Politics in the Classroom

by Sonya Barnes                                                                                                                            January 25, 2019

As teachers, we spend a great deal of time with our students and they learn our preferences just from how we talk bout things.  They know favorite foods, drinks, TV shows—all because of conversations we have and anecdotes we may share during our lessons.  And sharing a part of who we are is an integral part of being an educator.  It is what makes the personal connections real and connects theoretical classroom knowledge to real life application.

One area that I believe personal preferences should never be shared in a classroom, though, is the area of politics.  I am not saying we should avoid political discussions—it is important for students, at least in secondary education, to be aware of the issues being discussed and changed and to learn about varying opinions and ways of thinking.  A classroom with a diverse grouping of people is a fantastic place for these conversations to take place.  Sadly, we see teachers that are using their classrooms for political platforms.  Their students are keenly aware of how they feel about issues and politicians.  Students who agree with them feel empowered to speak out, but students that may be opposed can feel disconnected or even shunned by the teacher, even if they are not. 

Having taught reading for many years, one of the units I had to cover included research, analyzing non-fiction, and learning whether information was valid and authentic.  I often used political elections as the platform for this.  One of my favorite lessons was during my first year teaching with 6th graders when we used candidates in a primary election but removed face and names and only gave them a number.  The students completed a profile on primary issues based on their own beliefs, ranked those based on which were most to least important, then noted each of the other candidate’s stance on those issues.  From that data, they saw the candidate they most aligned with.  Once all had the data, we revealed which candidate they aligned with.  It was a great lesson that I hope stuck with them.  We had real conversations about issues, they learned to listen to another’s point of view without judging or getting defensive because it was different—sometimes even refraining from sharing their ideas publicly and learning that it was okay to do so. 

But they never once found out which side I was on for an issue or which candidate I supported, a practice I have intentionally continued to this day.  You see, I could talk to any kid about any issue or topic and they new I’d be open to their idea.  I found myself explaining things that came up from current events as they related to articles and stories we were reading or topics we were writing about but doing so on both sides of the issue.  When directly asked by students, I would refuse to share my beliefs or ideas because I didn’t want to skew their free thinking.  Don’t go thinking I am noble or bragging—I am just a firm believer that young people should have a safe environment to try out different ideas or versions of themselves without feeling judged, and I tried to make my classroom that place.  How else was I going to get authentic and real writing from them?

But I have also known teachers that were extremely political and used their classrooms as a way of sharing their views every chance they could.  And students would come to me having felt very uncomfortable or left out if they didn’t see it that way.  It wasn’t that the teacher did anything wrong necessarily, it was just an opinion-based connection the student couldn’t make or disagreed with.  I have no doubt that there are teachers that use their classrooms as a soapbox for their opinions and push them hard on their students and impacting the grades and learning of their students.  I have seen it firsthand as both a student and an educator, and more often at the post-secondary level than in middle or high school level. 

Educators have a responsibility to present information with facts and all the varieties of opinions that exist.  We should, discussing political topics as they relate to our subjects and at a level our students can handle based on knowledge and age/maturity level.  Far too many people of all ages these days don’t know how to have a difficult conversation about a topic with someone that has an opposing viewpoint and truly listen for the sake of learning.  Most listen for the sake of arguing (I am guilty of this myself, on occasion).  As educators, it is so important that we learn to separate teaching from influencing based on our own beliefs.  We must teach them to think, find evidence, analyze the details, ask questions, discuss at every opportunity with all viewpoints within our classroom.  But it is so important that we leave the opportunities for drawing conclusions to the individual students to do privately or safely in an anonymous way.

Parents, this part is for you.  I encourage you to do the same as I am asking of educators.  Remember that reading unit about researching candidates I mentioned earlier?  Many of the students found their views aligned with a candidate perfectly, but when it came time to write their conclusions and participate in our mock election, most voted differently.  When we had our wrap up discussion about the mock election, some students said that their parents would be mad, even disown them, for supporting someone else.  Some just wanted to do what everyone else was going to do and not be left out.  I grew up with family that has strong political beliefs.  I changed political parties as an adult and had close family members sever all ties with me because of it.  But, in my household, three of us are of voting age and are all registered in different parties—yet we can have many political conversations about hot topics, openly listening and considering each other’s points of view, and still respect each other if we continue to differ in our views.  It’s what I envision for the community to be like, and eventually the world.  But you must play an integral part of this.  Listen to your children, encourage them to think for themselves and reassure them that it is okay to support a different ideal than you—and truly mean it.  Together, we can raise children that can truly make the world a better place.

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to like so I know you read, subscribe to get notified when I write, and comment to share your thoughts.

Teaching Children to Work

by Sonya Barnes January 16, 2016

In past centuries, children would begin working the family farm or business at a young age to contribute their share—even if they went to school.  Some children, in their adolescent years, may have even been sent away to work as an apprentice in a trade for a variety of reasons.  But, in recent generations, the focus has shifted to classroom-based learning and “on the job” learning as an apprentice is lost in most children, unless they volunteer for community service hours or still help with a family business.

As teachers, we often have work to do at home, as do many other professions. So, is it a bad idea to have your kids help work on classroom projects around their own school and activity schedule?  I personally don’t think so.  Even if they don’t desire to go into their parents’ professions, there is still much to be learned from the experience.  They can learn time management, pre-planning projects, completing a job to the best of their ability, working with others, and so much more.  It is just important to make sure the task is age appropriate.

