On Registering for Kindergarten and Choosing a Catholic School

I can’t complain. I was fortunate enough to have a summer baby, so I got an extra year with my first baby at home while other moms were standing puffy-eyed and runny-nosed in school parking lots late last August. Instead of sending him off to kindergarten at the tender age of barely five, we are sending him off to kindergarten at the ripe, old age of six. I have read all of the research. Hell, I even did some of the research for my freelancing job. I know there are all kinds of statistics on the values of delaying a kindergarten start, just as there are all kinds of statistics on the evils of “redshirting” your kindergartener. But, I’m a mom who saw her child struggle with speech and some fine motor skills when he started preschool. I’m a mom who saw her son hang back even though he wanted to play and knew the answers but was afraid nobody would understand him if he spoke. I’m a mom who made the gut-wrenching decision to have him repeat preschool and watch his very first friends move on to pre-K without him. So, I redshirted my kid. And, I’m so glad that I did.

Homework by Chris YarzabIn this year of pre-K, my sensitive, bright, quiet son has blossomed. He seeks out kids to play with at school, after happily playing alone during his two preschool years. He now has rich discussions with the school helpers and teachers. In fact, the pre-K volunteer who helps the kids write journals once a week had no idea my son has overcome a severe speech delay. He also recognizes sight words and figures out words when we spell them instead of just telling him to do something (“Please bring me an e-g-g.”) He asks questions and makes connections and watches shows on The Weather Channel and The Learning Channel that I never imagined would interest a five year old. He writes notes to us in church. He helps his younger brother and cousin and pretends to read to them. And, he will start kindergarten in a few short months.

Last night we visited his new school and started the registration process. The principal, faculty and staff, and school nurses welcomed us with open arms and impressed me from the moment I stepped inside. I was more impressed by my son, however. He walked into the kids’ room, answered the brand new teacher at an appropriate volume with clear enunciation, and sought out the action. I wanted to follow him, give him a hug, and tell him that my husband and I would be right across the hall, but he turned and gave us a wave and said, “Goodbye.”

And, that was that. This child of mine about whom I have lost years of sleep is going to be okay. He’s going to be more than okay. He’s ready.

And, he’s going to be in a school that values faith and respect and encourages curiosity. He’s going to be in a school that proudly displays students’ writing assignments (completed in cursive!), creative artwork, group projects, and homework schedules on the walls. He’s going to be in a school that uses short, formative assessments as tools to evaluate students. The one standardized assessment utilized by the school is viewed as a tool to evaluate the programs and curricula, and not to evaluate students. He’s going to be in a school with a principal who stood and answered all of my “I’m a former teacher and want to know what goes on here” questions with honesty and compassion. There was no spin. There were no excuses. I may not have agreed with every single thing that she said, but I know that I will be able to communicate concerns to this principal without being snowballed or told “that’s just the way it is.”

I am going to continue fighting for public education with all of my might. I am a proud product of our public education system, and I was a fourth generation public school teacher. I will more than likely be sending both of our sons to public education for grades 9-12. I believe in public schools and the power of students, parents, and teachers to continue to work to get our administrators, legislators, and departments of education to right the course and get back to the business of teaching and learning.

But, our sons will be attending our local Catholic School for grades K-8 because I believe in small class sizes, strong curricula that includes science and social studies, and an educational environment that puts students, not tests first. I am putting my money where my mouth is, by putting my own child/student first while I continue to fight for others’ children and students.

Image via Flickr by Chris Yarzab

**Announcing TRUTH In Teaching**

I am so pleased to announce that I am undertaking a huge venture and yet another leave-of-absence leap of faith: TRUTH In Teaching, my new website and blog, created especially for teachers. When I wrote “An Open Letter to Campbell Brown from a Teacher on Leave” a few days ago, I never imagined the outpouring of support I would receive. The letter has gone viral, I have received hundreds of emails, and teachers continue to comment and speak out on the original blog post. In all of the correspondence, one thing has become abundantly clear: teachers need a voice but are afraid to speak up because of backlash from the public and their administrators. So, I am thrilled to announce TRUTH In Teaching.

My TRUTH partner and I share a passion for helping teachers in every way that we can to combat education reform, high-stakes testing, and the war on teachers. We know this will not be an easy journey, and we don’t expect to influence policymakers and big businesses who are trying to take over public education… at least, not right away. But, we do hope to keep the discussion that started with the letter going. And, we hope that teachers feel more confident in joining the discussion to get out the TRUTH about what it’s like to teach in today’s public education system, so that parents and policymakers alike can start shifting the conversation back to education and learning and away from the numbers.

So, for those of you who started following this site because of my letter to Campbell Brown, please check out TRUTH In Teaching and follow us there, too. We’d love it if you’d share the link on Facebook to help get out the word to everyone who read the letter, too! In the next few days, we will be adding more content to TRUTH In Teaching including blog posts with tips for starting back to school, lesson plan and icebreaker ideas for the first couple of weeks, and more so that teachers can start this school year on the right foot. We will be devoting as much time as possible to TRUTH very soon.

