Adult Drama in the Classroom?

Why teacher’s professional issues are more important than student’s concerns when building effective professional learning communities.

Previously published in the The Educator’s Room, “Is Adult Drama the Elephant in the Classroom?


Learning Styles, Collaborative Learning, Project-Based Learning (PBL) — these are just three of the many instructional approaches that I have been trained to implement during my twenty-two-year teaching career. All of the above-mentioned approaches have been seen as educational fads and have not fully caught on as the silver bullet in education. Ultimately, there does not seem to be only one way to reach all students.

Has all of my previous training missed the real issue? What if effective pedagogy has less to do with the students and has more to do with the adults cooperating, sharing best practices, and analyzing student progress collectively?

What if the adult drama is the elephant in the classroom?

I have taught in my current school building for fourteen years. In that time, I have said goodbye to over 8,000 graduates, over nine administrators, and two superintendents. However, I have worked with many of the same teachers for most, if not all, of those fourteen years — we have “outlived” students and administrators. Teaching is one of the few remaining professions where people work their entire, or a majority, of their working years in one place. But, are teachers truly working together, or are we shutting our doors and teaching in isolation?

The veteran teachers that I work with have been hardened by change, the disillusionment of so-called reform, and the alphabet soup language of educational vernacular. Please pardon our reluctance to jump on any bandwagon that any new leader, reformer, or expert presents to us!

That is not to say that my colleagues are “stuck.” On the contrary, I work with professionals who are creative, dynamic, and compassionate. However, we are also just tired of “experts” telling us what we need.

We are also so exhausted by the lack of consistency from our leaders, who in our building have come and gone like a revolving door — usually, these assistant principals use our high school as a stepping stone to running their own buildings. Many of these administrators have great ideas, but most do not stay long enough to do the hard work of getting to know the teaching staff well enough to affect critical change.

What if the teachers stopped listening to so-called experts, and stopped waiting for leadership? What if teachers, collectively, figured out what their students, buildings, or districts needed and then were given the time and freedom to accomplish their goals? Dr. Luis Cruz, of Solution Tree, a professional development company, empowered my colleagues and me to become experts in our own building when he spoke at our school in October.

Dr. Luis Cruz presented about the power of professional learning communities (PLCs). A dynamic, humorous speaker, Dr. Cruz inspired the audience of teachers to figure out their own, collective, “whys and hows” — he pushed us to create professional learning communities where teachers decide what students need (the why) and then decide actions to help students meet goals (the how).

Dr. Cruz helped us recognize examples of adult drama — including teachers who are unwilling to work with others, insecure professionals, and overworked educators — as the biggest impediments to meaningful change.

Since Dr. Cruz’s performance (yes, it was part stand-up and part lecture), I have been listening to the adult drama emerge. My colleagues are fatigued. They are secondary teachers with large curriculums, heavy student loads, and great student needs. The adults are also confused as to what professional learning communities will look like in our school. Although Dr. Cruz enlightened the staff to a degree, we still need training. We need time and a blueprint.

Although Professional Learning Communities can be authentic and exciting, teachers need the following things to effectively implement and sustain PLCs, each is subsequently dependent on the other:

Collective Teacher Training:

A few teachers and administrators in my district have traveled San Diego, CA and San Antonio, TX — places that sound exotic to teachers in a suburban school north of cloudy, Syracuse, NY. Although these individuals have returned energetically enthusiastic about the concept of professional learning communities, what our building needs now is collective training. We need consistent definitions; we need to recognize the protocols of learning communities; we need to see a model of a PLC. Teachers not selected to travel to sunny places desperately need to feel included in the process, and that includes the training process. Furthermore, without instruction teachers will never be on the “same page” as one another. The adults will not be able to properly assess student needs if their vocabulary is not universal.

Teacher Acceptance (Buy-in):

After instruction, teachers must have time to assess the needs of their students. This evaluation that Dr. Cruz calls the “hows and the whys” is crucial as the first step in teachers accepting that professional learning communities have staying power. There will be no teacher buy-in without purpose. Needs assessments allow for purpose and help to give a path for action. Action, however, needs to be teacher directed. In his presentation, Dr. Cruz stated that the administrators need to be there to support, but also get out of the way of the teachers.