My children have always helped with work. I was a single mom for a long time, so it allowed us to get things accomplished and spend time together. My oldest would help in my classroom, although I didn’t become a teacher until he was eight. He would help organize, move furniture and, having been a student already, was valuable to me in learning what a good classroom environment felt like and flowed like. I think he helped me become a better teacher from the start because of his contributions. As he got older and his time was filled with sports and other activities, I recall taking my youngest to prepare my classroom as a two-year-old and him holding border as I stapled it to boards, finding letters for me as I sorted them out, and putting books on the shelf. Even at 2, he was a huge help and saved me lots of time—it was a wonderful bonus to be able to teach him skills, give him independence, and get time with him. As he has gotten older, his tasks have increased.  When I taught at the same school he went to, he’d help stack or unstack chairs, turn technology on or off, straighten things, wipe down tables, staple papers I had copied and even gather the day’s work from the turn in bin and clip it for me using my system.  When I had projects for my students, he’d do a trial run of creating them, give me feedback, and then prep the sets of supplies for me by class so it was ready to go.

Knowing what a huge help they were with work has allowed me to entrust them at home with chores beyond what I normally would have thought, especially my youngest.  My now eight-year-old not only cleans his own room, helps tidy the house and take care of his fish, but he also does his own laundry, loads the dishwasher, helps with meal plan and prep, cleans up after the dogs in the yard, and  helps his older brother bathe the dogs—a chore he will take over when his brother graduates and moves on. My oldest has been doing laundry since he was about eight, helping with the yard and housework, and even with his brother since he was a teenager when he was born.

They don’t just learn by working with me, either.  My husband is has a handyman business and can fix just about anything and includes them in home and car repairs as often as they are available (or willing)—a lost art for many, but something he learned by helping his father.  When something makes a noise, our youngest son will often try to fix it from what he has learned, or he tells dad so he can fix it.  While this can backfire sometimes, more often it is a blessing.  My oldest likes having a car paid in full, but that means repairs, so he has learned a lot about mechanics and maintaining his own vehicle. My oldest is into computers and they spend time together so my little one is learning from him about how they work and what he can do on them.  And both have been a huge help when I made videos and was prepping, taking photos or editing, even planning and setting up my office to work from home.

They may never grow up to do any of these things in their own career, but will have immense respect for the work people do, the effort they put in, and will have skills to take into a future of their own, whatever it may be.

I’d love to know how your children help at work or home and what career field you are in.  Comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe and get this article sent to your inbox!

An Open Letter to Florida Leadership about the “Rally in Tally”

Here is the letter I sent to FLDOE and district leadership regarding the chastising email sent to Polk County teachers threatening their jobs if they took their approved personal days to attend the Rally on Monday 1/13/2020 to make their voice heard the day before the legislative session begins on 1/14/2020.

In education, we are often faced with teachable moments–the term we use for opportunities that present themselves for us to truly teach our student a valuable lesson that, we hope, will have a lasting impression.  This rarely comes from a planned lesson.  More often than not, it comes from an interaction while passing in the hallway, during a lesson that has gone completely awry.  This could be on a perfectly good day, or on a day when we are trying to recover the point of learning when the internet is down, the copier is awaiting a repair man and we spilled our morning coffee down our shirt when we were already running late after being up all night caring for a sick child or loved one.  How we respond defines us as a person, a leader, and a teacher. And it doesn’t require one to be in a classroom to be defined by a teachable moment.
My husband and I are both military veterans and former Polk county public school teachers that left for health reasons–the demands of the classroom were negatively impacting us that severely. We are both a product of Florida schools through our college degrees.  Our children are both in Florida schools–one a 3rd grader and the other a senior in college.  I now teach from home for another Florida school. Teaching is not standing in front of compliant and obedient kids delivering a rehearsed lesson on a standard, giving an assignment and grading it. Teaching is a skill set that requires reading students carefully, finding their strengths and weaknesses and finding a way to meet somewhere between what they need where they are and what the state or district demands they achieve, even if they are miles apart.  In essence, without legal requirement, we create an Individual Education Plan for every child that enters our room, even when those numbers in one school year are 150 students or more. And, if we do it well, students from prior years come back for help. 

I recall hearing about the Rally in Tally as early as last summer.  That means that Polk County Schools and the State of Florida have had several months to prepare for this date.  They could have met and changed the calendar to make this a teacher work day. It could have been a staff/student holiday. The legislative session that was scheduled, and the prompting catalyst for this date could have been set for a week later when educators would be off the day prior for a holiday and could be present without any impact to their jobs in any way.  But none of these things were done.  This is not a teacher problem, this is a leadership problem.
Teachers that followed the protocol of applying for a personal day and had it approved are being threatened in an email sent out after work hours on Friday night regarding an absence for Monday as a result of a lack of coverage by the district.  This is not a teacher problem, this is a leadership problem.
So, this is your moment.  You are the leader.  This will define you.  This event will make your mark on history.  Will you support your educators on the front line, teaching children that disrespect them because they see leadership disrespecting them, not supporting their efforts in the classroom, providing support services for those children, adequate resources to teach with, sufficient time to meet the required content, and appropriate compensation for their efforts in relation to the years they have committed?  Or will you continue to blame them for their circumstances and use fear to control them?
What kind of leader will you be? I pray it is the kind that stands in solidarity with teachers, works to solve the problem instead of finding blame, and supports educators being present for decisions being made that impact them.

Sincerely,

Sonya Barnes Veteran, Educator, Parent, Advocate

The 12 Days of Catch Up

December 3, 2019

If you are a teacher that is buried in work and have so much to do that you fear you won’t see your winter break this year, then this is for you! Read on to find out how to catch up and get ahead before Winter Break starts.

