Thoughts, links & ideas from the 2008 National Teacher of the Year

Each time I've taken off in a plane since May (which is a lot), I've been writing in my journal, then adding these journal entries on this blog.

Check in often, or subscribe to get headlines fed to you! Oh, and the views expressed here are not those of anyone but me.  And anyone who happens to share the same views, I guess.

(Note: the blue posted dates are actually the dates I wrote the journal entries, not when I posted them online.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Seattle, WA


I was always sort of ambivalent about homecoming.  I never really understood who was supposed to be coming home, or why we were celebrating it.  All I knew was that it involved a football game, a queen, and a dance.  And that was good enough reason to celebrate, I guess.


This morning was my own homecoming to my alma mater, Kentridge High School in Kent, WA.  The principal at KR had kept it a secret from the staff so it would be a surprise, though.  When he introduced me and I came out on stage, the reaction was… well… a bit like my reaction to homecoming.


There were only a couple of teachers there that I had as teachers 17 years ago (one other, Mr. Walrond, my art teacher that I loved, was gone today.  Although I thought a guy in the darkness of the back row was him and I kept making comments to him back in that direction.  Turns out that after the lights were out of my eyes, I realized that it wasn’t him, it was the only other African-American teacher at the school.  Oops.  I felt like an idiot.)  (Whoa, that was a long parenthetical remark.)  Anyways, no one else really knew me, so the whole surprise was a bit forced.  I didn’t really feel like I connected with anyone.


So there I was on stage, with an enormous screen behind me, and a hundred educators to entertain and inspire on their first day back from summer.  Surprise!  I’m not sure it worked too well.


I opened it up afterwards for questions and to get a feel for what people would take away from the talk, which went much better.  And the curriculum coach asked for some more info and examples, so that’s good.  A few people came up and complimented me afterward, too.


But for the most part, I felt like most of the dancing I did at this homecoming was by myself.  A few people might have picked up a couple of moves, but I didn’t feel like I really worked the dance floor.


Oh well.  Maybe at Prom.  (Whatever “prom” means.)



Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Pearl

Memphis, TN


Just finished reading “The Pearl” for the first time since high school.  Steinbeck is amazing.  I find both comfort and strife in his writing style, and his themes are powerful.  I’m pretty sure I appreciate him more now than I did in school.


Of course, at the end of the story, one must ask “What, if anything, is my pearl?”  Was being awarded National Teacher of the Year akin to Kino stumbling upon the Pearl of Great Price?  Will it affect me in the same ways?  At the end of all this, will Jen and I stand, exhausted, at the edge of the sea and toss it back where it came from?


Okay, maybe a bit of a stretch for an analogy, but it had to be made.  I’m ready to move on now.



Nashville, TN


I hope the pilot of this plane is at least proficient.  I’ve just finished working for a couple of days on a panel of experts on a small part of an evaluation tool for evaluating principals (they’re my “PALS”, remember?)  We basically just defined the “cut scores” for labeling principals as “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Distinguished.”  A lot of work, I must say, to put labels on folks.


Ours was only a small part of the whole project, much like building a house, but only being responsible for the porch.  The rest of the evaluation tool consists of a detailed report on strengths and weaknesses in each of 36 categories.  Pretty handy.


But I’m a little concerned that the front porch is the first and most important impression that this house might give.  It’s a bit like, well… giving a student a single grade in your class.  Actually, more like a single grade for all their classes put together.  Like a grade point average, but no number, just labels: Stupid, Almost Average, Pretty Smart, and Nerd.  Except in education we usually use more positive sounding words like Hatching, Emerging, Developing, Pubescing, and so on.


Why not just use the GPA?  Or better yet, look at grades for each class.  Or the grades for each of them over time.  Or break each class into an academic grade and a citizenship/effort grade like we do at our middle school.


I suppose at some point it just becomes too much information to realistically deal with (although we do have some pretty sophisticated technology, like computers and stuff.)  But a single label is just too simple a metric to describe someone, and I’m a bit concerned how a superintendent or school board might use it.  This could be a powerful tool for improvement, but if it fell into the wrong hands that were not focused on improvement… who knows how they might use it?


As for this afternoon, I just hope my pilots are well beyond “hatchling” and somewhere in the vicinity of “eagle.”

