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Also, take a look at my new book, Don’t Sniff the Glue: A Teacher’s Misadventures in Education Reform.  It’s available on Amazon now, priced so even a teacher can afford to read–or listen.  There’s an audiobook, too!

Don'tSniff0201 copy

He Forgot to Go South

It’s cold outside. The kind of cold I’d bottle and save for July. I’m outside with no coat and untied shoes, starting my car so I can peel out of the driveway in five minutes. The engine protests. I jog back to the house.

My hand sticks to the metal on the door just a little bit and I hear the most beautiful sound. A bird singing over the cold I’d bottle and save for July. One bird, who forgot to go South for the winter. Stayed just for me. Stayed to remind me to stop. To take a moment. To be. Just be, even standing outside with no coat and untied shoes in the cold I’d bottle and save for July.

To listen to the beautiful song.

Tooth Fairy Helps First Grader in Common Core Math

Declan had a wiggly tooth. “You don’t have to pull it out if it hurts,” I said. “The Tooth Fairy can come any night. No rush.”

He knew, though, that the Tooth Fairy brings money. He likes money.

With the force of and courage of a superhero, he reached in. Plink. One little tooth in his hand. He jumped for joy. He’s been waiting for this. His friends have lost teeth. It’s a rite of passage. He’s an Official Big Boy. One tooth down. A lot to go.

Two seconds later, negotiations began. “What do you think the Tooth Fairy will give me?”

“She gave me money,” I said. “I got a dollar for my first tooth and twenty-five cents for every tooth after.” She won’t get off cheap with Declan.

“I don’t want money. I want a whistle.” There is no way the Tooth Fairy’s bringing a whistle. We have a machine program at school. Whistles are one project. I’d like to tell my freshmen what they can do with their whistles.

“She brings money.”

“How about a toy?”

“Toys don’t fit under pillows. She doesn’t have a sleigh like Santa. What are you most excited about now that you’ve lost a tooth? That you’re such a big boy?”

“Now I can barf without opening my mouth! And stick a straw through the hole!”

He took the tooth. He inspected and brushed it “…so it can be nice. I can get more money.” The Tooth Fairy doesn’t pay for cavities.

He smiled. The first gap. The big boy smile. A parent Kodak moment, but I wanted more…something…good to come out of this. Not just an exchange of calcium and cash.

“You know,” I said. “Big boy teeth have power.” Declan’s having trouble listening in school. He struggles to sit when he’s told and following directions isn’t his thing.

That Tooth Fairy snuck right by me.

That Tooth Fairy snuck right by me.

“I don’t have to write my whole name,” he’ll say. “There’s only one Declan.” Makes sense. Worse yet is the math. “Mommy, I don’t need to do all those things and write the circles. I already know the answer. It’s 17.” He’s right. But I can’t have a kid challenging the system and disobeying Common Core math at age six. Pretty soon, he’ll be thinking for himself and starting a company with his Tooth Fairy money. I already have enough tax liability.

“Power?” he said. “Teeth have power?”

“Power.” I said. I leaned in and dropped my voice. “Remember when you asked how you could behave and be a good boy like your friend? When you told me you were bad and you didn’t want to be bad.” That conversation broke my heart, I never told him. I told him he wasn’t bad. He was a good boy. Mommy, how come I’m a bad boy? I want to be good, but I just can’t listen all the time. I’m bad. I want to be very good like my friend.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, big boy teeth have special powers. They give you super big boy listening skills. And make you faster and stronger. If you need to be good, think of the power of The Tooth.” He gave me the look. The questioning look. “It’s true. It’s how I started to listen.” I hope no one tells him I don’t listen very well. Maybe my braces interrupted the power. I hope he doesn’t need braces.

“Wow.” We’ll see if the power of The Tooth helps him do his math, spelling sentences, and listen. Meanwhile, he slept on his dino pillow with his tooth tucked neatly below. The Tooth Fairy must’ve snuck by me, because there’s a nice note instructing him to eat more veggies.

