Celebrating Riverview Middle School

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My sabbatical as the Indiana Department of Education Teacher in Residence has come to a close. Ten months ago, I embarked on a mission to “Celebrate Teaching” in Indiana. Wearing my flight suit from space camp, I entered over 900 classrooms and convinced powerful students to join me on my quest. The “memory hook” I pulled out of my flight bag was an enormous gem that represented the immeasurable value of teachers. As my journey ends, I’m grateful that over 25,000 students in Indiana are ready to carry on my mission by treating their teachers as priceless, valuable gems. In addition to school visits, my mission took me to universities, churches, businesses, and community organizations to deliver speeches of hope for our teaching profession. In every setting, I was greeted with warmth and enjoyed the thrill of meeting incredible people.

In fact, after only a few short months, I found myself facing difficult decisions. Numerous, well-meaning people tried to convince me to leave my classroom so I could “widen my impact,” experience “more power,” and “make more money.” As I reflected on their comments, I came to an enlightening revelation. I realized that “power,” is too often defined by a job title, and my worth isn’t determined by a paycheck. Unfortunately, in education, we have perceived hierarchies that often leave educators feeling helpless. Yet, as I put over 8,000 miles on my trusty mini-van this year, I noticed that the people who had the greatest influence weren’t necessarily the people who held the fancy job titles. Instead, true power seemed to lie with those who had the ability to empower others. As I watched teachers kneel beside students and push them to go farther than they ever dreamed possible, I saw what “power” really meant. I also found myself telling others that my value is not based on what I make; it’s determined by my ability to give to others.

Which leads to why I choose to end the “Celebrate Teaching” blog by honoring the staff of Riverview Middle School. Anyone who has heard me speak this year knows that I am empowered by others. In fact, my “professional family” at Riverview Middle School is constantly raising the bar and pushing me to be better. Without their guidance and influence, I would never have had the courage to embark on this year’s mission. Although I enjoyed the journey, the message from mission control is now loud and clear; “It’s time to come home.” Which is why I’m “going forward” to my classroom at Riverview where I will remain grounded so I can, in turn, empower others for lift off.

How fitting that my final act as the Teacher in Residence was to visit Riverview and celebrate its Four Star School status. I am very grateful that the entire school is finally being recognized because the students and staff have deserved those accolades all along. This “Teacher of the Year” journey has never been about my capabilities; I’m simply reflecting what the Riverview Raiders have taught me. And so I end my mission by saying, thank you, Riverview, for helping me define “power” and “value.” I’m headed home to my classroom because that’s where I know I belong. Riverview Middle School, today I celebrate you – mission complete.

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Celebrating Beginning, Middle, and Never-ending

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Everyone who has met me knows I am honest about my imperfections. So, I have to admit,  I’ve really struggled with the pressure of writing my official “Teacher Appreciation Week” blog. After all, my entire year has been dedicated to celebrating teachers, and I wasn’t sure how I could find the words to adequately express my depth of appreciation. In the last two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit educators who are at the beginning, the middle, and the “perceived” end of their teaching story. Reflecting on those visits helped me realize why it is so difficult to find the right way to say thank you. In my speeches, I often say, “Teaching is not a profession; it is a lifestyle.” That’s why I’m struggling. It’s easy to tell people thank you for what they do, but how do you ever express gratitude for who they are? We can’t put a price tag on a person, and all of my token attempts at thanking teachers seemed grossly inadequate. For that reason, I’m putting faith in what I’ve told students in over 900 classrooms this year; “Words are powerful.” I’ll attempt to use my words, and if I don’t meet the mark, at least the teachers will know I made a heart-felt attempt. So let’s peek into the lives of some past, present, and future educators.

