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Sense of Urgency

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Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at a conference in the northern part of my state. This not only is a beautiful part of Alabama, but the schools in this area are outstanding. During my presentation I stopped several times to ask the teachers if they were involved in some of the efforts that are ongoing at my school. Their responses were no to most of what I asked. As I looked out at this very energetic group of teachers, I felt a twinge of jealousy. This group looked as fresh as they did when I spoke to them at the beginning of the year. While I on the other hand, look frazzled and exhausted and I am not alone in this. A topic of conversation in our school office this past week was our current state of exhaustion and what vitamins we all need to take. Very simply, our staff is worn out.

I am not saying this outstanding group of teachers in these highly successful schools are not working hard because it is quite evident they are. However, they have something our school lacks and that is the tradition of success rather than a sense of urgency. It must be a wonderful relief to go to work and know that you are going to be successful that day. I have not often had that feeling this year, instead I live with a burden of urgency about the academic needs of our students. In my school, we are probably on improvement plan “one hundred and one”. This year, the teachers in my school have really been troopers as we have revised schedules, implemented new programs, deleted old programs, changed instruction, followed state mandates, while continually being observed and evaluated. This is very hard work and the hardest part is not knowing if we are truly on the right path.

One thing I can say is that I am a better teacher now because of all of the training our school has engaged in this year. For instance, I thought I knew a lot about teaching reading. This year I learned more than ever through explicit training from reading program consultants and our reading coaches. There is one advantage of being labeled low-performing, you get a substantial amount of money for professional development. Our school has used this money wisely this year. I have also had the privilege of attending conferences focused on school improvement. In March, I attended the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s Forum on School Reform. I was so impressed and renewed as I listened to school superintendents from across our country share the reforms going on in their districts and the enthusiasm they had as instructional leaders. This was quite inspiring to me to see school leaders so involved in daily classroom instruction in their local schools and to hear them share the types of professional development their teachers are offered. Unlike the mind set that still exits in some districts that effective professional development is to bring in an over-priced, motivational speaker to give teachers an hour pep talk. This an insult to those of us who are so intensely committed to school improvement and an embarrassment to our profession. There are so many educators across our country who are engaged in significant work that is changing schools and teachers are hungry for this new knowledge.

My hope for my school next year is that our sense of urgency will be replaced with a sense of success. I see success scattered throughout our school. I witnessed this in a first grade class as the students cheered for a classmate after learning she had benchmarked on the state reading test. This was an substantial accomplishment for this student and a result of her hard work and a dedicated teacher. I glimpsed success as I watched several kindergarten students leading center time in their classroom by helping their classmates decode words and encourage each correct response. I celebrated the joy of success as I observed two teachers applauding for each other as they successfully blended words using a specific strategy new to them. Their smiles acknowledging this accomplishment were contagious. These successes are what we can build on to encourage our staff as we continue to improve our school. I do not think we will ever completely lose this sense of urgency and this can be a good thing to keep us motivated to discover the best practices. I just hope next year this sense of urgency will be balanced with the feeling of victory.

Today is Mother’s Day and I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to the women in my family who have had such a profound influence on my life’s work. For years, the story has been told how my grandmother taught in the hills of Alabama at the age of sixteen. Her two sisters followed her into the teaching profession. They all three had to quit teaching when they married because of the regulations of the times. They continued to use their teaching skills in their church work. My mother joined their ranks as a Sunday School teacher, teaching seven and eight year-old children for over 50 years. As a child, I spent many hours attending their Sunday School planning meetings. Their commitment to provide quality and inspiring lessons in a caring environment for the many young children they taught in Sunday School greatly influenced the standards I have set for myself as a teacher. I think my grandmother and great aunts would be pleased to know where I am teaching today. This family tradition continues as my oldest son is a first year teacher at Whitwell High School in Whitwell, Tennessee. This makes me a very proud mother.

Please continue to send in your comments.

10 Comments

Happy Mother's Day to you Betsy.