A busy day at the office!

If you are like most teachers, you are counting down to Winter Break, even though you just returned from Thanksgiving Break.  Only three weeks to go, but so much to accomplish on your to do list!  And, as much as you’d like to be prepared for when you return, you are just trying to get to break without getting lost in the mountain of papers to grade, mid-year data reports and parents to call.  So, let’s talk about how we can break this down into manageable steps and get you organized and accomplished!  As teachers, we love our acrostics, so we will use GLEAM to organize our major teacher tasks and what they include. 

  • Grading—scoring work and logging the grades
  • Lesson Plans—going through standards and curriculum and organizing into daily lessons and assignments for students, as well as completing school-based required documents
  • Emails & Calls—communication within and outside of the school with stakeholders, whether it be other teachers, administration, parents or students
  • Actuating Data—testable data from benchmarks, data from computer-based programs, or looking at how students performed on assignments to determine if reteaching is necessary
  • Materials—Create & Copy student assignments, teaching tools or manipulatives and making printouts or photocopies as needed

Having a plan for when and how to accomplish these tasks can be very helpful.  Some will need to be kept up with for a few minutes daily, some will take longer and need done daily and some won’t need done as often.  I highly encourage you to accomplish the tasks every day just to stay on top of things.

I know that break seems forever away, and yet really isn’t that far, but if we buckle down now, you will be able to go on vacation without a care or worry and, if you are lucky enough to have a teacher work day upon return, you can spend it getting your room updated for the new year, watching videos to brush up on your skills, or helping another teacher, like the first year teacher that is losing their mind and buried under everything—hey, maybe you could share this with them!

Once you have conceded to working hard, block off your calendar with work time, but don’t forget to block off family time to enjoy festivities now.  You can choose between committing to longer work days if your weekends stay packed, weekends if your weekdays are packed, or break it into a combination that works for you.   If you cannot work in extra hours during the week, I would suggest keeping up with emails and calls daily, and grading 3 days per week, leaving you only lesson plan and prepping for your weekends.  No one wants to go back to work on Monday after grading, but after preparing a fun lesson, it may not be so bad.

So, here’s a sample of how you can spend your time to get caught up between now and break to allow for a more manageable schedule upon your return.  If you are working these on weekends, then you will need to combine days for the major activities, but still complete some of the daily tasks and smaller tasks.  I know it may be tempting to cut something—like calls home, but DON’T—especially the positive calls.  Making those every day between now and break will do wonders for the students’ motivation and the parent’s support during this hectic time. Making routine parent contacts, whether on a monthly basis or at least every term will have a huge impact on engagement for both parents and students.  Creating a call plan is something I usually tackle at the beginning of the year, so we will work that in, as well. I have also included a printable version of this checklist here to guide you and check off as you go!

The 12 Days of Wrapping Up Fall Term

Day 1–prepping Clear emailsOrganize papers to grade by assignment and stack with oldest on top, newest on bottom—include grading key with piles; divide into 3-5 sections, depending on how behind you are and how involved the grading isMake contact list of current grade concerns/missing work studentsCatch up on overdue lesson plans to include current week/next 6 days and try to keep it as simple & student created as possibleDay 2—the worst day Clear emails Bundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pile (we’ll catch those up after you’re current)Catch up on any overdue lesson materials needed for the next 5 daysBegin grading 1st section of papers organized yesterday & log in grade bookCompare updated grades against contact list and updateCreate a plan for students-missing work list, redo assignments, tutoring sessions, etc.Create a list of kids to make praise calls onCut both lists into 5 sectionsBegin making parent contacts with students with the most work due/lowest grade and don’t forget at least 1 positive callDay 3 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 2 kidsCreate lesson plans for next weekComplete 2nd section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update
Day 4 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 3 kidsComplete 3rd section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update  Day 5 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 4 kidsComplete 4th section of grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and update  Day 6 Clear emailsBundle todays turned in work and set aside in a new pileCalls for group 5 kids (should be end of list of calls)Complete last of overdue grading pileCompare updated grades against contact list and updateSketch basic plan for next lesson plans
Day 7 Clear emailsOrganize todays turned in work, add to bottom of pileCreate lesson plans through break, again try to keep it as student created as possibleCatch up grading for all of last weekCreate call list for any grade concerns/praise reports from grading pile (divide into 2 parts, if too many)Day 8 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and log them all (Update current call list, as needed)Make calls from list (at least part 1)Create lesson materials through breakDay 9 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and logUpdate call listMake calls from part 2 of list or calls from todayComplete lesson plans for the week after break
Day 10 Clear emailsBundle the day’s work for gradingGrade and logDaily calls (Create/complete call list from grading or observations for the day)Create lesson materials for the week after breakDay 11 Clear emailsDaily gradingDaily callsOrganize materials for week of return into folders or piles with labels of some sortLesson plans for return turned in/in file you need to locate upon returnCreate a calling plan for after break (i.e., 1-2 class periods a week for 4 weekly groups,  alphabetical listing divided into 20 groups, etc.)Day 12 Clear emailsDaily gradingDaily callsgive the classroom a good cleaningholiday shut down proceduresturn on out of office replies

So, how do you keep from getting buried again at the next end of term?  Try creating a routine!

If you are current, you can start here, but chances are you are not current if you are reading this.  These steps can be applied to managing your schedule any time of year, but why not now to start your new spring school term off on the right foot?  You can either work this into afternoons/evenings or work into weekends, depending on what works best for your life. Once caught up, it is easily manageable, just see what works for you.  For me, I stay within 2 days on my grading, daily clear emails and calls (I make contact with all my parents on a monthly basis and have for years), and prep my lessons a week in advance and run data reports once a week and schedule how I need to process it—whether it is conferences, calls, re-evaluations, etc.