Furthermore, needs assessments should be standardized, in a scientific, organized manner to better enhance the collective reform of the various issues. Teachers are very wary of assembling in a big room where they are told to write down their ideas with funny smelling markers on big sheets of paper. Those lists, seldom ever spoken about again, disappear like candy after Halloween. A needs assessments should be transparent and accessible to all staff.

Time for Teacher Reflection:

Reflection of and reaction to the implementation of reforms, learning strategies, and teaching techniques need to be sacrosanct. It cannot be done when the teachers are tired after a long day of teaching. Without meaningful reflection, PLCs will fade away into the wastebin of educational reform. Too many times teachers are shown great ideas, implement those changes, and then fail to be given time to assess the impact of their pedagogy. Without reflection, there also cannot be redirection and future changes. Without reflection, institutions stagnate — teachers close their doors and return to isolation.

Ultimately, learning environments are more akin to a marital relationship than a parental one. To have a strong family, you must have a strong marriage. To create a rich professional learning community, a school must empower teachers to have healthy relationships with each other. When adults “put on their oxygen masks first” then they have the ability to “save” the children. To create rich, effective PLCs the adult drama must be kept to a minimum and the teachers need to be given collective instruction, room for collaborative instructional implementation, and loads of time for reflection.

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I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight…


My window.  My tomatoes.

10 Years. 10 Goals.

How am I going to be ready for September 7, 2017? Every new school year gets me nervous. I always worry that the upcoming year will be the year my luck runs out. Because, seriously, I have been a lucky teacher. But what if this year I just suck? What if everyone (students, colleagues, parents, administrators) acknowledge that I don’t know what the hell I am doing? This fear both paralyzes and motivates. Simultaneous paralyzing motivation defines back to school jitters. To reduce my anxiety, I need a game plan, a mission, goals.


Besides being my niece’s 27th birthday, September 7, 2017, is the day that my tenth year of teaching begins. If you have followed my writing (thank you my three faithful followers), you might be scratching your heads as to the number ten. I am constantly going on about how I have been teaching for 23 years. I am a veteran teacher. Blah, blah, blah. What does professing my experience really matter to anyone else? It doesn’t offer any insight into my state of mind, nor does it enlighten anyone as to my teaching philosophy.

No, from now on, instead of stating how long I have been teaching, I am going to count down to retirement. Not because I want to retire. Not because I look forward to stress-free Sundays and stress-free months of August (the Sunday of the summer month). No, I am going to count down to retirement to remind myself that time is short and I better do a great job of “seeing” my students, imparting some words of wisdom, and teaching students significant historical lessons. I am a short timer and I need to be my best self.

Although my life and my garden vegetables are often unruly, I am going to attempt to outline my goals for my last ten years. Even though it might take all of the time I have left to achieve my goals, the following is my ten-year to-do list:

1.To “learn” my students.

I will have approximately 1,200 students enter room 811 in the next ten years. I want to help them be successful and overcome any challenges they face. Socrates said: “Know thyself.” I must know my students. I must see them, listen to them and meet them where they are. In the same manner that I need to accept my daughters for who they are, I must greet my students with kindness and respect. I need to value their experiences.

2. To teach and embrace different classes.

One of the reasons that I changed districts, was to have the opportunity to teach different classes. If I had stayed at my first teaching position, I most likely would have taught eighth grade United States History for thirty-four years. After only eight years, it already felt stale. At my current district, I have been fortunate to teach many topics, usually in elective classes. In my last ten years of teaching, I will embrace opportunities to teach diverse students and take on the challenge of teaching new classes. I will not allow myself stagnation and comfort.

3. To be more of a student myself.

I have been fortunate to teach education courses at the college level. However, the commitment to teaching one night a week has left no time for me to pursue taking courses. Unfortunately, enrollment in the college education programs has decreased significantly, leaving me unemployed as an adjunct. If that trend continues, I will look for courses that engage me as a learner.

4. To continue to collaborate, often.

I work with amazing, creative people. Through past collaboration, I have been allowed a window into their classrooms. Although I will continue to reach out to my allies, I will also attempt to bravely connect with colleagues that I have yet to connect. I need to trust to collaborate, but I trust a teacher more once we have worked together successfully. It is a sort of Catch-22. I will look for avenues of connection with the professionals in my district. I will remind myself that my students always benefit from my efforts at co-teaching.