Hello Betsy and Happy Mother's Day to you.
After teaching at Brigthon for my third year, I learned that you have to take plenty of vitamins and eat extremely well to battle the daily adventures of small group reading groups, intervention groups, meetings with teammates, professional development workshops, and even the daily responsibilities of lesson plans, grading papers, and life away from school. My husband oftens says that he never noticed his aunts and sister (they are teachers) spend as much time during school stuff as I do. I always respond back with some comment that they are not teaching at Brighton and they don't have the responsibilities that we have. Alot of teachers would not want this job because it is not simple. You must plan and you must be willing to learn new things. There is no comfort zone. You can not just sit back and relax. As my basketball coaches have always said, " You must stay on your toes to outsmart your opponent on offense and defense." When you allow the soles of your feet to rest flat on the ground, your opponent gets ahead of you and it's hard to recover. I have played basketball from age 9 to the age of 29 today. You must know what's going on in the game at all times to be successful. Whether on the bench (workshops for teachers),in the game(in the classroom), in practice(model teaching) or in the crowd (a parent or administrator) you must know what is going own to benefit your team.

As a teacher of Brighton Middle School, I challenge others to challenge yourself. We all know what we are good doing and our friends praise us for our good works.But if you want to determine how great you rea---lly are, try teaching in this great school. Everyday as I leave here, I am exhausted but I have learned so much and daily I become a better teacher.

Thank you again Betsy for joining us and assisting in the journey down the path of success.

Reta H
6th Grade Teacher

Hello Betsy,
Congratualtions on your successes as well as trials and tribulations. Those deserve as much congrats for sticking to them. I have a question:
I am a new teacher in Illinois planning on teaching in a "school of need," I have this incredible sense of urgency, and desire to fight for my students whenever I can. As a new teacher though, I am worried about this sense of urgency getting too "ambitious" and picking the woring battles with my students, other teachers/administrators, and even community members. I am tryiing to figure out if and when urgency become "AGENDA" and what signals should I look for to keep myself balanced between this sense of urgency, and environment of success?
Thank you,
Adam H

Good morning, Betsy,

As I read your blogs -- and I find them really interesting, thank you! -- I can't help but wonder: when you talk about "attitude" of success vs. urgency and the "environment of success," what is the general level of social skills in your school, both in the classroom and outside?

The reason I ask is that in my business, the correlation between kids' social skills, their "readiness for the classroom environment," and their achievement are so tightly coupled. As we work so hard to improve students' academic learning and retention, so often this critical factor is overlooked: you can't teach them until you have their attention.

And, in so many schools today, teachers are losing so much valuable teaching time to dealing with discipline and behavior management.

The other critical point, too, is that students that are in disadvantaged areas so deserve to learn to be socially adept and comfortable. Good social skills are the great equalizer, and will help them succeed, not only now in school, but later in life. Every child deserves to develope these types of skills. If we teach them the three "Rs" -- Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic -- and then add the 4th "R" -- Respect and the ability to get along, be socially adept and comfortable in any situation -- then we have truly given them every tool they need to be successful. We've seen that in schools that have brought in PoliteChild programs; that supporting social skills development improves behavior and discipline, boosts teacher and staff morale, and now sees double-digit improvement in test scores.

I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing your observations about your own experiences in this area, maybe not just at Brighton, but overall in your teaching career.

Thanks for your comments from someone "in the trenches!"

- Corinne

Betsy,
Thank you for putting a key idea in place to explain the exhaustion I feel (as does the entire staff here at my school). We do feel as though we are in a race. We desperately need a break to analyze our efforts and celebrate any success. We need the later if we are to be able to duplicate those successes.

Across the Nation teachers are disatisfied with the status quo. We want better results, more accurate measurement of progress and accountability that improves education for kids. All too often we get a message to speed up and do more rather than the more apporpriate message to slow down and take a look at everything we are doing, throw out what is not working, modify and put in place a better plan. Added paperwork is not the solution but time is.
I feel that in any low performing school the key is to give the teachers more daily planning time and support (as you described) in the form of staff development that helps us learn new methodologies or modify older ones towards meeting the growing needs of our kids.
A long distance race is fine if the path is marked clearly. Here it is not yet. We need to stop frequently and get our bearings. Where are we going and what is the best path to take today, tomorrow and this year.
Thanks for your insights. Your wisdom helps more than you know.
Shannon Cde Baca