 My usual day works like this, but you can work it in ANY order–

Start early and spend 1 hour before starting official work:

  • Check emails
  • Grade yesterday’s assignments
  • Grade late work
  • Make list of parent contacts for concern/praise (5 calls)

Planning/midday:

  • Actuating data from mid-year tests or weekly reports (I have computer-based course programs, so this allows me to get a quick snapshot of progress and it helps me better prepare)
  • Send text to 3-5 parents on my list to ask a good time to call today about progress update, or, if you have a text relationship with parent, go ahead and send text.  This count is based on secondary teachers with 100+ students.  If you are elementary or have a smaller number of kids, this can be cut down to a smaller number, but I still suggest a positive call daily and parental contact with ALL on a monthly basis in some fashion.  I usually prefer a voice chat for both praise and concern, but a text helps me make sure it is at the right time).

After School/Evening (1-3 hours, until tasks are done)

  • Check text replies and plan when to make calls
  • Organize the day’s work turned in for grading tomorrow and to ensure completion
  • Lesson work–work on lesson plans for next week on the first day or two of the week, the next day is to prepare the materials, day 4 is to copy/create, and day 5 is to assemble by day for drop files to run the next week.  If I can condense the time on easier weeks or lessons with less prep, then I start working on the following week.  If I am doing a project-based unit, I can sometimes plan and prep for a 4-6 week PBU in a week and then have less to do in future weeks or get further ahead into the next unit and only have to tweak things as I go)

Obviously, this schedule will vary based on your personal factors, but it can give you a good starting point to work from so you can keep yourself on track all year long and accomplish so much more than you realized you could. Remember, you may need to tweak it as life happens or as seasons change. I know beginning and end of term can always get more hectic than other weeks, so just do the best you can and take time to make memories and relax.

Happy Holidays!

How to Live Off of a Teacher’s Salary

Sometimes this is all we have left over at the end of the month, but that’s still something!

(or any other career you are in that is NOT about the money)

September 29, 2019

If you pay attention to education at all, you’ve probably heard that teachers are not paid a fair wage for the job that they do, and I’m not here to get into the politics, taxes and arguments on it. But I can tell you that that can cause a lot of aspiring educators to stray from the career field that desperately needs people who care for kids and their future to enter it.  Some will take the plunge into the career field anyway, but struggle to make ends meet and must work multiple jobs.  This is not ideal for so many reasons, but the biggest to me is that teachers need down time to rejuvenate their mind, body and soul so that they can give their best to their students—which means they have to have time for down time.  While many people and regulations are working diligently to provide better pay, benefits and conditions for teachers, they still need to live today with what income they have and can’t afford to wait for legislative changes or union negotiations.  Having been in the military at 18 and their pay scale, and a single mom a few years later while serving, I learned a few tricks to live well and spend little. Those techniques helped me after separating from the military as well as through 6 years in corporate America and a 13 year teaching career that have helped me avoid a second job to make ends meet. I did briefly work part time jobs to save for an upcoming vacation or to get a discount on a product I was already using. 

The first and foremost thing you need to do is have a budget.  Without one, you are setting yourself up for failure.  There are all sorts of resources available from books to apps to articles, and your financial institution may even offer some options.  If you want to create your own, start by tracking your spending—either using a spreadsheet or envelopes and cash for categories.  Sometimes just seeing where you spend your money can make you realize and adjust.  I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to this, especially with a love of travel.  I will research pay and cost of living in the areas we travel to and create a budget to see if we could afford to live there.  I don’t know if that is dreaming or a hobby, but it is always eye-opening, and often surprising, to see what we could afford to do if we decided to.  The big thing is to stick to your budget.  You can always budget for those splurge items like coffee and fashion if they are important to you, just find another place to save or use it as an occasional treat.

Next, it is important to live within your means.  If you aren’t making big money, then a big house, accommodation-filled apartment complex or new car may not be the best splurge.  There are plenty of nice places to live and vehicles to drive that can be within your means.  And there is always the roommate option.  I purchased a small, older home as a single mom on a teacher’s salary for a lot less than any rent in the area.  It served me well and I was sad when our family situation resulted in selling it and doubling our mortgage.  But that was after getting married, having another child and needing to take in a family member long term, so we were able to.  This smaller home also afforded me the option of traveling since I wasn’t “house poor” and forced to sacrifice what was important to me.

Another tip to help you immensely is meal planning.  It is so easy to get takeout, go out, or just pick things up at the market when you are out, but meal planning can cut a budget by half, depending on your current habits.  A simple calendar or notepad can help with this.  We meal plan, then purchase our meats from a local meat market in bulk.  Then we break them down into portions and freeze them.  We then stock up on frozen or canned vegetables, some basic dried goods, snacks and seasonings and we are set for the month.  I have been amazed at how much this has reduced our food expenses in our household.  And we still have room in the budget for going out or ordering take out on occasion when we have those nights no one wants to cook.  I also can’t recommend a crock pot enough.  Being a teacher is so demanding that some days we just don’t feel like cooking.  Starting something early in the day to have ready when you come home can be so amazing and a huge time and energy saver.  There are tons of crock pot cookbooks available as well as website or get creative on your weekends or summers.  Snack prep can be easy and inexpensive if you can bake, and stove top popcorn is easy, cheap and way healthier than the microwave stuff. If you are a single or small family, meal or sweets share and have others prepare dishes and swap with you.  This can also give you some variety to your meals and snacks as well as teach you new recipes or open your palette.

