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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My classroom is a dance floor: A lesson on student leadership, dedication, and taking chances.

Before the first meeting of the UMOJA-Step Team began, the team captain arrived at my classroom early and immediately pushed back all of my desks and chairs. I grew nervous. What the heck did I agree to do?

Last spring a student asked me to consider advising the UMOJA-Step Team at the high school where I teach. I had reservations. The team had a negative reputation and I am a busy mom. A few people told me that the team was drama filled, loud, and difficult to control. However, at every pep rally, the students in the bleachers look forward to the step team’s performance. The cheers for this crew are always thunderous and authentic.

That student’s request gnawed at me all summer. When the first faculty meeting of the school year revealed that the group still lacked an advisor, I decided, for many reasons, to give it a try.

Now it is September 14, 2017, and all of my desks and chairs are piled up in the back of my classroom. Twenty-five kids have entered my room, eager to be members of a group that puts the pep in the pep rallies. While listening to the team captains explain expectations, the other students devour the candy that I left out like a trusting house at Halloween.

The leaders, two young women of color, emphasize qualities that adults respect: promptness, dedication, and maintaining high grades. After laying down the law, the captain smiles and says: “We are a family.” Many kids nod their heads in agreement.

After the power point presentation, the students begin to dance. I now understand why the desks and chairs were moved — my classroom is a dance floor! I thought this was just an informational meeting, but these kids came to move — they are dancing with enthusiasm and delight. It reminds me of watching the television show F.A.M.E. When I was a kid I loved how the students on that show would spontaneously burst into song and dance. F.A.M.E. was happening in my high school! I was on F.A.M.E.!

Reality, however, entered in the form of the sweet school secretary who informed me that F.A.M.E. was disturbing a parent-conference going in the office next door. I apologized profusely.

At the end of that first, boisterous meeting, the team leaders made a circle where each student demonstrated their “moves” in the middle of my classroom. As I watched these young people, I began to realize that I was going to be a part of a rare and special group.

We moved the subsequent meetings to the cafeteria where, unfortunately, the kids needed to move the tables and chairs. The teardown and setting back up of the room ate into about ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. Not to mention the occasional squished grape that the students danced around.

Mostly, however, what I noticed about these rehearsals was an intensity of engagement with student-led participation. The pressure of performing for the entire student body in just a few weeks motivated them to practice, learn, adjust, practice, and repeat.

At the end of every rehearsal, I filled out twenty-five bus passes — these high school students do not have rides or cars like many of their high school peers — they must take the late bus home. The team includes mostly female students, most of whom are African-American. Three are white. There are a few young men sprinkled in the group, and they can move.

I teach in a suburban high school that houses over 1,800 students a day. The demographics are mostly working and middle-class households, over seventy-five percent Caucasian. The UMOJA-Step Team members flip that demographic. The word umoja means unity in Swahili and the team is both a cultural and performance group. February brings the celebration of Black History Month and a dinner for the school and community. Although African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture is highlighted, the group is inclusive of non-Afro students. If you have dedication, spirit, and talent, you can belong.

A former student, one of the student leaders, says: “You should dance with us, Momma Brown.”

I laugh and say: “Yeah, that is what you need, an old white woman to mess up your beautiful group.”

She laughs. I am serious. This is a student group.

As the first pep rally approaches, I begin to look forward to staying at school later. It is crazy, but in many ways, these dedicated dancers are renewing my teaching spirit. I adore them, especially the leaders.

Two weeks before the pep rally, the captain invites me to go bowling with the group. I felt so honored. I gave her my cell number in case plans changed. (I have never given a student my phone number.) I didn’t go bowling with the group, but I really wanted to. That pull between my own family and my school “kids” was difficult.