Image 3Last week, I walked into the “Drs. Todd and Beth Whitaker Executive Conference Room” at Indiana State University to meet some incredible future educators who had gathered to celebrate their launch into student teaching next fall. At the end of our time together, I said, “I just saw the future of education, and clearly, it’s going to sparkle.” Dr. Beth Whitaker is the person who gave me the gift of the “make it sparkle” slogan. Because Beth shines a caring light of learning on future educators, they, in turn, reflect that light and shine brightly in their classrooms. As I listened to the future educators, it was clear they had already embraced the teacher lifestyle. One of the celebration activities required the interns to share “tokens” that represented insights from their field experiences. Nearly all of the university students had a watch in their “Token Totes”  because as they explained, “There is never enough time, and you never quit working.” Teachers take the stories of their students home with them every night, and they certainly don’t clock out when the last bell of the day rings. I know these future educators are ready for the classroom because they already understand that once their day begins, it really never ends.

Early this week, I visited some of our “present” educators. I had the opportunity to serve as a judge for a Project Based Learning unit in a middle school art classroom. What struck me about this visit was the enormous amount of behind the scenes work that had to go on before I ever walked into the room. I was energized by the interactions I had with the students and the quality of their projects, but I was also inspired by the teacher and student teacher in this classroom. Based on the students’ comments, it became clear that these teachers had spent an incredible amount of time working with individual students to help them maximize their potential. Not only that, but theImage 1 teacher also showed me an entire packet of assessment materials specifically designed for over twenty different kinds of art projects. Of course, the teacher thought nothing of it, and even asked me for ways to improve the process. She perfectly modeled the teacher belief that because we can always grow, our work never ends. In fact, my co-judges were teachers who were volunteering their prep time to help out. Isn’t it funny how even though teachers never have enough time, they understand the importance of “making time?”

On Tuesday, which was the official “National Teacher Appreciation Day,” I was honored to speak at the LaGrange County Retired Teacher’s Association meeting. My heart was full because sitting in the audience were teachers who had mentored me during my first two years of teaching at Parkside Elementary School. When I had them stand and be recognized, I had to fight back tears. They smiled sweetly, but they clearly had no idea how much they impacted my teaching career. Many years ago, they were going about the business of educating kids, not knowing that a scared young teacher was constantly watching them to learn how to be a better educator. I challenged the retired teachers with my “teaching is a lifestyle” quote because I wanted them to understand that they really aren’t at the end. They will never stop being teachers because they are wired to use their skills in all settings. Their service might not be carried out in the classroom, but they aren’t even close to the final chapter of their own teaching stories; there’s too much more to be done.

And so, to all of our future, present, and never really retired teachers, I share my heartfelt thanks for your willingness to be an educator for life. The day never ends, the work never ends, and the career never ends, yet you continue to do this priceless work because it’s your lifestyle, and by choosing that lifestyle, you are changing the world.

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Celebrating Lapel Elementary School

ImageWhile waiting for a phenomenal performance from students at Lapel Elementary School, I delighted in the electric anticipation that always precedes a class play. Nervous whisperers behind the scenery gave each other last minute instructions and words of encouragement. Proud parents prepared their cameras to be sure they captured this “scrapbook worthy” childhood moment, and the teacher multi-tasked and problem solved with incredible patience and skill. When it was time for “lights, camera, action,” I was swept away by the children’s rendition of a Native American legend called, “Pushing Up the Sky.” In the play, the chiefs of various tribes gather together to decide how to solve their “low-hanging” sky problem.  In the end, the people and animals from differing tribes discover that if they all push at the same time, they can move the sky. Giggles joyfully erupted when one cloud accidently got knocked down, but the composure recovery was remarkable as the actors remembered to “Stay calm, and carry on.” Applause erupted, bows were taken, children waved at their beaming parents, and I snuck a peek at the teacher. I know she had to be exhausted. Yet the look on her face spoke volumes. As she smiled proudly at her young actors and actresses basking in the attention and glory, she seemed to be thinking, “It was worth it.”

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The teachers at Lapel Elementary School live out this play every day. They know the importance of working together, and they collaborate to push their students to incredible heights. I’m sure every once in a while, a “low hanging cloud” gets knocked down, but these teachers seem like the type who “Stay calm, and carry on.” The students at Lapel are enthusiastic, creative learners who have an entire staff working together to give them those gentle nudges upward. As a teacher, it’s always refreshing to be reminded that I don’t have to tackle my classroom challenges alone.

