coffee & conversation. As soon as summer break released me from work, I began packing for our first family vacation. It was a beautiful & peaceful time spent with dear friends, but every mom knows that vacations are hard work! This was no exception. However, seeing our friends and visiting with our family in Alabama was worth every moment and penny!

Unfortunately the week we came back, my husband, knowing something was very wrong, headed to the ER and from there, our entire lives were altered. Having him home for the summer was always a dream, but not like this. After a life-saving procedure, complicated setbacks, and being separated from our kids for two weeks, it was time to come home and recover. You can imagine the challenges we faced with four rambunctious children at home along with a teething six month old.

We honestly wouldn’t have made it through without the support and prayers of our family and friends. My sister, Faith, and her family kept the kids.  My close friend, Ivana, flew in from Florida on a day’s notice to help my Aunt Carol with our baby.  Countless friends came to visit and pray with us at the hospital; Michelle, Margaret, Niloufer & Paul, Atesh & Mike, Ivette & Charlie, Laurie, Tacha & Annette, my sister-in-laws, Lisa and Kim, and two of my co-workers, Debbie and Ximena, came and sat with me during the eight hour surgery.  My friend, Mel, ran errands, and my friends Allison and Michael picked up pumped milk for our baby, and my sweet friends brought me food and gift cards to show me I wasn’t alone.  The care and support continued as we came home with dinners, a reclining chair from our friends Ami and Sean.  And then my friend Cheri made a gofundme for us and a few friends may not even realize how much they’ve helped us financially! I know I’m not listing everyone who has loved on us, but please know that you made this time of healing easier to bear, and we will never forget it.  I don’t know how other families would make it through without a support group like we have had.  I hope I will be better at helping others in the future with the love lessons of servant-hood we have learned from so many!

But even with so many people loving and praying for us, depression was a real thing, cabin fever, insomnia, short tempers, and other complications threatened to steal our peace.  Many days they did.  Ugly tears…uncertainty…confusion, and so much more.  And now another round of unemployment… while just a few months ago we had more than enough.  Now, I’m trying to trust in God’s plan, but it is so hard!  Are we being punished? Did we do wrong?  Did we fail? Why are things so damn hard?!

Because. Life. No one is immune to this.  No one escapes hard times.  No one escapes desperate times.  We will all face them, and it doesn’t matter our race, gender, financial status, education, religion… and maybe you, too, are facing these hard times as you read this post.

This past week, I downloaded the Bible App again and searched out this plan called “Trusting God’s Process” by Brittany Rust.  And I’m so glad I did.  It reminded me that trusting in God is hard.  There are days when everything feels like it’s caving in, but God.  I started to get panicky again last night, and the only thing I could think of is I can’t let my mind go down this trail.  But God. One day at a time. He is not punishing us.  He loves us. He has shown us through so many ways and so many people.

This Bible Study reminded me to pray with Scripture, and take one day at a time.  When thinking about all that is ahead, I can’t escape the worry, fear, and anxiety, until the Holy Spirit reminds me, during hard prayers, that I won’t have the answers, and if I try to make it work, as I have in the past, I’m not truly trusting in God.  All the ideas I have to make it through will not work, they will only lead me down another heart wrenching road, and I can’t go there!  My family needs my husband and I to truly place our trust in God and let Him have the reigns.

So much easier said than done.  But we are choosing to be faithful.

And I want you to know, Friend, when you see good things come our way, when you see our lives being transformed through the fire, it was because of Him.  It was because we finally trusted Him with our lives and future.

I hope if you find yourself in a desperate situation, you will find Him, too.

Yes, there are consequences to making life happen in our way, consequences that hurt and lead us through situations God never intended for our lives…but God.  He forgives, he makes a new way, and He will do it for me, and He will do it for You.

I am going to pray in faith, using Scripture to help me when my trust starts to slip away and my fear tries to take over.  I hope you will, too.

See you on the other side.

Welcome Back To School: Salty Edition

Today is a new day.  This school year is brand new.  In many ways, it can feel overwhelming because the work we do seems impossibly hard and uphill most days.  That’s the life of a teacher.  Someone who can’t sleep because tomorrow is a big testing day or a school-wide performance… someone who gets their best ideas to reach children during their morning routine, and quite frankly, someone who can’t turn their brains off.  Someone who is always thinking about other people’s children, even when they may have five of their own, yeah, that’s the life of a teacher.