Don’t completely eliminate what is most important to you, regardless of how tight your budget is.  Travel was an important part of my life, so I didn’t have a fancy car or home and I lived on a tight budget and planned well.  I had friends, or friends of friends, all over, so I reached out to them and made travel arrangements based on what was available.  This allowed me trips to Europe, Hawaii, California, the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee, and all over the Southeast and Northeast regions without massive debt. In fact, the few times I didn’t have cash and put it on a credit card, it was paid off in a matter of months.  Sure, we couch surfed, camped, drove and stayed in inexpensive hotels or Airbnb’s, but we have fond memories of every one of those trips, so it was worth it. Some times I had to go without a trip during a vacation time so that I could save up for something bigger, but it was worth it.

If you get gifts from family or friends for holidays, you could ask for gift cards or a payment to a bill instead of more stuff.  This may not sound glamorous but stressing about debt isn’t either.  Getting a grocery store or gas gift card or knowing that your utilities are paid for during a month can be a huge stress relief.  There may be some people who give you a hard time about this, but if you explain to them what you are doing, it could help both of you.  Regardless of what they gift you, just be grateful and be sure you wear or use it, so they know you still value them in your life. This is not something worth severing ties over.

If you must go shopping or need household or clothing items, use a list and shop secondhand or borrow if it is short term or a one time event.  There are many times you can find something gently used or in need of simple repair and can save a ton of money.  Furnishing a new place can be a huge expense you can avoid when there are many places with items you could acquire to get by until your financial status changes.  And if you need an outfit for a special event, borrow it from a friend, coworker or family member—paying for a cleaning is going to be way cheaper, and they may even have the accessories to compliment it perfectly that you can borrow, too.

I know we are talking about living off a teacher’s salary, but I don’t want to end an article on finances without stressing two final points—make room for savings and life insurance.  In the military, we started out on day one ensuring that this was set up and taken care of. All your finance gurus tell you to start an emergency fund of at least $1,000 before committing to paying off debt and I think that is a great idea.  That was the hardest financial commitment I have ever made, but I was so glad I did, and it has made my life easier.  And life insurance is also a key factor that a lot of people don’t think about it until it is too late.  They don’t realize how affordable it can be, especially at a young age while they are still healthy or if you go with a simple accidental policy or burial plan.  It’s something to think about and prepare for early so you can forget about it and rest easy, and there are so many options out there on the marketplace.  You don’t have to leave a fortune behind for your loved ones, just enough to cover your expenses and any assets you may want to leave behind.  Sit down with a professional and they will tell you more.  As an educator, you already know the importance of planning ahead and thinking about the big picture, this is just another aspect of it.

If student loan debt is the major factor that is leaving you strapped each month, start doing research.  There are several loan forgiveness programs that are out there that you may be able to work towards.  I took advantage of this one and had a chunk paid off because I worked in a Title 1 school for 5 years.  And do the same if you are looking to pursue advanced degrees to move up in your career. You can also talk to your District about loan plans, find organizations to join that can help with scholarships or payments, or talk to the loan company and see about a refinance or deferment option.  Yes, you will accrue interest and pay for way longer than intended, but it gives you time to survive now and prepare for that by paying off a car or finding a roommate to offset living expenses that you can then allocate to your loans.

Finally, cancel subscriptions and eliminate fees from your life.  You can cancel your magazines and show subscriptions easily, and possibly get a refund if you have enough time left on it (then put it in savings or on a bill!).  You can also eliminate fees by making sure your credit cards are paid in full monthly if you do use them and many bank accounts don’t charge fees if you have direct deposit.  The next step is to unsubscribe from all the advertisement emails and hide them from social media feeds, so you won’t be tempted to add them back into your life.

As hard as it may be to live off a teacher’s paycheck, there are many others that have it so much worse.  I know there are many paychecks out there that are just not livable wages in today’s economy, a sad factor that is the result of things that could be an entire article on their own.  And we cannot compare today’s lifestyle to those even 50 years ago.  Most American’s daily lives require them to have a car, cell phone or internet service in their home and trying to live without it is not an option for some.  Having a vehicle to drive is a must in most areas because of how urban sprawl has occurred and the lack of adequate public transportation outside of major cities, among other reasons.  Add to that rising insurance and fuel prices and people often find themselves in a pickle.  While car and bike share programs are growing, they are still not everywhere.  Cell phones are another factor we face as an expense that was once a luxury and, for many is a requirement because of work.  Internet is something many need for work or education and this adds to their expense.  You could investigate bundling a home phone and internet to live without a cell phone, or care for your phone and avoid contracts and always purchasing new phones.  I have inherited or bought used phones from friends that upgrade to save money.  There are some financial situations where there may not be an easy answer, so if you have those extenuating circumstances, reach out to your finance institution to talk to a planner to help—many offer this as a free service.  You can always hit the used bookstore or the library (free with a utility bill or ID showing residency!) and find financial planning books to help you out. And did you know that the local library has movie rentals and computers with internet access you can use for free, possibly avoiding those expenses ENTIRELY?

I hope that at least one of these has helped you find a way to save money and make your financial life a bit better.  Teachers do so much, they shouldn’t need to worry about there financial situation all the time.  I’d love to hear about something you have found that works well and your own personal success stories!

A basic list of our monthly expenses from our budget. We track everything in both a money program and a spreadsheet.