In fact, this year, I’ve been continually impressed with the spirit of collaboration evident in our Indiana schools. I certainly don’t see a “my bulletin board is prettier than your bulletin board” attitude. Instead, teachers understand that meeting our current educational challenges will require everyone pushing together. Through collaboration, we are able to enjoy the thrill of sitting back and saying, “It was worth it.” Thank you, Lapel Elementary School, for showing me your collaborative spirit. Today, I celebrate you!

Celebrating Oakdale

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At Oakdale Elementary School, students can eat their lunch while gazing down a painted path that leads to majestic mountains in the distance. During my visit last week, I had the pleasure of meeting talented teachers who clearly have high aspirations for their students. These educators work diligently to guide their students down a path of opportunity that could very well lead to incredible mountain top experiences. I know the capabilities of these teachers because I have four nephews currently attending Oakdale who have all benefitted from the guidance of their caring teachers.

I am blessed because I have the opportunity to continue following my nephews on their life journey. How wonderful it will be to cheer for them when they achieve their own successful summits. Let’s not forget, however, that my ability to follow along is a luxury their teachers don’t have. You see, the incredible teachers at Oakdale are committed to staying at the trailhead. Instead of following their students down the path of success, they must stay rooted to provide guidance to the next group of young people. I’m certainly glad these teachers are willing to make that sacrifice because my nieces are headed their way in a few years!

Since Oakdale’s teachers have developed strong roots at the pathway entrance, it’s fitting that this school is the home of the “Mighty Oaks.”  The teachers may never know where their young “acorns” will end up rooting themselves, but I hope these educators never forget how much their daily guidance affects the future. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” Thank you, Oakdale Elementary School for your willingness to stay rooted and sow seeds that will impact future generations in a mighty way.  It’s fitting that I choose today to write about my visit with the Mighty Oaks. It is Earth Day, after all, and both celebrations remind us of the importance of investing in our future. Thank you, Oakdale Elementary School, for your strong roots. Today, I celebrate you!

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Celebrating Lafayette Meadows

“You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction.” – Jim Rohn

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During my journeys to schools all over Indiana, I’ve become intrigued by the physical layout of different buildings. At the heart of Lafayette Meadows Elementary School, I found an inviting gathering area. I’ve always said my husband and I love teaching middle school because there are occasions when both of us delight in acting immature. On that particular day, I had one of those moments because I couldn’t fight the urge to stand in the middle of the vibrant carpet and spin in circles. While amusing myself in this manner, I realized that I never lost my sense of direction thanks to the small compasses painted above each hallway. If I faced north, the compass reminded me that a polar bear might greet me at the end of that journey. Image

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Doing a skateboard style “180 flip” resulted in the promise of a South Pole penguin further down the road. Although I thought I better start acting like an adult again, I didn’t regret my momentary immaturity because the experience helped me rethink my role as a teacher. Image

After Spring Break, many educators realize they only have a couple more months with their students. I admit that I’ve had some panicky moments when I face that reality. Did I teach them everything they need to know? Will they remember everything they learned? Did I really make a difference? While those thoughts are normal, I need to remember what I saw at Lafayette Meadows. Without a doubt, these educators are confidently steering their students in the right direction. Engaged learners worked diligently on the skills they need to enjoy future success while their teachers expertly navigated them through the sea of learning. As I watched these teachers, I realized that I need to quit pressuring myself to “change the world” overnight. After all, my students need to have the freedom to choose their own destinies. Determining the destination is not my job; instead, I need to serve as the “knowledgeable navigator.” By gently guiding my students in the right direction, I give them the skills they need to recognize their own potential. Thank you, Lafayette Meadows Elementary School, for helping me adjust my own compass. Today, I celebrate you!

Celebrating Adventure

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Visiting South Creek Elementary School was quite an adventure! Before I set out on my journey, two incredibly talented fourth graders served as my tour guides. I loved listening to their animated descriptions of South Creek’s adventurous offerings. I found out I could travel the United States with Flat Stanley and his “flat friends” from South Creek, earn a “Gator of the Month” award, or even do a gangnam style dance with the “ISTEP lady.” Without a doubt, I knew I had an exciting day ahead.

