Posts Tagged 'Peggy Wuenstel'

March –  A Mission That is Not Impossible

sunrise-1634197_960_720By Peggy Wuenstel

You often read about an athlete, a performer, or a politician wanting to go out on top, at the height of their power, or the peak of their performance. I just don’t think that is how it works for teachers deciding to retire. We wait to leave the classroom until we feel that is time to go because we cannot perform as well as we have in the past. The knees give out, the memory fades a bit, the patience is shorter, and the reaction time is longer. This is a completely different feeling than leaving the profession because we are angry, frustrated or burned out. There is far too much of that going on in the profession now, and it is one direction I sincerely hope can be reversed.

I read somewhere that burnout comes, not from hard work or facing a daunting task, but from the lack of control that keeps us from doing our best work, the right thing, the best thing. There is plenty of that kind of angst in education today. Along with the financial insecurities that come with changing contracts, vanishing benefit packages and uncertain political realities. We leave before we are truly ready to protect pension earnings and insurance benefits. Some districts are happy to see their experienced teachers go, replacing them with younger teachers at lower salaries and without retirement programs that are being phased out at the district level.

Sometimes the universe sends you a sign. I attended the same school district from Kindergarten through high school graduation. That elementary school is being razed this year. I came to Marquette in the mid-seventies, greeted by the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run blaring from the windows of multiple floors of McCormick Hall. That venerable building is also being replaced this year. My school is also one of eight nominated by Dr. Tony Evers for this year’s Blue Ribbon designation. I got to play a large part in the writing of that application, a virtual love letter to my school, a chance to go out on top.

One of the things I realized in writing this profile of the school I am so proud of is the commitment to a “Mission Possible” makes us who we are and drives what we do for kids. Borrowing from TV producer Shonda Rimes’s “Yes to Play” philosophy, which turns the things we are in love with into the things we are good at, our school strives to love our students into being learners. It doesn’t diminish our desire for our students to do well academically. It multiplies it into knowing they can do well socially, physically, and emotionally as well.

That mission has taken some interesting turns for me this year. Wisconsin educators use new terminology in the educator effectiveness system to change to conversation about improving practice. We have professional progress goals, and this changing of the language we use gives us opportunity to focus on the way we interact vs. on the work that must be done. My practice goal was to increase the frequency and quality of my conversations about and around books. This is true with both colleagues and students. When learning about the word artifacts, students were asked to write about an artifact in their homes. One student discovered for the first time that her mother collected carnival glass, and another brought a preserved puffer fish to class, spikes carefully wrapped in several layers of old t-shirts. We’ve asked questions like, “What makes you special?” or “How did you step up for someone?” as a result of a shared reading experience. We address students’ emotional needs and development as well as their academic ones because we read together and talk about what we read. When our children – at home and at school- ask us to read with them, what they are really making is a request to come, sit, and be present with me, and help me understand the world. I’m still grateful when someone takes the time to do that with me, as my book club buddies will attest.

These are the things that must be learned but can’t be taught. They are not part of the Common Core or any curriculum, but essential for students for students to see demonstrated in their school experiences. It is the way that we become wise vs. remaining merely informed. It is our chance to weigh in on what matters and what does not. It is also learning in action, what I have seen described as both “the knowing and the going.” It is also the mission that public education makes itself absolutely indispensable to the kind of society that most of us want to live in, one where we not only profess concern for each other but put it into action.

I’ve also been cultivating the skill of “observant stillness” as a teacher. Now as I am preparing to leave, I am becoming aware of how much I have missed because I was talking instead of listening, doing instead of being, and teaching instead of learning. It seems to be true that kids who feel loved and safe at home come to school to learn. Those kids that don’t feel that way come to school to be loved. That is the ultimate mission possible and one I am so grateful to have accepted.

 

 

Gazing in the Affirmation Mirror

SONY DSCBy Peggy Wuenstel

As a working mom in the early 90’s I usually managed to stay up late enough on a Saturday night to catch the musings of Stuart Smalley as played by Minnesota Senator Al Franken. As he gazed into a cheval mirror, his daily affirmations famously included the phrase, “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you”. His reinvention from comedy on Saturday Night Live to the unfortunate comedy on the floor of the U.S. Senate inspires me for the future. What you have been is not all that you can be. Just because something is ending in one incarnation does not mean that it is over forever and for all locations. One of the things that I know I will miss is the regular affirmations that I have received as a teacher over the course of my career. But even more importantly, I will miss the opportunity to offer these encouragements to others.