Monday, August 11, 2008

Good vibes, red meat, and dental floss

Des Moines, Iowa


Lots of laughs this morning.  Not when my alarm went off (three hours after turning in,) but when I presented at the back-to-school kick-off in Ankeny, Iowa.  It was a good crowd, attentive, jovial, and the space felt small for 600 people (the fire marshal winced.)


This was my main goal this morning: good vibes with a bit of content thrown in.  A little bit less rigorous on the content than usual, but oftentimes less is more.  One’s brain can only process so much at a time, and it’s much easier to process when you’re enjoying yourself.  Especially after coming off a great summer and having to sit for three hours.


But now is when I crash.  Must be the combination of red meat, lack of sleep, and humidity.  I’m wasted.


Jen’s grandparents “Big Mommy” and “Big Daddy” had me over for dinner last night, they only live 30 minutes from Ankeny.  Aunt Herky and cousins Abby and Emma were there, too.  It was great to see them and to have a home-cooked meal in their comfy home while on the road.  I love that!


Also had some super yummy Iowa corn!  I think I still have pieces stuck in my teeth.  People here must go through kilometers of dental floss!


Friday, August 1, 2008

One Man, One Vote

Somewhere over Montana


At International Space Camp, we had a  reception one evening to honor and celebrate all of the state teachers of the year.  We mingled, had some hors d’oeuvre, and saw a slideshow of our Washington DC experience together.  Near the end, Jon Quam showed a video of the speech I gave at the White House for President Bush and Secretary Spellings.


It was rather humbling to watch this again with my colleagues and friends, but fun to see their reactions as they watched it again with a little less distraction.  Their support was unbelievable, with the general consensus being “you totally nailed it.”  At least that’s what they told me.  It was amazing to feel so supported by such high quality professionals in my field.  It gives me great strength because I know that I’m not alone.


But perhaps the most interesting part of the evening came a bit later.  A chef from the kitchen poked his head around the corner and motioned for Diane (Vermont Teacher of the Year) to come talk to him.


“I’m 46 years old and have never registered to vote.  I think it’s pointless because they’re all pretty much the same.  But is the guy who just gave that speech here tonight?  ‘Cause I wanna shake his hand.  And if he were ever to run for office, I would register to vote and cast it for him.”


Diane grabbed me and told me all this, and I headed into the kitchen to meet this fellow.  The chef, Eric, started to pour out his heart to me.  He had just been transferred from NYC where he grew up, but his wife and children were in Florida because one of his three kids has a very rare genetic condition and needs a specialist’s help.  He only sees them every month or two.  He’s struggling to get by, and hurting pretty badly.


But he told me that my words were the most powerful he had ever heard, and that they changed the way he will look at his kids, their education, and even his own life.  We shared a bit more time together talking about how hard it is to be away from our families, shed some tears, then I gave him a big hug.  It was a very powerful and very human moment.


I have met many important people in my travels so far, but I made it clear to Eric that his openness and raw emotion about his own story will make him among the most memorable people I have met this year.  I assured him that we are all human, and that we are all equally important, and that life is worth fighting for.


Thanks for your vote, Eric.  I’ll count it right alongside those of my students, my family, and my peers.  We all count the same.

Staying Awake in Class

Huntsville, AL


Scientific studies have confirmed that getting more than 4 hours of sleep per night is probably a good idea.  However, this week, at Space Camp, I felt like a real astronaut: they have 8-9 hours per day scheduled for sleep time, but usually end up only sleeping for 3 or 4.  They spend the other budgeted hours just looking out the window trying to savor the incredible views and otherworldly experience.  They figure for a week they can just try to get by with much less sleep.  That’s what I did this week.


I just didn’t want to sacrifice any time with the other state and international teachers!  It’s just too rich, too intense, too otherworldly.  We all generally choose the route of sleep deprivation.  I’m now fairly worthless.  Sorry if I slur my words a bit.


Space Camp itself was, of course, quite fun.  Realistic mission simulations, hands-on laboratory projects, and famous astronauts and engineers.  A bit overscheduled, perhaps, but great fun.  I feel enriched, inspired and more connected with my peers.


I did, however, have some difficulty focusing and staying awake during some of the sessions.  These instances had a few things in common:


     1.  An external influence on fatigue,

     2.  A long period of time sitting and listening,

     3.  A speaker who is not terribly engaging,

     4.  More than one class like this in a row.


As is often the case, I learn more about teaching by sitting in the role of a student.