5. To open my mind to new things.

I cannot predict all of the new things that will enter my classroom. I am sure technology will change. I am confident that students’ needs and demographics will shift. I can assure myself that district administration will push new initiatives. Regardless, I must open my mind and challenge myself to examine the benefits of such changes.

6. To see the other side of the other side of the teacher’s desk (ie. administration).

I would not make an effective administrator. I can inspire adolescents, but I am often befuddled by adults. Students are simply more honest and raw. Adult relationships take more time to establish rapport and trust. However, I want to understand administrators’ roles, challenges, and victories. A dear friend of mine declared how much she enjoyed interning as an administrator this summer. Her insight into the world of administration will inform her teaching. I seek to be better educated.

7. To connect with families.

In the past, I have connected with families formally through email, monthly letters, and at the obligatory open house night (which I hate). I have avoided difficult conversations, but I have gained great insight from the hour long phone calls. I need to be better. Even though I teach high school, parents of students at that level deserve (and probably crave) communication. I pledge to communicate more meaningfully with the parents of my students.

8. To attend more school events.

I am a mom of two competitive swimmers, with busy evening schedules. I try (and fail) to juggle motherhood and teacher-hood (it is my new word). Every time a doe-eyed student asks me if I will attend their game and wear their jersey to school, I cringe. I want to attend their games. I want to know my students outside of the classroom. I am honored to be asked. I am also conflicted. After 3:30 pm, any teaching obligations collide with my parental duties. Last school year I was able to attend three students’ special games. My goal is to increase that frequency, but also to allow myself a balance. My own children deserve my time as well.

9. To teach fiercely about historical connections to current events.

The 2016–2017 school year knocked me out. I was unprepared for how the frequency and intensity of current events would impact my teaching of Global History. By the end of the 2016–2017 school year, however, I was proud of the journey traveled with my students. We had some very difficult discussions on race, gender, equity, religion, and freedoms. I did not cover all of my content. When the New York State Global Regents Exam was passed out on June 15, 2017, I held my breath, hoping that the content I omitted was forgotten on the assessment — it was. I got lucky, again. In my last ten years, I will continue to draw connections to current events. It is my responsibility to give my students a safe place to explore opposing views and more importantly, to connect historic legacies to modern topics.

10. To ditch the stress of the New York State Regents and the AP Exam.

I am going to give myself permission to acknowledge that after a certain point in the school year, I have given all that I can give. I have stayed late to run review sessions, I have made review videos, and I have tutored individual students. “I have done all I can.” That phrase must be my new motto in the Spring. The tests are only snapshots of what my students have learned. The teacher evaluation process is ridiculous. The value-added model is outdated. The test and punish structure needs to end. Entering summer as an empty vessel is not productive. Raising my blood pressure and cortisol levels is not healthy. This will be my most difficult challenge because it is really an internal fight. This struggle returns me to the beginning of this post — my fear of being an incompetent teacher. I fear my own failure because it never feels like mine alone. I always fear that I did not reach a student when they needed a teacher most. I will no longer believe the lie that it is all my responsibility.

2017–2018 begins my tenth year of teaching. Wish me luck.

5 Reasons Why I, a 43-Year-Old Woman, Binge Watched ’13 Reasons Why’


Over the recent spring break, I binge watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same title. I am not the target audience for this work, but I could not stop watching this story about adolescence, sexual assault, and teenage suicide. The following is a list of five reasons why I, a middle-aged woman, was enthralled with the story:

1. I teach high school social studies

When I returned to work on Monday, I felt myself scanning the faces of the adolescents that I teach in a large suburban high school north of Syracuse, NY. As I was getting through a lesson on the cold war, I began to wonder how many of my students sitting before me had watched the series? At least half of my class? What were their takeaways? Which character(s) were they most like? Which part of the story resonated with them? Who among these classes was suicidal? Were my students like me, did they continue to live with the characters like I was?

Occasionally a film or a book will strike a chord with my students. I had previously heard students discuss Jay Asher’s novel, but I think the movie will have a deeper impact on adolescents — a group that is tremendously visual. The story is slick, a California cool. If a tired old lady like myself felt compelled to binge watch this movie, adolescents will watch this on repeat. A myriad of conversation topics arise from this story — sex, alcohol, drugs, parents, school, sports, cliques — it covers the spectrum of the high school experience.