This “cheerleader” role is one of the best for teachers to take on, and the one in which impact can often be most directly observed. The child who’ll try a little harder, the learner who can celebrate what he has accomplished while reaching for more, is often the result of our explicit and implied encouragement.  There has been a lot of recent research about the value of relationship between educator and learner in increasing positive educational outcomes. Our district initiative to become more trauma informed in our teaching practice requires that we consider the role of our positive input for those students who receive little of this in their home environments. It often comes down to this, students work harder for people they like. When they matter to us, their work tends to matter more to them.

One of the most flagrant errors made in the ongoing debate about teacher compensation, union bargaining rights, and the cost of teacher salaries and benefits was that those bottom line things were the most important to Wisconsin teachers. For most of my colleagues, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. If we wanted to make more money, there were other options. The other affirmations were far more important. The biggest loss for me personally has been the loss of the other affirmations that used to be part of a teaching career. The thanks of a community for your service to children, the respect of parents who acknowledge how well you know their children, the love from our students and their willingness to try again. The last one remains in abundance, the first two, not so much, and that makes it far easier for veteran teachers to walk away from the classroom than in years past.

I chose to be a teacher because of the opportunities it offered to be of service. My faith life requires that I find work to do on this earth to make the world a better place. I have always felt fortunate that I could do that without taking off my teacher hat. We can always do more than the job requires, go beyond the expectations, love a little more, provide what is needed, and advocate for what we cannot personally offer. Now we must often do this without discussing it in the general public because of the preconceived ideas and misconceptions that the public has about the kinds of affirmations that teachers need.

I was invited to blog in this forum as a result of winning a teaching award back in 2010. It is telling that the reason this occurred is paradoxically because I was not unique that year. Three of the four honorees that year had Marquette ties. (Please follow Claudia Felske a fellow Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and fellow blogger). One of my overriding emotions about this process and the opportunities that have been subsequently afforded to me is the wish that many other deserving teachers could receive that same type of affirmation. I had never really been able to characterize my feelings about this until I read TV producer Shonda Rimes talk about “award as encouragement instead of as accomplishment”  in her book Year of Yes. Awards are not really about what you have already done, they are about what you still have the power to do. They are not an ending, but a beginning. Hopefully we can engage students in their own learning to create that same kind of forward momentum.

I have warned my husband that in retirement he is going to have to take up the slack in my affirmation mirror. I have been blessed to work in a place that has provided me with the kind of positive reinforcement that makes coming to work a joy. Students, coworkers and parents have always been quick to offer smiles, compliments and encouragement. I can honestly say that I have laughed aloud nearly every day of my 15 year tenure here. Coworkers have been encouraging, parents grateful and students genuinely loving. I have rarely had to look into a mirror to find affirmation. I was able to look into their eyes and find it there.

 

 Building A Better Bulletin Board

language_bulletin_board_ksuBy Peggy Wuenstel

In these days of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, none of which I am very proficient in using, the old-fashioned bulletin board seems like a dated if not obsolete concept. Users today seem to feel a need to record every aspect of their life, meals, fun with friends, and exotic vacations, all carefully edited for public consumption. I would argue against the retirement of the traditional bulletin board. There are two distinct camps in the bulletin board debate. There are those who love to create, display and use them. There is a team in my building who create amazing art that makes students, teachers, and families feel valued and welcome. There are also those who hate them and think of them as a waste of time better used for direct instructional activities.

There is also the demarcation between the pre-fab vs. the personally created. Our favorite teacher resource books and websites offer lots of choices for those short on time, talent or inspiration. Some educators see the bulletin board as a chance to display student work, create a gallery, track progress, and provide cues for schedules, expectations or timing in their classrooms. Things posted on a board rather than delivered verbally can help build independence and responsibility in students.

This month I am celebrating a different type of corkboard, the kind that we use to attach new thinking, to record experiences, opinions, visual memories, graphic organizers, and memory aids. The larger the board we create for our children, the more new knowledge that they each can attach. With the right kind of encouragement we can help transform them into vision boards, those images that move us, inform us, inspire us to reflect and create.

Every teacher has at least one bulletin board. It might be cork, fabric, magnetic, or digital. It is also always mental. It’s that place where we keep all those things that we can’t afford to or don’t want to forget. You might have caught on to the fact that I am no longer talking about the classroom version that includes the lunch menu and tomorrow’s homework. I’m talking about the personal one.