And a five-dollar bill. I was right. Prices have gone up.

Is School Useless? (Nobody Does Geometry at Cocktail Parties)


Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.26.50 AMI was helping a kid with his geometry. I didn’t do too bad. I said “shit” once. It slipped out. I apologized. A lifetime of math anxiety rolled up into four letters–coulda been worse. I stepped back and stared at the cleverly infused algebra problem stuffed into one of the angles in the triangles and crossed lines, reasoning that x+whatever must be added to 180-70, because there was an opposite angle labeled “70” without any tricks or algebraic distractions. And everyone knows that two lines tilted next to each other on a straight line has to equal 180 degrees. It’s a complementary angle.

“Supplementary. 180 is supplementary.” Good call, kid, good call. Because I walk around cocktail parties saying things like, “You know, I was figuring out algebraic equations embedded into supplementary angles the other day and I discovered…” Never.

“Miss?” He asked after we knocked off the last angle or two, me as much as him, and I finished up my victory dance. I was pretty proud, I’m not going to lie. I solved tenth grade math. Perfectly. Now, maybe if I have to take standardized tests to prove I’m better than a tenth grader to keep my job someday–it’s not out of the realm of possibility–I’ll be able to succeed on problems with triangles and lines with supplementary angles and algebra embedded inside for no particular reason.

“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” I thought hard through my several careers. Career one in insurance came the closest. I used math to reconstruct traffic accidents–but not really. The officer usually did that and gave me a number. I used math to resolve negotiations, but in truth it was more or less like volleyball than geometry, spiking numbers back over the net.

In waitressing, I calculated bills. No supplementary angles there. Just extra costs on upsells. In business, I spent a ton of money, and got bills for a ton more. Still no triangles or supplementary angles. I’ve built lots of things, but when it came down to brass tacks I never used the Pythagorean theorem to plan materials cost or measure distance. More often than not, I eyeballed it and went back to the store several times, or measured an approximate length across what would be the hypotenuse, hacking and swearing until it was close enough.

But I can’t say that because I’ve got a kid sitting here taking an entire course in geometry that’s going to think he’s wasting his time if I don’t come up with something intellectually plausible. I learned “thinking on my feet” from public speaking and negotiations, not math, though. And if I don’t come up with something quick, he’s going to question whether my class is a waste of his time next. After all, what do I teach about? History. Dead people. How many dead people is he going to meet at cocktail parties?

Before I know it, the whole house of cards will come crumbling down and he’ll be questioning all of public education, just because I succeeded in solving one set of geometry problems with algebra snuck inside. Can’t have that.

God intervened. He does that if I’ve been especially good that day.

“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “In twenty years when you’re helping some kid with his geometry.” I walked away. I didn’t want him to ask me about calculus next.


Only Bullies Give Wedgies

Declan is fighting me. I’m supposed to be the bad guy from a show he loves. He has it choreographed to the last detail.

“Side kick me, Mommy.” That’s something you don’t hear a six-year old say often. I aim for the stomach.

“Woosh,” he says. He angles. Pretty impressive.

“Kick me again.” I try. He angles. I’m getting real-person impressed, having flashbacks to learning to angle and evade in my martial arts studies, back when I discovered martial arts wasn’t really about kicking and breaking stuff, it was about avoiding the fight completely. And doing peaceful things, like meditating and arranging flowers.

Eventually, he breaks through, and starts punching me for real, because that’s what good guys do. I throw a knee. He punches it. He punches my arm. That little kid hurts. I explain, “We’re playing. Mommy doesn’t want to hurt you. We’re not really punching.”

“Throw me across the room, Mommy.” I pick him up a little and put him straight down. He throws himself ten feet–a Hollywood stunt man.

He gets up, “You can’t defeat me that easy!” Who’s trying to defeat anyone? I’m just trying to drink my tea. In a superhero flurry, he races over and punches me again.

“Punch me, Mommy! In the stomach. Like this!” It’s a good punch. I lose a little bit of breath.