Ten Social Superpowers To Teach Our Kids

September 22, 2019

Kids these days catch a lot of flak for how easy they have it compared to prior generations.  If you’ve spent even an hour in the presence of a kid recently, you will realize that they handle a lot, and most of them do it surprisingly well.  They have had so much exposure to a global life at an early age through technology, the media, or our ever-traversing populations in most areas, not to mention the information they are exposed to in school.  Designated adults in their lives do so many things to give them what they think they will need in life and they do a fantastic job considering how busy their own lives are these days.

But as someone who has worked with kids in various ways for four decades now, there are a few things that used to be commonplace in prior generations that are lacking these days, whether through lack of practice or because technology has created a new version of something old and needs to be adapted.  For some, it is a displacement because it isn’t a cultural norm and so many cultures have blended together, losing social traits along the way.  But we must remember that social interactions these days are a culture all of their own, and the culture of conducting business, whether it is going to school or making a purchase, has established certain a etiquette that, when followed, just make the transaction go well for all parties involved.

With that being said, I have compiled a list of the ten traits that, if incorporated into our lives and those of our children, would ease tensions in some scenarios.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or just interact with them socially, you can play a part in this.  And it doesn’t have to be formal lessons, either—model these behaviors consistently, talk them through what you do and why (all people LOVE to know the why about something, especially kids), create opportunities to practice, and gently correct them when you see them not doing it right.  Not only will they benefit from more positive interactions with people of all ages, they may find that things get a tad bit easier when they do them.

Respect

Any student that has ever been in my classroom knows that this is my number one rule.  Be respectful of everyone and everything in all that you do.  I find it pretty much covers it all and provides for a pleasant working environment for any age and in any setting.  I encourage them to be respectful of everyone’s time and to be on time and prepared, to be respectful of people’s money by caring for the resources being provided in our classroom or in their home, and respectful of themselves because they deserve to learn at their own pace, have a voice and the chance to form an opinion for that voice to be used towards. I also think this includes things like turning off your cell phone while in a group setting and not looking at your phone when interacting with others.  I feel like respect can be interwoven in each of these below, but I wanted to point it out all on its own.

Greetings

People are so busy these days, they often immediately start a conversation without so much as a hi, hello, or what’s up with a pause for a greeting to be returned.  Remembering to do this can go a long way in establishing the equality and mutual exchange between parties.  We can help with this by saying a simple hello when the kids get home or come into our classroom or place of business.  It doesn’t have to take long, but it is a kind acknowledgement of each other’s presence and could lead to a real conversation between people.  There are some cultures in the world that will think a person rude for not doing this and may not even conduct business with them.  I had this experience when visiting Paris a couple of times and, finally as I was leaving, a Parisian informed me that our ‘keep to ourselves’ American way of not saying hello when we walk in is why we are dubbed rude by so many other countries. This opened my eyes and now I try to make it a habit wherever I go.

Eye contact

Making eye contact while speaking and listening to someone is a great way to show you are listening to each other and giving each other your attention.  This can be true in a one-on-one conversation or even in a large conference with a guest speaker.  Looking at the person that is talking will go a long way in both you getting something from what they are saying and them in knowing what or how much to say while talking.  In some cultures, making eye contact can be seen as challenging one’s authority or as disrespectful.  However, when conducting business eye contact can establish trust, honesty and sincerity in the transaction. The best rule of thumb in this scenario is to know your audience and be aware of norms where you are–in other words, do a bit of research on the background and national culture if you are unsure and it isn’t your own.

Manners

Simple gestures of kindness can go a long way in showing someone they are important and valuable in the world.  Using manners is one of those gestures.  Coughs, sneezes, burps, loud voices—these are all things that have a time and place, but generally a public setting isn’t the best place to let them reign, so try to minimize them.  Saying bless you, excuse me, please, thank you, holding a door for someone coming up behind you or with their hands full, offering a hand to someone carrying too much, helping the elderly cross a street, or a short person reach something up high (me, I need this!) are some examples, but there are so many more.  There is debate on using ma’am and sir in different circles, but I have found that most people appreciate when they are called these–learning to read people can help with this.  At a minimum, use yes instead of yeah or no instead of nah, and avoiding exclusive head nods or uh-huh’s and uh-uh’s will show that you have some manners.

Punctuality

Be on time.  We must make every effort to be on time to what we attend. We’ve heard the expression that time is money, and if you think about how fast-paced our world is today, there is a lot of money being lost when someone waits even just a few moments on another.  With technology at our fingertips, calendars can be set up and even include alerts for when to leave based on traffic.  I have often heard the expression ‘to be early is to be on time, and to be on time is to be late’ and it is a good practice.  Arriving a few minutes early can let you say hello, get a feel for where things are located, get a good parking spot or seat, use the restroom or people watch as others arrive.  As a book lover, I find this can be a great time to get in a chapter all to myself.  Not to mention that no one likes the flustered feeling of arriving late and always feeling behind, or when everyone’s eyes are on them as they make a tardy entrance, however unintended.  This factor is a common reason why medical offices are often running behind—that person that showed up right on time for their appointment but had to do their paperwork.

Patience

Keeping calm when everything around you isn’t is not an easy habit to establish.  Learning that sometimes things happen that are beyond our control and are just not worth getting upset over can be very valuable to your health and sanity.  When we rush, mistakes can happen.  So, if we learn to take our time, be patient if things don’t go as planned and be understanding of obstacles, it can go a long way.  I live in Central Florida—theme parks and traffic are a part of daily life for me.  I am always amused by the people rushing to get to a line to stand in, yelling at people that are not doing something at a rapid pace because they themselves are running late, or darting through traffic at an unsafe speed for whatever reason.  If they slow down just a little bit, they may find that they still get to wherever it is they are going, but so does everyone else, and we are all in a good mood. If you lack patience, be early and allow for things to go awry, and relish the extra time when they don’t.