Before our tour ended, however, the conversation shifted, and my young guides began to speak passionately about the virtues of the teachers behind the adventures. These wise young ladies seemed to understand that life adventures can’t happen unless someone shows you the value of wondering and the beauty of discovery. Clearly, the teachers at South Creek know how to share that vision.

Because these educators have an adventurous spirit, they spend their days teaching students how to marvel at the present and envision the future.  I am always amazed when I watch teachers diligently preparing students for their unknown futures. In most careers, professionals deal with the realities of current situations.  Teachers, however, have a unique opportunity to work in the world of future possibilities. I was honored to spend a day with South Creek’s teachers and watch them transform their classrooms into places where adventures are only limited by imaginations. Today, I celebrate South Creek’s adventures and encourage all schools to embark on their own thrilling journeys.

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Celebrating Wyandotte Power

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In 2007, Tippecanoe School Corporation stakeholders submitted names for the new elementary school being built on the eastside of Lafayette. The name, “Wyandotte Elementary School” was chosen in honor of the Wyandotte tribe. Further research revealed that the Wyandotte’s power came, not from numbers, but from intelligence. After spending a day in this powerful school, I am convinced the stakeholders chose the right name.  Even the school mascot, the hawk, is a traditional symbol of power. Fittingly, by the end of my visit, the staff at Wyandotte had inspired me to reflect on the true nature of “power.”

Obviously, it was thrilling to watch Wyandotte’s teachers carry on the legacy of the Wyandotte tribe by empowering their students through knowledge. Yet, I didn’t see teachers “dispensing” information. Instead, I watched children discovering knowledge themselves. Throughout the day, I could feel a unique undercurrent of creativity flowing through the halls of the school, so I wasn’t surprised when I walked around the back of the “Wyandotte Hawks” sign and discovered this message.

Image 1As evidenced by this sign, the entire staff remembers the importance of celebrating individual creativity within the context of knowledge acquisition. Because opportunities to explore are framed around content, the students don’t view learning as dreaded work.  They feel safe being themselves, and their happy spirits reflect that freedom.

I am forever grateful for the lessons I’ve learned this year because I will go back to my own classroom a changed teacher. At Wyandotte, I was reminded that creativity shouldn’t be set aside, even if a standardized test is looming. After all, my visit occurred exactly one week before I-STEP began. However, the climate of the building was not one of stress and fear; instead, teachers and students freely learned because they remembered that the process of learning is just as powerful as a product in the form of a test score. Don’t misunderstand me; Wyandotte’s test scores will, no doubt, still be exemplary.  What makes this school special is that students are allowed to be creative individuals who understand that their power and worth reside in the unique contributions they will make to society. That, to me, is a powerful message. Wyandotte Elementary School, thanks for showing me the meaning of power; today, I celebrate you!


Celebrating Lincoln Elementary School

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” - Abraham Lincoln

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Not surprisingly, allusions to Abraham Lincoln are plentiful at Lincoln Elementary School. Visitors are invited to explore a log cabin, window displays share facts about Honest Abe, and quotes from our 16th president adorn the hallways. Walking around the school proves to be an inspirational journey through Lincoln’s life. At the end of my visit, however, I was just as inspired by the people who are currently living out Lincoln’s legacy in this exceptional school.

Having just celebrated President’s Day last month, I am keenly aware of the fascination children have with Lincoln’s humble beginnings. His story of success gives hope to students who struggle with their own life issues. At many schools, I have encountered teachers, like the educators at Lincoln Elementary School, who care deeply about their students. Yet I love how Lincoln’s teachers move beyond simply “caring.” These people dedicate their lives to educating children because they “believe” in them. I have often pointed out that there is a difference between caring about students and really believing they can achieve success.

This week, educators all over Indiana are handing the I-STEP test to their students. At Lincoln, the teachers have worked tirelessly to prepare these children to take that test, and they know their students will show incredible growth. However, the teachers’ belief in their students will impact so much more than the results on a standardized test. Lincoln Elementary School gives students hope for life.

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Community members and parent volunteers embrace this same belief as evidenced by the numerous adults who give of their time to invest in our future. I was delighted to hear about “Reading Buddies” who come to Lincoln to give the gift of literacy to our next generation. The number of volunteer hours invested at Lincoln Elementary School communicates an unwavering belief in the students.What a wonderful example of an entire community working together to make a difference for children.