Your entry for this week could have been about my school. The sense of urgency is what drives everything at our (Program Improvement year 2) school, and our teachers are beyond exhausted. Ask them in the hallway how they're doing, and the answer is "24 more days." And yet, there is that tiny bit of hope that THIS year we WILL show substantial improvement in the test scores, and that MAYBE we won't be PI 3 next year. All our hard work, observations and evaluations, professional development and the ever present "sense of urgency" must pay off some time for our students.
Your comments about the teachers on the other side are also very familiar. Yes, they do work very hard, but yes, they do see those dramatic successes that we on the west side can only dream about. Our students also make great gains, but those gains do not appear in the test results, because our students start the accountability race too far behind to ever catch up entirely.
When we go home at night, we know we have done the best we can and given the most we have to give. A standing joke at our school is that our superintendent will switch all teachers from east to west and west to east, and that we westsiders will suddenly all be teachers-of-the-year.

Hi Betsy,
We've been amazed at the SENSE OF SUCCESS real publishing brings to students and staff. My wife and I recently started a company based on the boost in esteem and school spirit her school's student anthology provided. We have seen the excitement duplicated in schools we are publishing now. Every student and school can raise their sights on what is possible with the right tools. Pen and Publish(.com) is dedicated to providing one self-supporting piece of the puzzle.

Aloha Betsy,

Thank you for continuing your family legacy to develop outstanding citizens. How do you know when you have been successful? Would you be able to provide a brief, vivid description of what success will look like when you get there?

For what it's worth, I am a "non-Educator" developing a scorecard for an educational system, and I wonder about the daunting task of making cookies to cookie-cutting specs without the right kind of cookie dough. I am clear on a few things - educators want to develop positive behaviors, communication skills and logical reasoning tools in our students, but I am uncertain about the tolerance in the “cookie-cutting specs” for the end result.

Please continue to carry on your great work. Anyone who practices what they preach is no ka oi (#1) in my book.

Good morning, Betsy,

As I read your blogs -- and I find them really interesting, thank you! -- I can't help but wonder: when you talk about "attitude" of success vs. urgency and the "environment of success," what is the general level of social skills in your school, both in the classroom and outside?

The reason I ask is that in my business, the correlation between kids' social skills, their "readiness for the classroom environment," and their achievement are so tightly coupled. As we work so hard to improve students' academic learning and retention, so often this critical factor is overlooked: you can't teach them until you have their attention.

And, in so many schools today, teachers are losing so much valuable teaching time to dealing with discipline and behavior management.

The other critical point, too, is that students that are in disadvantaged areas so deserve to learn to be socially adept and comfortable. Good social skills are the great equalizer, and will help them succeed, not only now in school, but later in life. Every child deserves to develope these types of skills. If we teach them the three "Rs" -- Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic -- and then add the 4th "R" -- Respect and the ability to get along, be socially adept and comfortable in any situation -- then we have truly given them every tool they need to be successful. We've seen that in schools that have brought in PoliteChild programs; that supporting social skills development improves behavior and discipline, boosts teacher and staff morale, and now sees double-digit improvement in test scores.

I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing your observations about your own experiences in this area, maybe not just at Brighton, but overall in your teaching career.

Thanks for your comments from someone "in the trenches!"

- Corinne

Betsy,
So many interesting responses here but even among them I found Adam’s response to be especially and touchingly real.
When DOES urgency become agenda? Probably it’s different for everyone, but I suspect that one of the signals is when you don’t think to listen to what the opposing voices are saying; when resistance is interpreted as counter-productive; when you try to shortcut change by cutting people who disagree with you out of the process. That sounds like three different things but I believe that they are all the same. Resistance forces us to work harder, to find a better way, to overcome problems instead forcing our approach through. So long as we accept that as true we can continue to act with urgency, without falling into the trap of forcing an agenda. How many times have I taken a deep breath in the face of a student who was sneering at me, let go of my willfulness and tried to figure out what he/she was telling me! Actually, not nearly as often as I wish I had, but each time I did I learned something, that helped me achieve my desire to help that child (and the others)learn.
This does not mean that we don’t fight like tigers against wrong-headedness, it simply means that we listen and figure out how the person went wrong and what bit of truth he has buried within HIS agenda.
Joe

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