The family I work with day in and day out, we don’t get accolades for the work we do.  Many of us are leaders, innovative, and truly masters at our craft, but how would you know? We are not a school with a list of distinctions, unless you know that our principal made an individualized technology education program, that one of our first grade teachers makes raps to popular songs and has an uncanny way of teaching kids to read, our librarian empowers every student to become a reader, and the list goes on….  We have had numerous colleagues leave to become other school leaders, so many of us have more than one degree, and we even have an architect who would rather make a difference than a huge salary so she became a teacher! We are a campus of writers, mathematicians, and even magicians.  There’s one crazy kindergarten teacher we have who specializes in making magical moments for her students, even before the year begins.  We are diverse in our cultures, country of origin, and languages.  We are a unique family of many perspectives, and I’ve barely tipped the iceberg when it comes to the people I call my work family.

We’ve lost teachers, we’ve lost students, we’ve lost spouses and marriages, and we’ve experienced intense pain and trauma, disease and sickness, but we all have one thing in common: We Won’t Quit.  Sure, some staff have come and gone, but most of us stick together because in work we do, we have realized we can’t do it without one another.  We’ve fought, we’ve cried, we’ve had to navigate through rough waters.  We’ve left, we’ve come back. We have forgiven one another.  And here we are, still doing what we can for the beautiful children that walk through our doors everyday.   We have made goals, we have reached them, we have striven to make new and more lofty ones.  We may not get to stand up for an ovation of awards, but we each know the sweat and tears we’ve invested into our community.  When former students come back in search for us, we know our investment paid off.

But as a large community, we get in ruts, and we have to find our way out.  We have to remember that our school belongs to all of us, our students, staff, leaders, parents, and community.  The reality is that what we do, day in and day out, really matters for the Big Picture of life for so many.  The things we teach and the people we touch will keep going far after our lives are gone because that’s the nature of our business.  The pain we inflict can also alter the lives of each other, our students, and community.  We can’t afford to grow resentful.  We can’t afford to harbor bitterness or hold grudges.  The work we do matters too much, even when we feel our lowest.

The truth is, we can’t afford to lose our saltiness, or passion to keep growing and going.  We can’t afford to be apathetic when we see kids shrink back from learning.  The truth is, we are in this together, and we must do everything we can in our power to make it right.  We have to forgive, daily, offer clean slates, second chances, and strive to keep our thirst for a better life, a better education, one student at a time, one colleague at a time, one family member at a time.

From Kim Bearden’s book, Talk To Me

Keeping it salty is tough. We need each other.  We can’t be the light when we’re stuck in a dark hole.

I pray this year will be our finest, yet.  Together.  We are family, and I’m proud to call you mine.

On Giving Backpacks

This time of year, it’s not uncommon to find many parents of school-aged children bemoaning the school supply shuffle.  And who can blame them? Having three of my own to buy supplies for, it can really add up! So we are always appreciative of those who post where the best sales are available, and for those who choose to make this a time of fun and celebration!  And for all those teachers out there, who use their last summer paycheck to purchase extra supplies for students you’re about to serve, we see you, too!  May God bless you back in infinite ways for your sacrificial giving!  As an educator and parent, I see all sides, and understand the varied emotions that the back to school season elicits!

As an eternal optimist, I am constantly looking for positive people and ideas.  So when I saw my youngest sister’s post today on her social media account, it inspired me to use my voice, that He gave me, to remind us we can be a blessing for people we may not know, children and their parents, who for whatever reason, aren’t able to purchase school supplies for their child/ren.

My niece, Jasmine, poses with the bag full of school supplies that she gathered for a mystery, fifth grader.

I’ve seen my sister’s posts in the past, but today when I saw my beautiful niece posing with the backpack that she willingly filled for another child, it blessed me.  Every year, their local church adopts up to four elementary schools and one middle school to help.  My sister, Megan, a successful single parent, and her daughter, Jazzy, have made it a tradition to choose to find school supplies for a female student in the same grade as Jazz.  However, this year, as Jazzy begins her freshman year in high school, she decided she wanted to shop for a fifth grader.  As a fifth grade teacher for many years now, it’s no wonder this caught my eye and heart.  This has been a seven year tradition for Jazzy and Megan.  As a young adult, Jazzy still gets excited about it, and even picked out matching notebooks so she and the unknown fifth grade girl would be “connected in a way.”