Group conversations

We often get together with groups, whether it is for an informal chat, an impromptu discussion on the sidewalk, or an organizational meeting working for a goal.  One of the challenges is giving everyone a voice and allowing time to process things.  Learning to listen with the intention of learning what the person has to say can go a long way in accomplishing a goal.  So often we talk at or over others without actually hearing what they had to say, and this can be for a variety of reasons—dominance, disrespect or pure excitement about an idea (I’m so guilty of this one).  There is much to be said for listening to what other’s say and waiting to speak.  In many groups, the person that hasn’t spoken will be given a chance to talk and asked directly by the group leader, but if not, it can give time to process and create a chance for a follow up message or conversation so that the other person can speak.  There will be times where it will be necessary to directly ask for a chance to speak, and that is okay, just do it kindly so that it keeps an equal balance of power within the group.  Dominance is a fast way to shut down a conversation, as is insulting those around you.  Keep in mind, I am not saying their shouldn’t be a leader in a group chat, but it should be to keep focus and share attention equally, not lead the conversation. If you find that you disagree with someone, be clear that it is the idea and not the person, and be ready to leave a subject for later if it is clear that opposing sides won’t merge.  I’ve seen too many relationships damaged from arguing over opposing sides to a situation and it just isn’t worth it.

Pride in work

The work you do represents you and creates the impression others will have of you.  Everything you do should be done to the best of your ability for this reason.  It doesn’t matter if it is cooking dinner, cleaning a toilet, running a fortune 500 company or completing an assignment for class.  You should make your best effort to do it completely and correctly.  This also is a sign of respect for those that must interact with your work product.  As a teacher, I have students that rush through work or don’t complete work they are turning in.  This takes me five times longer to grade because I must give feedback, contact a parent, hold a conference, make documentation.  Not doing a complete job the first time also uses more of your time because the task will have to be redone or could cost them their job and make it difficult to get another one. We see this when a patch is poorly done in haste on a busy road, a meal or beverage is incorrectly prepared, or a place of business is is organized or even dirty. Taking the time to complete something to the best of your ability and properly the first time will go a long way in showing your clients, supervisors, or peers that you pay attention and do quality work.

Electronic communications

Emails and text messages seem to have all but replaced letters and phone calls, understandably because of how quickly things can be tended to. But learning which to use when and how they differ is important.  A text message should be for something quick  when an interruption can’t be made, or time is not of the essence.  If it is time sensitive, a phone call or visit may be best.  An email should be much like a letter, a complete thought organized and pieced together and with the intent of patiently waiting for a response.  It should have a greeting, a body with a clear and organized message, a salutation and a signature.  Again, my teacher experience has shown me this is a lost art.  I will find a full inbox with several emails from one student sending a series of single line messages only a few minutes apart, hastily seeking a reply to their question that could have easily been answered by a text message or, worse, was resolved before I got to the message because they found the error while waiting for the reply–possibly meaning they hadn’t really made much effort to find an answer on their own prior.  If you must send an email, proofread it and let it sit for a few minutes before sending in case another idea pops into your head.  If you send weekly emails to people, keep a notepad to gather thoughts throughout the week of non-urgent ideas that could be compiled into one. This is a huge way of showing you respect their time and to ensure that something doesn’t get missed because it was buried in their inbox.

Being Prepared

Bring what you need with you and make sure it is usable.  If you are attending a conference or class, expect to have paper and pencil at a minimum, and any other items required like computers, textbooks, completed research or work product.  I learned something in the military that has always stayed with me—two is one, one is none.  If there is something you must have to continue, have an extra.  This could be a charger for electronics, a pen or pencil, or even a bottle of water or snack if you know it will be a long meeting or event.  I have seen many times where there was a delay for everyone because someone had to find a pencil to write with, knowing they were coming in for a writing task or would be taking notes. If it is a paid event you are attending, be sure to have your ticket or proof of purchase or the funds handy to pay.  I am often surprised when I see people walk up to a show or take-out restaurant, wait in line then look at a options to decide when it is finally their turn, then must find their money to pay for it.  Being aware of what you are going into and preparing for it in advance can increase everyone’s take away from the event and save you some glares from onlookers.

Some of you may realize that you already do many of these yourself and are passing them on to younger generations. Some of them may not apply to you. Just remembering to be respectful of other’s time and personal investment in a situation can go a long way in showing that you are making the effort, and that is a superpower that everyone can have, regardless of age, location or situation.

My Freaked Out Teacher-Mom Moment

September 16, 2019

This week I did something I never wanted to do as a teacher mom—I freaked out over my 3rd grader’s benchmark test score.  I straight up panicked. He scored fine on the math test, but his reading test was low, and has been in a steady decline since he started school. I knew the test score didn’t reflect my kid’s ability, but I also knew that it was going to impact his education.  My boys are 13 years apart. It’s just the way it worked out.  The experience has had pros and cons, but it’s been mostly good.  The best part has been seeing the long-term outcome of our parenting choices on our oldest as we are faced with the same choices with our youngest. They are very similar.  And the biproduct of the gap is that our youngest has learned how to communicate and interact with people in different age levels because he spends time with his brother and friends.  In other words, he’s advanced because of his life experience.