I am appreciating my bulletin board before it is gone. I have begun the winnowing process, but there are a few things that will always remain pinned there until the very last days. My calendar, a paper version that allows me to smile at puppies every day sits at the center. Just like an analog clock, a paper calendar with its rows and columns is essential to teach kids about the systematic passing of time in ways that our digital tools cannot.

There are the assorted “love notes”, pictures, valentines, and other student created mementos tucked into the frame, expressions of affection that everyone needs to see now and then. There are pictures of my grandchildren, my niece in full combat gear, a vacation snapshot to remind me that not everything I love is here in this building. There are the magazine photos of sea otters that remind my students that I have favorite foods, colors, songs, and animals just like they do and the fact that we know that about each other makes us better at working together.

There are the utilitarian pieces, the contact lists, phone numbers, important dates, and meeting reminders. These change with the seasons, and the reasons for teaching. There are a few inspirational quotes, and always, my theme quote for the year front and center. This year’s version is “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever” from Mahatma Gandhi.

There are the things I need help to remember, along with those that I know I will never forget. The handmade library card holder made of foam and duct tape, fashioned by a student who knows how often I go to the library, the photo of colleagues sharing a laugh, a cherished thank you note. There are also things that are not there, because they are private and would be hard to explain to students and parents. Things that make me laugh, and things that make me cry, including funeral cards for students who left us too soon. There are the cartoons meant for adult eyes, evidences of my political leanings, the talismans of the faith that guides my steps and my educational practice. And because I want no one to think I am anxious to leave here, there are no vision board pieces on this school board, no New England fall foliage or cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. No baby turtles struggling to get to the Atlantic Ocean or tombstones on the fields of Gettysburg because these are the things I hope to see in the first year of retirement. I have a vision board at home that includes these images as well as a tentative itinerary for a year of travel in an RV following the last days of school.

I have plans to send progress reports back to school, possibly labeled “Where in America are the Wuenstels?” but those reports will be on someone else’s bulletin board. I’ll likely post more often on Facebook, but not much more. There won’t be nearly as much that I need to remember, except maybe where we parked the RV.

 

 

Wearing My Team Jersey: It’s the People, Not the Program

football-1206741_960_720By Peggy Wuenstel

There is a constant drive in education to find the magic bullet, the secret recipe, the cutting edge approach that will magically turn a failing school into a flourishing one. Just like the late night commercials that advertise miracle weight loss solutions, I believe that if there were a magic formula for either, we would all be using them. What I have also come to understand is that it is the people, not the programs that make schools work. I have been blessed to work in one of those places where the team truly comes together. The team jersey I wear as a Washington Golden Eagle is the next of those things that I know I’ve got before they’re gone. People often ask me: “What makes your school different?” After all these years it has become evident to me. It is the teaching team with which I suit up for the work of guiding children every day.

There are two other elementary schools in my district. One is much smaller, with a much more homogeneous student population and laudable student performance measures. The other is very similar to my place of employment, with similar enrollment, demographics, challenges, and surrounding community. Where we differ most is in the longevity of the “team” in place and in the consistency of the instructional approaches in play in the two schools. In an effort to raise student performance measures, the dedicated staff of that building has gone through many incarnations, including an inquiry-based charter, and a new foray into a reading program that is much more structured than the one in use in my school. I wish them well in their quest to improve student learning, but am grateful that our building focus has remained on the people vs. the implementation of programs. We’ve had little staff turnover in my 15 years here, and many of our new “draft choices” have been transfers from within the district. These are teachers with which we had already established working relationships.

I work with educators who have already made the mindset shift to the absolute necessity of individualizing instruction. What happens when a child fails to learn here is not seen as a lack within the child, but within the range of approaches that we have attempted thus far. Resource and child assistance teams are not just the doorway to referral services (guidance, tutoring, reading or math interventions, or special education) but a way to problem-solve and enhance universal classroom instruction. Lack of benchmark attainment does not mean NOT, it simply means NOT YET. Our building goals have consistently targeted our highest need populations through good instruction and appropriate small group interventions. When teachers are committed to assisting children with performance gaps, instruction improves for all students because it is systematic, purposeful, and directly tied to assessment.

The environment is highly inclusive at Washington Elementary. Students with challenges (English Language Learners, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, children who have experienced childhood trauma) are fully integrated into classrooms. The techniques and supports in place to aid these students in meeting grade level expectations improve classroom climate and create access to learning for all. We have moved past the point of accommodating differences to valuing and celebrating the diversity that our students bring to their classes.