A week before the pep rally, I noticed a familiar frustration in the captain — she wants the team to get the dances perfect. She wants the UMOJA-STEP SQUAD to get the school crowd roaring. She feels the pressure. I tell her that I know her crazy — her statements and body language are reminiscent of mine the weeks before the New York State Global Regents Exam. Every June, I look at my classes, drill them constantly on their “moves,” encourage, scold, and prepare them to get the “best” grade they can earn. She is doing the same thing: she is showing them that perseverance breeds excellence. Her frequent refrain is, “Do it again.” She would make an outstanding educator. She has got “it.” You can’t teach that sort of with-it-ness. It shines off of this strong, young woman.

After the cafeteria is unavailable one day, the squad moves practice from the cafeteria to the auditorium commons, a large space that does not require the time of tearing down and setting back up of cafeteria tables. The open space in the commons allows other students to stop and watch the team practice. I enjoy these voyeur students’ expressions: they smile, they clap, they take video.

However, I wish the team could have a space of their own. I teach in a large building that is always busy, with the two gymnasiums and the auditorium reserved far in advance. What this team needs is a room with mirrors!

The captains want this year to be drama-free. They want a faculty advisor to stick around. They tell the members to bring problems to me. I act as their human boundary, happy to let the captains lead the dance. I am strong enough to handle the management of people. My role is one of organizer and advocate. This group, I repeat, is student-run.

By Thursday, October 5, 2017, the pep rally is only eight days away, and a long Columbus Day weekend interrupts the flow. Everyone is feeling tired, run-down. The student dancers have a poor first rehearsal on the field. The pressure mounts with only three more possible after-school practices. They are allowed only thirty minutes on the turf until the football players are suited up and ready to practice. Time is the enemy. The captains are worried, but I have faith in this group. I can see that they only need to tighten up a few moves.

On the eve of the pep rally, the team is a well-oiled machine. Their timing is on fleek! (My twelve-year-old gave me permission to use that term.) As they practice, I notice that they are truly enjoying themselves. I drive home smiling.

On the day of the pep rally, I wake with nervous excitement. I normally have very little enthusiasm for pep rally days — they make my teaching time shrink and the kids get off kilter. Typically, when I wear my school t-shirt, my husband (who thinks he is hilarious) will ask me:

“Did you bring it?”

I will respond with, “Bring what?”

He will say: “Team spirit.”

This day, however, I am actually bringing it. I am both excited and a little bit nervous for the Step Team. They are an amazing group of students, but there is also enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level.

At 12:45pm the athletes are dismissed, the lead captain, who the kids affectionally call “Grandma” instructs the dancers to meet her in the auditorium commons for one last run through before we take the field.

When I arrive, they are decked out in red shirts, black leggings, and red shoes. Those are not the school colors of orange and blue. The excitement is electric. The quickly rehearse their routine one, more time.

Walking to the stadium, I ask the kids why the color red. No one can tell me why red is important. We will need to discuss colors and their significance later.Today is not the day to discuss the future, it is a day for them to show off their hard work.

The students wait on the field for their turn in the pep rally, a group in red, in a sea of orange and blue. I tell them that they will perform near the end, joking that the best is saved for last.

When they perform, I feel like a proud parent. I didn’t choreograph the moves, or pick out the music, or act as a dance “coach.” All I did was make some meetings calendars and help organize the group. That is all that they needed.

We still have more to learn and prepare for: another pep rally in December and February’s Black History celebrations. There are still many questions to answer: Are they a dance team, a step team, or an African-American cultural team? What are the team’s colors? We need to discuss the group’s name and identity.

Right now, however, we are a happy group. Next week, we will celebrate with pizza in room 811 where my classroom might become a dance floor yet again.

The Unequal United States — Which State is the best to teach in?

Divide and conquer.

This piece was originally published in the Bad Ass Teachers Association Blog.

In one of the Facebook groups that I follow, a member posed this question: “Just out of curiosity: what’s the best state to teach in, and why?” A flurry of comments came in — 347 comments were generated from that one question! I found the responses to be both enlightening and disturbing.