My kids have always been the ones that would sit down and read every book on their shelf curled up on the floor for the afternoon to get lost in the world of reading.  They have incredible imaginations that can run away with the simplest idea.  They can read a book and spend the rest of the afternoon creating the world they read about with crafts, blankets and furniture moved about.  Sometimes, any grown-ups in proximity are drawn into their imaginary world and, even if I am vacuuming or doing laundry, I may have to “swim” through the room or watch out for bubbling lava rivers as I am doing it.  If they go outside, they explore and find creatures, sticks and rocks that will entertain them for hours.  I won’t lie, they could easily spend that same time zoned out watching TV or playing video games.  But when we set boundaries of how long they can watch and require free play time, their brains take over. It’s amazing!  But, somewhere along the lines, something happened.

My kids are not typical.  We travel often and expose them to history and science from an early age.  They are curious about the world and we get excited to share the world with them.  We talk to them like we would someone our age, we just may take the time to explain things they don’t have the background on.  Because of that, they have always known more and interacted with people differently than kids their own age.  That doesn’t translate well into the education world.  I struggled with my oldest constantly being labeled a behavior problem because he’d finish his work and wouldn’t want to do the busy work or sit quietly and wait.  I was told he had ADHD and needed medication by a doctor that refused to work with us on behaviors or help him deal with the loss of a close family member that happened at the same time as a behavior change.  I became an educator when he was in 4th grade because I loved reading and wanted to share that love and its realistic applications with kids before they were permanently put off from it.  He made it through high school, did well, and is nearly done with college and starting to work in the career field he loves.  He never revived the love of reading that was slowly taken from him because of required reading that was only ever applied to tests or essay writing. He never really learned in an academic sense how to apply what he read, so he struggled with study skills because, with standardized testing, there is no studying-it’s all about testing technique and anticipating what the question wants you to show you know and then choosing that.  Testing isn’t even about right and wrong answers, it’s about the most correct or accurate choice based on what the test creator thought.  I once read about an interview of an author who had an excerpt used in a standardized test that asked students what the author was most likely feeling when they wrote it and the author that wrote it couldn’t even choose from the answers provided.  How do we prepare kids for that?  More importantly, how do we support that notion that standardized tests can accurately measure what was learned that year when they have never had a real chance to apply, process  and reapply to a proficient level beyond an hour a day?

So, back to my youngest and his test scores.  He has been on a steady decline as a “proficient” reader since starting in kindergarten.  Yes, his grammar and spelling are a struggle, but no one really uses formal language anywhere except on a test, so can we really blame kids for this?  Especially since, having taught reading and English myself, I know how little time is made available to teach it to the point of automaticity in their daily use, and those that do use proper grammar are often chastised for how they talk.  But the other part is that the test is based on fiction reading.  My kid is a non-fiction junkie.  He may not be able to tell you the plot sequence of Charlotte’s Web or Harold and the Purple Crayon, but ask him about animals, nature, geology, or robots, and he will dazzle you with what he knows and can create.  He used to love fiction but he can’t use the information, so it is a fight to get him to read it unless he discovers a new series that draws him in for a while (shout out to the good librarians that talk to kids and make this happen!)  The test doesn’t align with my kid’s skills in this grade because he has different interests.  That means he will be pulled from an enrichment class where he builds, creates and learns social skills to get remedial training on analyzing fiction reading.  I don’t remember the last time that knowledge was useful in real life—trying to decide if Janice would ever get to reconnect with Jason doesn’t count, does it?

So now I am faced with the challenging decision. Do I penalize my kid and take away his enjoyable reading to make him read as a chore, further perpetuating a hatred for institutional learning but reinforcing that, if he doesn’t do his best it has consequences? Do I devalue the institution and tell him it doesn’t matter?  Do I opt out from testing which puts more work on his teacher to develop a portfolio so that he can be promoted—and in a district that doesn’t even recognize opting out as a legitimate option, potentially impacting my career as an educator.  Do I sacrifice our disposable income to pay for private school, even though most are caving to testing for the sake of public funding or capsize as a result of a lack of money?  Do I sacrifice my career and family’s lifestyle to home school him myself?  I honestly don’t know the right answer and I feel like the fate of his entire future rests on how I decide to handle this decision right now in his 3rd grade year.  He wants to be a scientist and inventor when he grows up.  To me, that is a field where creativity and a foundation on real world knowledge would be quite useful.  But that is also a field that requires higher education and many more tests.  How do I teach my darling 8-year-old to “play the game” to get where he wants in life without taking away the innocence and excitement about the world around him?

If you got to this point thinking I had an answer, I don’t.  I think I lucked out with my oldest.  But we did reach the point of having to teach him to “play the game” and it scares me we will have to do the same.   I remember starting seeds in my kitchen for a garden and then transferring them to the beds once they sprouted and it was time to plant.  I had one carrot seedling struggling and was not as big as the rest, but I planted it. At harvest time, I pulled up all the carrots, including the “runt” that never really took off.  Turns out that, even though it looked puny and weak and probably would have been pulled if I had to thin the beds, it had the best-looking carrots with the most flavor out of all of them.  If we rely on testing each year to tell us how our kids are measuring up, they may never live up to their potential. I fear that kids like mine that are the outliers and think and do differently will be thinned out and never let to reach their chance to shine because they won’t realize they can.  I want my kid to realize he can, and to help others shine, as well.  So, if you are a parent that is living through these same things, realize that you are not alone—many of us have this experience. We may make respond well to the situation, we may choose poorly and not.  Do the best you can for your kid but let them live with their choices.  But that’s a topic for another post.