We have had the luxury of administration at the Board of Education, superintendent, and principal levels that understands that this willingness to take responsibility for enhanced classroom learning requires quality professional development along with the time and support to implement it effectively. It also necessitates the planning for assessment of its effectiveness, and the need for tweaks, additions, and deletions over time, and modifications when incorporated by different staff members. If we want custom-fit garments, we have to be willing to pay the tailor or the seamstress.

Another key piece is the continual improvement mindset we have adopted for ourselves and others. Getting better is what the process of education is all about, and we must be models of that for our students. Where we often differ is in how best to document that growth and forward movement. How delightful it is when it is evident in the accomplishments of our students and the pride of the community we serve!

My fellow teachers have also demonstrated their willingness to choose strategies for their efficacy for students and alignment with classroom practice, district vision and standards rather than for convenience or ease of implementation. The art of teaching still lies within our ability to make those good instructional decisions. The best way to know that a program is not for me is when the sales rep tells me, “It’s so easy to use that you don’t even have to think about it.” I always used to say that when I got to that point it would be time to retire. I’m delighted to say that I’m ready to retire and still actively thinking about what I present to students each day.

My principal is also our district’s head football coach, and sometimes he can overdo the sports references. We tend to prefer the family metaphor to the team moniker. It’s more like wearing the t-shirt at the family reunion than suiting up for the big game. It’s not as much about the competition and winning, or even about getting better, harder, faster or stronger. It’s about being a contributing member of the team, and knowing your role in the play we’ve called for the day. I’ve earned my team jersey. I wear it with pride, and I’m definitely packing it for the next leg of my journey.

 

 

Riding in My Big Yellow Taxi

old_checker_cabBy Peggy Wuenstel

Joni Mitchell’s iconic song Big Yellow Taxi holds special meaning for me, especially this year. In addition to being that rarity, a song that has an excellent remake courtesy Counting Crows, it is a reminder to take stock of all those things we value. Contrary to the famous line, I do know what I’ve got before it’s gone. The beauty of planning ahead for retirement, promotion, or a job change is that the “going” is far enough away that you can reflect on what you have. This is it, the last 189.5 days of my full-time teaching life. (And 40 of them are already behind me at this posting.) It is the countdown of “last experiences,” back-to-school open house, Christmas program, report cards, snow day, etc. The vast majority of those things are not the ones I will happy to see go, but the things I am so grateful to have been a part of.

In this last year of blogging for the Marquette Educator, something else I will deeply miss, I plan to visit all of those treasures I know I have today. Some I’ll leave behind. Some I’ll pass on to others. Some I will never be able to part with and some are so much a part of me that I wouldn’t be able to extricate them if I tried.  My teaching team, the memories I will take with me as I leave the classroom, the daily positivity that surrounds a successful elementary school all made the list. I have made a promise to myself not to let remembering the past or planning for the future diminish my pleasure or purpose in completing this last year.

I’ve already begun tossing the old, the dated worksheets, the books that don’t inspire, the programs and materials that do not align with the research or contribute to best practices. This process is actually long overdue. In this digital age we teach differently than we have in the past, keeping things in computer files rather than hard copy. This winnowing requires examining the reasons why we are holding on to our” treasures.” Someone put in a lot of time and effort to make these materials. We had such fun when we taught this unit. We have always done it this way; it’s tradition.

I am also mindful and grateful that I have the opportunity to retire. Many of my students’ families may never have that opportunity.  Company loyalty, hiring and firing practices, maximizing profits and shareholder dividends all limit an employee’s options in remaining in an organization or career. Relocation for the job of a spouse, need to return to care for an ailing or aging parent or support a child for whom economic opportunity has not yet arrived also limit our chances for stability and advancement.

Longevity at a job is not always considered a plus on a résumé. My job has allowed me the freedom to grow, change settings, and feel that I make a difference in the same place and with the same extraordinary team (more about that next month). Many people in our society have no such opportunities. Isn’t this the primary role of education: creating in our students the set of skills and attitudes that prepare them for a successful future. That has been harder to envision in recent years. Even in these times when our teacher benefits and compensation are both reduced and uncertain, I am grateful that my situation allows for retirement.

I am working under a new superintendent this year, part of  the revolving door status quo in Wisconsin schools as school leaders relocate every few years as their jobs are less stable or satisfying than in my first years in education. These conditions make educators uncertain of district commitment to teacher benefits and alter labor relations. This will be the 5th administrator I have worked under in my 15-year tenure in my district.