“You don’t have to show me. I told you, we’re not really punching people.”

“It’s what the bad guy does!” I can take no more.

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 5.32.30 AM“Does the bad guy do THIS?” I pick him up and give him a very big wedgie.

He laughs. Then he stops.

He looks at me. Deeply. Like I’ve made a mama joke or insulted his dog.

“Mommy. You can’t do that. You can’t give wedgies. That…is bullying.”

I kneel down. “What do you mean?”

“Bullies give wedgies. You can’t do that. Bullying is mean. You shouldn’t be a bully.”

“Where did you learn that?” I ask.

“School. Bullies are bad.” He holds my gaze. He is teaching me.

I want to explain bullies don’t usually give wedgies. To tell him bullies sometimes punch and hit, but more often they’re subtle, insidious, hard to recognize until they’ve already infiltrated the soul, done their psychological damage. Made us feel we have little value. And because of that, we need to be strong. To know our own self-worth, and to refuse to let the outside world hit us with the resistance that makes us believe what they say–makes us stop short of being great.

I want to teach him that bullies can be people we don’t know on the schoolyard, but more often they’re people in our inner circles. People we thought were on our side. And most of all, they can be ourselves. We hit ourselves the hardest. That’s the truth.

But I don’t teach that lesson, because he breaks the gaze. With a flurry of activity, he’s a superhero again. I don’t give any more wedgies. I throw him across the room, as he requests, and to drink my tea. That’s what bad guys do when they lose.



I Don’t Do Lines

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.16.47 AMI’ve come to the conclusion that life is about lines. There are so many lines in this world. Grocery lines, bank lines, lines of cocaine. Even virtual lines—printer cues, website holds, and “You’re next in line for customer service” on chat. “Next” always seems the longest place in line.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 9.29.49 AMLines define people. In foreign countries you can pay people to wait in lines for you. Here, if you pay a little extra, you can skip lines entirely or they’ll create an “elite” line just for you. If you make way too much money you can snort lines, and if you’re just a normal person like me, you wait in lines. And wait again. And when you are done waiting, you find another line to wait in.

Sometimes I pick the longest line, just because I know it’s my station in life.

Now, I am waiting in line at the airline kiosk. My boarding pass won’t come up.

“Um, I don’t know,” says the girl at the counter. The person at the end of the line is supposed to know. It’s why we wait in lines.

“Can you wait in that line, please?” The big line. I don’t want to go. If I complain, she’ll send me to the Really Big Line way over there. I have a flight to catch.

Never piss off someone who’s whole function in life is processing lines. I look at my watch. I don’t mind a line when I know the end result’s something cool–groceries, a cup of coffee. I connect with people around me in the line. But now, the only thing I want to connect with is a plane. Airport lines are a mystery. No guarantees. Will they let me on the plane? Or will there be some “problem.”

Cancelled. Delayed. Out to lunch. On vacation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that airlines can change everything, but if I do, “That’ll be five hundred dollars, please.” or “Would you like to pay an extra $31 to skip the line?”

I wait in three lines and discover that my airline isn’t my airline at all. They’re merging. I must wait in another airline’s line. Three terminals away. “Not far,” says the linemaster. She must be a distance runner. I run, hike, and roll luggage the mile to the other terminal. Quickly, because I fear that line will send me to another line.

I wait in line for my boarding pass and get directed to the next line.

The line that for looks through my computer and my shoes. The line for the proctology exam and pat down. The line with the lady who looks at my boarding pass and asks me my name to make sure I memorized it correctly. And the line with the guy that tries to get my stuff off the belt as it topples on me while I get dressed in public.

Finally the coffee line. It’s the only one I wanted.

Last of all, the line at the gate, behind the “elite” people who paid $31 extra to skip the line. I smile. I get on the plane last.

It takes off. Waiting to bring me to the next airport. Which, no doubt, will be full of lines.