What a tradition to pass down!  Megan, and all other parents who do this, you are doing it right!  As a single parent, I’m sure the financial burden feels greater, so giving in this way is even more sacrificial.  My sister is teaching her daughter to give to others, even when it hurts your own pocketbook, and to give without expecting to get back. She’s also growing her daughter to be empathetic to the needs of others, and the desire to be connected, as Jazzy put it, will actually contribute to her willingness to be part of her community in a way our nation needs more now than ever!

As a teacher who sees how students feel when they don’t have all the necessary items, I am so excited for this child to know that she doesn’t have to feel isolated or any shame for not having enough.  Her parents can send their daughter to school knowing she has all the necessary supplies for a great start and also a knowledge that there is a community of people who do care for them, even if they have never met.

I hope this story will inspire us all, as we find ourselves doing the school supply shuffle, once again. Some of us, who are financially able, instead of dreading it, let’s be inspired to partner with our churches or community outreach programs to bless a child outside of our own family.  And for those of us who may not have young children in our lives, maybe this is just the thing for us to do to feel connected with our community.  Wherever you find yourself in all of this, it’s always good to give backpack. 😉

Dear New Teacher, WELCOME!

Dear New Teacher,

Welcome to the noblest of all professions, and like all noble journeys, the burden is great and oftentimes feels too heavy.  When I think back on the night before my first day of teaching and my first night of being a new parent, my thoughts were incredibly similar, “Who thought it was a good idea to leave me in charge of these little humans?!”  Like you, I knew that my new job was extremely important to help develop these precious beings, and I didn’t want to mess them up!

Please let me calm some of your fears. You will mess up. You will make mistakes. But you will also experience victories, you will inspire those little, or big, humans; and you will find your calling along the way.  

Don’t be afraid of those mistakes. They will guide your decisions and increase your wisdom as you keep growing. They will give you clarity when your students mess up, too.  We all deserve second [and tenth] chances.  Show your students how to make things right by your own example of a growth mindset! 

Your passion that steered you onto this path will give you the strength to take chances that others would never dream up!  Your passion, and possible youth (or youth in spirit), will be your greatest asset in this new world! There may be those along the way who tell you you can’t do it or why even try, but don’t listen to those voices. They need you to remind them it’s still possible. Do it!  Your students will never forget it!

Whether it’s your faith, your pump-you-up-playlist, a glass (or two) of wine, and/or a supportive group of family and friends, make sure you have them in place for times to celebrate your victories, or when you need to reflect on what went wrong.  Keep some Advil and Epsom salts handy.  The mental and physical exhaustion is real, and learning how to take care of yourself outside of work needs to be a priority to successfully finish.  

You’ve probably heard the saying “No man is an island” and it’s definitely true in our field; we, teachers need each other.  If you are blessed to be given a mentor teacher who will guide you through the first years, like I was, be vulnerable and listen to him or her. You’ll know their feedback is priceless when it serves to build you up and allow you to learn from challenges.  Ask questions, observe them teach, share your thoughts and concerns. If you don’t have that mentor in your life, look me up on Twitter @mjmcalli and I will introduce you to an Army of Educators who will help and inspire you.  I’ll be one of them, too.  

Classroom and school-wide community is important.  Please, please keep in mind that while parents may not appear perfect or make the decisions you’d make, almost all of the parents I’ve met love their children and would sacrifice their lives for them. In fact, they are the experts when it comes to their children, and to build community, we have to listen and support them to have it in return.  Keep that in mind during hard conversations that you need to make when talking with those incredibly important people.

Educate yourself on signs of abuse.  Make that call to save their lives, even through the confusion and guilt: It always matters.  Our young people look to us as a lifeline.  While creating a safe environment to learn, the trust our students place in our hands is immense. 

This journey of teaching is challenging, but it’s probably the most rewarding, too! Okay, I’m a bit biased, but you have the opportunity to speak into so many lives, it’s also quite humbling.  Your students will remember the songs you sang together, the jokes, the fun, and discipline including everything on the social emotional spectrum.

Welcome, New Teacher, and thank you for embarking on this journey with all of us!