I have remained in Whitewater twice as long as anywhere else  I have worked in my 34-year career because this district allowed me the opportunity for continual growth and reinvention. I worked part-time in between full-time bookends at the beginning and end of my career here. I explored opportunities with UW-Whitewater,Wisconsin’s DPI, and the Whitewater community. I had many chances and myriad encouragements to lead at the program, school, district, and state level. I always had the personal sense of moving forward, while many aspects of education (funding, public support, legislative decisions) seemed to be moving backward.

On my bulletin board (another future post) there is a reminder: “If you don’t like the direction of the wind, you can always adjust the sails.” I have been distressed about many of the directions that education has taken in Wisconsin in recent years, and it’s time to let someone else take the tack so that I can sail in calmer waters, enjoy the scenery, and slow the pace. Let the adventure begin, my big yellow taxi is waiting at the dock.

 

A Back to School Image

School_bag_backpackBy Peggy Wuenstel

The day we broke camp near the end of our Colorado vacation, I glanced at the campsite of our neighbors, a large extended family that had arrived late in the evening the night before, and were all still asleep in their assorted tents and campers. As we moved quietly, whispering, and closing car doors gently, I noticed something I hadn’t seen the night before. Lined up on the seat of the bench of the picnic table were several brightly colored school backpacks, each with a water bottle that obviously held their gear for this family vacation. I couldn’t help but smile, and the teacher in me kicked into high gear. These packs looked new, but where, I wondered, would they be in a few short weeks? What would they be filled with then?

I hoped those kids would be toting those same bags off to school with new pencils and clean-slate notebooks. But I also hoped somewhere in the bottoms would be some campground sand and lodge pole pine needles. More importantly, I hope they will be filled with memories of their great family vacation. And, I regret that I never thought to do the same with my own boys, now grown men with children of their own. How wonderful it would have been to break-in their back-to-school backpacks with an adventure to close out the summer. Some of those years were memorable travels, others staycations due to time and budget constraints, but each would have afforded the opportunity to imprint some summer mementos on back-to-school gear. Perhaps it is not too late to do this with my grandkids – the fourth begins her 4K experience this year and the eldest starts high school.

Paradoxically, we had our own ritual, but it was more about discarding the old rather than packing in the new. I bought all their new socks and underwear at the back-to school sales (They get earlier every year don’t they?).When we packed for our vacation, I took the grayest, loosest elastic garments they had. We left them behind at every hotel or campground garbage can, and the kids took particular delight in letting go of the old socks and the old year. Bonus: I had much less laundry on our return. One of my last vacation preparations was to stock the freshly washed new socks in their drawers to welcome them home. The new start to school began then, and we amassed the supplies and new clothes needed for the coming year. After nearly 35 years in the classroom, this will be the last year, and I have vowed to use up what I have accumulated over the years. I bought nothing but new dry erase markers, a planner, and boxes of Kleenex to begin my last year. Because I am a borderline hoarder, I have plenty of backstock to carry me through the year, regardless of how tempting 19 cent spiral notebooks might be. The ritual is different, and yet the same, a sad goodbye to the joys of summer and a welcome jump into the new year. Just maybe, this year, those two parts of life fit more closely together.

September should remind us that it is not just what we take away from school that is important. It is also what we bring to it. It’s not just the erasers and crayons or the new graphing calculator. It’s not just the new shoes and haircuts and first day of school photos. It’s the memories, the world view, the positive impacts of travel and self study, the support of a loving family that fill in the gaps that school alone cannot. It’s what helps kids find their niche, and then helps them learn how to fill it. It helps them set goals that are personal and directly tied to what makes them curious, happy, and ultimately of service to the world.

Loyal readers, this will also be my last year of blog posts on a regular basis. My husband and I are taking what we call the grand adventure next year. I’ll retire from my school district in June after 15 wonderful years here with people I love. But there is a bigger world out there to see and experience that is not always compatible with a school calendar. Before my arthritic joints are too stiff to take me where I want to go, we will see the country in a travel trailer, likely for a full year. We are selling our Wisconsin home and all those possessions we do not feel to be essential and hitting the road. Phone service and internet access will be spotty, so posting seems a tough commitment to keep. But I promise to send something in when I find a topic, observation, or heartbreak that needs sharing. I had the honor of meeting poet and education activist Tyler Mali in July, and he reports in his book, What Teachers Make, “What I do know is that since leaving the classroom, I’ve never stopped teaching. Everything I do is a kind of lesson, even if I am the only person who learns it.” I intend to be a big learner. Throughout the school year to come, I have chosen to write around a theme for the first time. Inspired by the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, I’ll write about those wonderful things that I do know that I have, before they are gone. Next year’s pack up will be enormous; this year’s is just as important, though smaller in scale.