2. I have had students attempt suicide

Almost every year I hear about a student attempting suicide. Thankfully, I have not known a student to be successful, but every year at least one student whom I have taught attempts to kill them self. The school I teach in has wonderful social workers, counselors, and teachers, but schools are not equipped for mental health issues.

As a classroom teacher, I hear about the suicide attempts with a statement of confidentially. Teachers get bits and pieces of a student’s story. We hear things like: “Jimmy took a shotgun to the gut last night.” “Nicole took a lot of pills.” These students are absent for a time period. They return, and I am supposed to act like nothing occurred. My job is to teach facts, not to counsel. I am completely useless when it comes to my student’s mental health.

As I watched 13 Reasons Why I searched for signs that might be apparent to me in the reality of my teaching. The main character, Hannah Baker, continually showed me that she was so normal. She was interacting in a typical high school. The actress told the audience that there were no signs. There was only silence. Silence is the enemy.

3. I am raising two daughters

The stupid internet went out two nights in a row during the time when I could watch the series without my daughters’ awareness. So, I found myself hiding in my bedroom, the door shut, trying to keep my daughters away, as I finished watching the series. My twelve-year-old daughter was my biggest concern. She had caught me earlier and commented that her fifteen-year-old cousin was watching this. I said, rather abruptly: “You can’t watch this.” I said it so quickly. I had to protect my daughter. It wasn’t just the sex, it was the entire story that made me pucker. I just don’t think she is ready. I am not ready for her to see rape.

“You can’t watch this.”

However, it is not the sexual aspects of the story that bother me as much as the mental health issues. Two students in the story kill themselves and others locate weapons or escape with substances. As I watched the anguish of Hannah Baker’s parents in the film, I connected with their struggles. They were having financial difficulties and marriage problems. They were not “seeing” their daughter. I worried about my own parenting. Am I missing my daughters, especially the oldest? She is entering adolescence. I want to give her freedom. I want her to be independent and competent. I also want to be the wall that she swims to — I want to give her a safe place to rest and restore herself from a hurtful world.

If you are interested in exploring the parental side of this issue, Ijeoma Oluo, in her piece ’13 Reasons Why’ Scared The Shit Out Of Me — And It Should Scare You Too, does a fantastic job of explaining every parent’s worst nightmare.

4. I wanted to compare

I was curious to see if my own high school experience compared to the one portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. It held up. Although I graduated over twenty years ago, the setting of the story is iconic: the American High School. I also remember watching teenage movies in my youth. 13 Reasons Why was reminiscent of Pretty in Pink’s images of rich and poor kids. There were The Breakfast Club similarities with the cliques and the social outcasts. There were also times that I thought about the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, especially in terms of the pressure of sexual interaction.

However, my generation did not have fucking social media, and cell phones equipped with cameras that could instantly message the entire school. Images of our worst choices were not permanently stored for continual humiliation. My generation could escape school. We could go home. Adolescents today are tethered to their phones and are bombarded by drama, images, and a fake sense of intimacy.

5. I am Hannah Baker

And so is every girl. The female teenage body is the most objectified and fantasized image in the world. Every time the picture of Hannah Baker’s underwear peeking out of her skirt was passed around we understand why women are not yet equal. It is portrayed as “boys being boys.” When her ass is grabbed in public and rated the “best” rear end at her high school, nothing about her intellect is celebrated. When the student president reaches up her skirt as she drinks her milkshake, we witness the constant assault to her innocence — any ownership of her sexuality is eroded away. Her vulnerability is so raw that by the time she is raped it almost feels inevitable. As the crime is committed, the camera lingers on her expression — one of complete frozen resignation. Her soul is depleted and the sexual act evokes a scene of a veteran prostitute.


Ultimately, I will watch this movie with my daughters. I am confident that this story will come up in conversations with my students. The degree to which I am disturbed by this work is a positive force for my teaching and parenting. It is a wake-up call for me to see my students and my children in the world in which they need to navigate. Maybe I was not the target audience, but I urge anyone who loves an adolescent to watch this series.

Here is another article about ways teachers can discuss 13 Reasons Why: https://www.weareteachers.com/discussion-questions-13-reasons-why/

This piece on medium.com:  https://medium.com/@brownberryfarm/5-reasons-why-i-a-43-year-old-woman-binged-watched-13-reasons-why-5c1ca46f1cbb