Some of the comments were humorous:

“A state of bliss.”

“A state of denial.”

“A state of sobriety.”

“A state of intoxication.”

Some comments looked outside of the United States:

“Finland” (This country was written many times.)

“International schools.”

“On-line.”

While a few teachers commented:

“No state.”

“None, get out of teaching.”

“Don’t go into any state of teaching.”

Most respondents answered very strongly concerning the state they taught in. The “best” states characteristics tended to be geographically north-eastern, union-supported, secure in teacher tenure rights and included average to above-average teacher pay, including pensions.

The top state responses: Massachusetts, New York (but not always NYC), New Jersey (but there was much discussion over Governor Christie), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and northern Virginia (not southern), Minnesota, and California.

The meh states included Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The characteristics of states to avoid included: hostile governors, anti-union sentiment, right-to-work laws, lacked teacher tenure rights, lacked pension benefits, and paid teachers unlivable wages. These “bad” states were listed as: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

I was happy to see New York (my home state) cited favorably frequently among the comments. Although Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents have caused havoc to the teacher evaluation process and continue to over-test our children, it was a bit encouraging to hear from NY teachers that they still believed in our public schools. I am sure all the New York teachers posting could easily point out huge issues in New York schools, but the negative comments are nothing close to what teachers from the “bad” states were saying.

Florida was touted as the worst of the worst.

Why is this stark inequality so significant? Because inequity is the fuel for the fire of corporate education reform. Inequity ignites the narrative of “those failing public schools” and the “need” for more choices. Inequity attracts residents and teachers to flock to certain “good” schools in certain “desirable” areas. Inequity promotes corporation’s profits recruits corporate charter school investment. Inequity increases segregation along both racial and socio-economic divides.

The “state” of public education is so disparate and the inequity in funding is so varied that we can no longer define “American Education.” Instead, each state’s education has its own meaning — creating savage inequalities in the United States.

So which schools has Betsy DeVos visited in her short tenure as the United States Secretary of Education?

  • Jefferson Middle School Academy, Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2017.
  • St. Andrew Catholic School, Orlando, Florida, on March 3, 2017 (accompanied by Trump).
  • Carderock Springs Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland on March 23, 2017, where she read from Dr. Suess’ Oh The Places You Will Go.
  • Kimberly Hampton Primary School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina on April 3, 2017 — a school run by the Department of Defense.
  • Excel Academy Public Charter School, Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2017, (accompanied by the First Lady and the Queen of Jordan).
  • Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary School, Miami Florida on April 6, 2017.
  • SLAM Charter School, Miami, Florida on April 6, 2017 (the school is supported by the rapper, Pitbull).
  • Royal Palm Elementary School, Miami, Florida on April 7, 2017 (this is a traditional public school).
  • Van Wert Elementary and Van Wert High School, Van Wert, Ohio on April 20, 2017 (accompanied by Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT).
  • Ashland Elementary School, Manassas, Virginia, on April 25, 2017 (student population is largely from military families).
  • North Park Elementary School, Los Angelos, California, on April 28, 2017 (after a teacher and her student were killed by a gunman).
  • Cornerstone Christian School, Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017 (as the name suggests, this school is Christian school).
  • Center City Charter School, Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2017 (first Catholic-to-charter school conversion).
  • Granite Technical Institute, Salt Lake City, Utah on May 9, 2017.

Source: Education Week: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2017/04/weingarten_devos_van_wert_hold.html

Overwhelmingly Betsy DeVos has visited schools that fit her perspective of “good” schools. These schools tend to be located in regions of the United States where funding for public education is abysmal and where school vouchers, educational scholarships, and white flight from public schools is typical. And, with the exception of a few schools listed above, most of these schools are located in states where professionals are urging their fellow teachers to avoid.