So line up those backpacks, fill them with the tools for an end of summer adventure, and I’ll meet you at the school door for one last September.

 

It’s Not the Skill Set, It’s the Mind Set

mindset-743163_960_720.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – I’ve had a lot of professional development in my career. I am always looking for the newest technique, the best materials, and the most streamlined method of achieving positive results for students. While I have always known there is no magic bullet, it hasn’t stopped me from looking for it. The reflective aspect of teaching requires us to look back on what we are doing and the results that we are obtaining with some regularity. The hope is, of course, that we will find that connective thread that tells us how we can duplicate the positive outcomes and enhance the growth of lower performers. It is almost never that simple.

A few months back, one of my Teacher of the Year colleagues, Jane McMahon, used a phrase in a meeting that stopped me in my tracks, and changed the way I have thought about this thing we call intervention ever since. She said, “Nine times out of ten, it’s the mindset, not the skill set.” I am not, and she was not, in anyway minimizing the need for good quality basic skills instruction. She is a middle level educator and I work with elementary school children. We know they need foundational skills to decode, to understand and to extend their thinking. But they also need a set of attitudes and dispositions that set them up for success. To that end, I would like to share three stories in how this has surfaced in my classroom this spring.

You can worry too much about being age/grade appropriate.
Our current educational climate requires us to measure, track and analyze everything. We monitor progress, contrast performance with grade level benchmarks, and make sure that the materials we put in kids’ hands are at appropriate instructional levels. We provide opportunities for challenge, but also for the ease and fluency that can help to create a lifelong love of books. But we often get too worried about the “levels” of things and forget about the loving of things. A kindergartner that I support recently had an interesting conversation with her classroom teacher. While enjoying and apple-filled churro from the breakfast line, she noticed the filling and mistook it for eggs. She turned to her teacher and said, “Look, this churro has eggs, it’s oviparous (an egg laying animal).” Although she got the biology wrong, she got the vocabulary right. Her mindset, the one that tells her there are few words that are not acceptable for kindergartners to use, will keep her adding to her cache of words and her world view.

If I think I am, I probably can be.
I love this time of the school year, because kids begin to redefine themselves. Middle schoolers on the cusp of high school sit a little taller in their seats. Elementary school students start to refer to themselves as “almost fourth graders.” With our help, they look back over what they have accomplished in the last eight months. They look at writing samples from the beginning of the year and cringe, knowing how far they’ve come. My youngest students start to refer to themselves as readers and writers, a message I have been delivering all year. Praise is often accompanied by the phrase, “That’s what good readers do.” The most heartbreaking cases are those kids who are unable to see themselves as capable; whose voices drop to inaudible when called on, who attempt as little as possible so that they will not be found wanting. Sometimes they come from homes filled with trauma. Sometimes they have extraordinarily talented siblings, and their strengths have yet to be uncovered. In all cases they have a mindset that limits not only how far they have come, but how far they can go.

Wanting more for yourself is not selfish.
I am blessed to have a spring birthday, and I got a terrific present from a young lady who fits squarely in several of the categories I delineated above. She gives herself permission to do less well than she is capable of because “mom said school was hard for her, too.” A conversation with her mother at spring conferences has paid some very big dividends. This student had no higher aspirations than staying at home with her parents for the rest of her life. When asked about her potential plans after her aging parents were gone, she reported that she would find a friend who needed someone to clean their house and move in with them. We decided that we all needed to work together to make this third grader want more for herself, and to see herself as capable of achieving it. In a recent lesson, the follow-up writing prompt asked students to elaborate on what “first” they would like to achieve. (The story was a fantasy about a youngster who was the first girl on the moon.) I told this student, after 6 weeks of concentrated efforts to increase her confidence and aspiration level, that one of the best birthday presents I received was her response to that question. I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from college represents a significant mindset shift that has paid off in reading results as well.

This talk of skill set has made its way into the political furor that surrounds schools today. We hear that jobs go unfilled because workers are unprepared. The assertion that our public school system can take on the responsibility of making every graduate ready to walk into jobs that require specialized training is ludicrous.

Perhaps the mindset shift that is needed here is that companies that benefit from trained workers would value it enough to invest in their workers and that they would compensate these jobs with salaries that would encourage workers to apply rather than complaining that skill sets do not meet their expectations. Success for all requires investment by all. Then, we can all reap the rewards.


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