Abraham Lincoln said, “whatever you are, be a good one.” Clearly, the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School are good at what they do because they inspire students to imagine their own futures of excellence. Thank you, Lincoln Elementary School, for living Lincoln’s legacy; today, I celebrate you!

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Celebrating 8th Grade Wisdom

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Last week, I spent an entire day working with eighth graders at Highland Middle School. I shared some of my personal life stories to reinforce the message that “You can’t change your past, but you can change your future.” I then challenged the students to think about their own life goals and encouraged them to develop a one word mission statement. The wordle above is a compilation of those words. As I watched students write their mission words, I became particularly intrigued by what was missing. Not a single student mentioned “money” or “riches” as being part of their lifelong goals. Instead, their missions were altruistic and other centered.

You sometimes hear people talk about the “next generation” with a note of despair in their voices. I wonder how much time those people actually spend with the next generation? I have recently been encouraged by interesting reports claiming that the students we are teaching now will actually rebel against their parents by fighting materialism. What a refreshing rebellion! As I taught class after class of well-mannered, enthusiastic students with enormous potential, I began to celebrate their determination to fight for happiness and love instead of money. I admired their commitment to help, dream, protect, unite, and believe. Maybe this generation will be defined more by what they do than by the titles they hold.

A great deal of wisdom resides in the youth at Highland Middle School. Realizing that most of my blog audience consists of prospective and current teachers, let’s Imagetalk about how this lesson applies to us. I have talked to many undergraduate education majors who tear up when they tell me their parents don’t want them to be educators because they won’t make enough money. So what is the underlying message from Mom and Dad? They’re saying that making money is more important than making a difference. Don’t misunderstand; teachers need to continue to fight for fair pay. Honestly, though, will it ever be “fair?” During my speeches to community members, I try to help them understand that teaching is not really a career; it is a lifestyle. We never “leave” work because we carry the needs of our students with us at all times. What we do as teachers is priceless. Does society choose to base the value of our profession on how much we make or on how much we impact the future? Reassessing the teaching profession based on the values of these students makes teachers some of the richest people in the world.

As for me, I can’t wait to get back to my classroom because that’s where my true happiness lies, and that’s where I continue to be reminded, by some very wise young people, of what really matters. Thank you, Highland Middle Schoolers, for helping me see a  future filled with people who want to help others instead of just make a buck. Today, I celebrate you!

Celebrating Whispering Meadows

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During many of my presentations, I hold up a tattered copy of my favorite bedtime story, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book. Throughout my life, this author has continued to inspire me. The first book I remember reading was Green Eggs and Ham, and Oh the Places You’ll Go continues to be a favorite graduation gift for my students. So when I was greeted by this bulletin board at Whispering Meadows Elementary School, I knew it would be a special day. No doubt, the students at this phenomenal school are “off to great places,” and I want to thank their teachers for being an integral part of the journey.

Visiting Whispering Meadows was inspiring because I observed teachers doing so much more than teaching content; they were giving their students hope. These educators are clearly helping children envision futures with unlimited possibilities. Throughout the United States, teachers feel pressure to be sure their students perform, but thankfully, at this school, the power of creativity and imagination hasn’t been forgotten in the process. Just strolling through “Triville” made me want to dream big dreams and tackle new mountains.  If more adults could spend their days walking among truffula trees like these children do every day, maybe our adult lives wouldn’t seem nearly as complicated. Which makes me think of another Dr. Seuss quote, “Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers are simple.” I think the teachers at Whispering Meadows have stumbled upon a simple solution to a complicated question. Everyone in our society is asking how we can best educate our youth. That’s a pretty complicated question! However, maybe the answer isn’t found in a magic program or perfect assessment. Possibly, the answer lies in rekindling the imagination of childhood. Of course, we have to be sure our students learn content, but at Whispering Meadows, I was reminded of the importance of balance.

Thank you, Whispering Meadows, for remembering that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” and for being sure those small people aren’t robbed of opportunities to dream big. Whispering Meadows, you believe in the power of imagination, and today, I celebrate you!