In war, a great strategy is divide and conquer. Public schools in the United States are already horribly divided — divided by curriculum, funding, facilities, teacher preparation, race, and socio-economic factors. The public’s opinion of schools is at all time low. Make no mistake, the war on public education is raging. Betsy DeVos and the forces of privatization and corporatization are closing in. Their victory would be a tremendous loss for the children of the United States.

It is time for battle. It is time for public school advocates to lead. It is time for teachers to find their voices, collectively. How does the resistance begin? The first step comes in sensible shoes during the upcoming March For Public Education in our nation’s capital on July 22, 2017, or in sister-city marches across the country.

The July 22, 2017, March for Public Education is critical. Please consider clicking the heart ❤️ icon above, following the March For Education Blog Publication, following on Twitter, liking the page on Facebook, participating in the march, and donating to the march. You can also buy a t-shirt to support public education by clicking here.

Finish this: “Public Education is…”



“Public Education is DEMOCRACY!”

That is how I finished the prompt on the March for Public Education’s Facebook Group query. (Please join this group of over 13,000 people by clicking the underlined link.)

Yes, all caps are needed. Yes, it warrants an exclamation point. Yes, public education is not just a part of the American democratic system, it the engine of democracy. To further explain, the following are five reasons public education is democracy:

1.Public education is democracy because schools are like the statue of liberty.

Public schools take all kinds of students — black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew, poor, rich, special needs, or gifted. Public schools face poverty, mental illness, addiction, neglect, and hunger with warm classrooms led by smiling adults. Like Emma Lazarus’ poem, schools take the tired, the poor, and the wretched refuse, because public schools are open to every resident of the United States of America. Public schools are safe havens for our most vulnerable citizens.


2.Public education is democracy because students learn a standardized education, which promotes equal access to opportunities.

Students in central New York, where I have lived my entire life, are offered a standard curriculum, taught by teachers who hold master’s degrees, earn tenure, and who are allowed to collectively bargain and unionize. The New York State public education system, although not perfect, truly attempts to create a foundation for its residents. I attended four different public school districts, and although the frequent moving was often disruptive socially, the standard curriculum and high quality of learning offered by every one of the school districts enabled me to mature positively despite my often disruptive childhood.

Standardized learning and highly qualified teachers help to even out privilege and counteract disparity. Rigorous content, dynamic pedagogy, and equitable funding are all components of effective public schools.


3. Public education is democracy because all teachers are civics teachers.

Although many people complain about students’ lack of knowledge about civics and history, as institutions, public schools go a long way to civilize the huddled masses. Schools teach rules, expectations, deadlines and collaboration.

Students in public education recite the pledge of allegiance every day, participate in moments of silence when tragedy arises, and collectively learn about American government and values.


4.Public education is democracy because parents invest in their communities and have a voice in the budget every spring.

On May 16, 2017, hundreds of school district across the state of New York will offer spaghetti dinners while holding their breaths in the hope that the community will continue to support their district’s financial needs for another year.

When budgets are rejected it is often due to financial constraints, disagreements over spending, or political issues. However, in my twenty-two years of teaching, I have never taught in a school where the budget was not passed. Every budget is tense, but ultimately in Central New York, anyway, taxpayers see the value in an educated citizenry.


5. Public education is democracy because schools, like American democracy, are messy.

I have a respected colleague that often repeats the line: democracy is messy. No truer words have been spoken. Democracy is horribly untidy — riddled with disagreements, power struggles, and self-centered greed. Schools are microcosms of society, and schools represent both the best and the worst of American values and deficiencies.

Out of the mess, however, comes creativity, athletics, clubs, activities, growth, individuality, and success for millions of students. I don’t always like what happens in America, or in public schools, but I would not want to live or teach in any other type of system.


How would you finish: Public Education is…? Comment below, and consider writing a piece for this publication.

Please follow the publication, click the heart 💚 icon, bookmark the website by clicking here, follow on Twitter and join the Facebook group.

#educationmarch — join the march on July 22, 2017 in Washington, D.C.