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Drugs Are Illegal. Reform’s Scary. Coffee Fixes the World.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 4.45.17 PMI want to have coffee with a friend. We struggle to squeeze it in.

“How about two Fridays from now?” Why can’t we get our calendars to stop fighting so we can drink coffee? Eventually, one calendar wins. Coffee arrives.

What starts as coffee with a good friend ends as vision. Always does. Soon, note pads, pens, Macs, iPhones and iPads clutter the table, pushing our freakishly healthy foods aside.

Usually when two or more teachers are in the room, venting begins. Bitching even. Everyone opens the valve a little. My husband doesn’t understand this. He wonders why teachers bitch. He hates it. He won’t go to “teacher things.”

“It’s not bitching,” I explain, “It’s ‘looking for solutions.'” Sure, there are People Who Bitch. They’re the ones speaking negatively about others–students, colleagues, and leadership. When good teachers gather, it’s not bitching. It’s seeking answers for real problems. When the fixes are out of reach, there’s frustration. Especially when frustration takes good people down.

“I’ll never go back into the classroom,” I hear it more and more. “I can’t do all this testing and stuff.” People go into leadership, guidance, or whatever because, they say, they’re “done with the classroom.” Others–good people–jump into those roles to save the world, finding windmills to fight on that side of the fence, too.

“This isn’t for me. I’m no good. Didn’t realize it would be this way–I wanted to change lives, not tabulate test scores.” That was roughly the quote I got from someone leaving the profession–literally, box in hand. Midyear.

Good teachers fear tests and evals. Sure, accountability’s in every profession. Can we do it better though? I heard Steve Blank talk at last year’s Business Innovation Factory conference. “Fire the idea, not the person,” he said.

Steve Blank is a pretty smart guy. As one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People in Tech,” he’s not only written textbooks on how startups should be created and grown, he even changed the way the National Science Foundation spends money to align with the systems of successful entrepreneurs–systems he invented.

Anyone who changes the way government spends money has the ear of this lowly teacher.

His thoughts were simple. Sometimes you need to fire the idea, not the person, he said. Run the numbers without blame. Then fix the problems.

Getting rid of judgment helps people be objective and take risks. Risks produce results. Taking risks in education can get a person low scores, though, so there’s fear.

Fear about things real or imagined shuts good people down.

Fear does not produce vision.

Fear is conquered by vision.

Vision, luckily, is found in a cup of coffee with a friend. It pours out our hearts into the vortices swirling throughout the mugs into reality. All the little things mixing and colliding in the swirls…that’s the vision. Every sip, gulp, cup waiting for a sip–vision. Leaving the cup on the counter to go cold is missing the possibilities–so easy to do when rushing around. Steam goes uncaptured into the universe. Vision lost.

But sitting with my friend, vision pushes aside inconsequential girl talk. It says things like, “Sounds like you might consider,” and “That happens to me. I’ve tried…” or “I notice you write a lot about this, but I’d really like to read it if you wrote this…” or “I’d buy that idea…”

Every single time I meet Vision Friend, I leave with a dozen working plans. On a good day, I have pages of notes. On a crazy day, we’ve got blogs, businesses, books, and concepts racing around the room trying to get to the finish line first so we might convert them to reality.

Vision conquers fear. And accountability defeats complacency. Inaction. Inertia. This is why vision needs company. It needs someone to say, “Hey, you told me you were going to….how’s that going?”

Otherwise, we’re tempted to “forget” we promised to do something, and vision dies. Vision often requires courage, support, and the swirly things in a cup of coffee to produce results. Follow-through. Reality.

I know vision’s in the room when my heart leaps just a bit and the notepad comes out. The more I surround myself with friends who make my heart leap just a bit and pages fill on notepad, the better I become. I want to be better. And I want to make other people feel that they are better for having known me.

It’s a simple goal. One I hope I can meet. I think I can, if I have just one more cup of coffee…with my good friend.


My “vision” friend, Alicia, blogs here: WriteSolutions under the tag “Student Learning Is No Accident.”