TRUTH exists solely for the teachers. We hope the resources on the site will be invaluable tools for you in the upcoming school year and that you visit the site often for information, graphic organizers, lesson plan ideas, or maybe just a laugh at a blog post. Ultimately, we hope to create a culture of education that focuses more on helping students and teachers thrive than it does on a standardized test score or teacher or school grade. Teach on!

PS – Those of you who joined the “What the Hell” journey here on Life Under the Ponytail for my take on life and parenting will be happy to know that this new venture will separate my two “lives.” I will be writing the teaching content on TRUTH In Teaching and the life and parenting content on Life Under the Ponytail, which was the original plan for this blog. And, if you’re looking for even more to read, check out my other latest project, The Brewery Blog. Thanks for sticking with me on this unbelievable ride!

On the Issue of Those Pesky First Amendment Rights for Teachers

Teachers are people, too! I’ll never forget going to the grocery store with my mom, who is a teacher with 36 years in the classroom under her belt, and realizing they not everyone views us that way. By the way, she will tell you that it hasn’t been 36 full years, because she was hired part-time and didn’t achieve full-time status for awhile. I say the woman has been in a classroom or elementary library since 1978, and that’s 36 years.

Anyway, we were grocery shopping, and a little boy looked at her with eyes as big as saucers and ran to his mother. He was pointing at my mom and mumbling something. I thought my mom must have reprimanded him at some point in the library to have traumatized him so, but the poor kid actually was so shocked to see her outside of the library that he thought she was looking for him to get back a lost book.

As the daughter, granddaughter, niece, great-niece, and great-great-niece of educators, I didn’t know that kids thought their teachers lived in schools. I just thought it was weird that other kids said their parents were going to work, and my mom said she was going to school. But, apparently, kids think their teachers live, eat, and sleep at school; thus, they don’t realize that teachers are real people.

Unfortunately, it seems as though many of those misguided children grow up to be lawmakers, lobbyists, judges, and Campbell Brown. These people don’t realize that teachers are, in fact, people who are capable of having thoughts and opinions. Worse, they don’t think teachers have the same right to express those thoughts and opinions publicly. First Amendment, be damned!

I have first-hand experience with this. When I started this very blog in June, the initial two posts were about how I knew it was time to take a leave of absence from teaching, even though I was in the prime of my career. I may have been a little harsh in my language and brutal with my honesty; however, to the best of my knowledge, I broke no levels of confidentiality, I used no names (in fact, most of the anecdotes contain characters who are blends of students and colleagues and administrators I’ve encountered in eleven years in the trenches), and I ran the posts past some of my union leaders prior to publishing them online. I was received with mostly positive responses and more encouragement than I had expected. In fact, friends of mine who teach in other districts in a couple of states shared it with their colleagues and union leaders; they actually asked for permission to share my posts at their end-of-the-year festivities because they were so entertained, yet moved by my story. Nearly every teacher who read those first posts said it was as though I had been inside his classroom or inside her mind while writing. And, most of the educators who read those posts encouraged me to keep telling the true story of what it’s like inside public education today.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a phone call advising me to take down the blog. I was told that I could be terminated “on the spot.” In my mind, I simply was exercising my First Amendment right; in their minds, I had overstepped some sort of boundary that forces teachers to keep everything under our hats. In the end, I complied because I didn’t know where this new freelance adventure was going to take my family’s finances, and I could very easily need to return to the classroom. It was a very difficult decision and I was beyond livid, but I realized that I had to follow the advice, at least for the time being, for my family.

I then changed the direction of the blog to family and parenting and observations of life under my ponytail, all the while wondering how my audience would have grown if I had left the posts as they were. I also wondered how many other teachers would have responded positively about someone finally being able to tell it like it is.

Then, I saw the Campbell Brown interview with Stephen Colbert. I couldn’t keep quiet about that. I was angry and insulted and disgusted by her insinuations, her spin, and her less-than-half truths. I sat down and penned the open letter thinking that I would feel better once I got it all out. I walked away from it and tried to go back to the writing job that is paying the bills. But the thought of leaving the letter off the blog, too – of not being able to share my opinions and thoughts and feelings as a professional in the education field AGAIN – was too much. I closed my eyes, hit “Publish,” and went to bed.

The response has been overwhelming for someone whose blog was getting between 50-100 hits a day (other than those initial education posts that were getting more hits than expected for a blog that had been up and running merely for two days). When it hit 1,000 views, I was thrilled. When it hit 5,000, I was in tears. When it hit 10,000, I was stunned and shaking. It’s still going. And, the responses to the letter are equally as overwhelming.

Teachers are sharing stories with me that are breaking my heart. They have lost their unions, their pensions, their classrooms, their autonomy, and for most, their dignity, as politicians, corporations, parents, and people like Campbell Brown come after them day after day after day. People are asking me to share their stories, and I can’t do that in good conscience when I’m afraid to share mine. The repercussions are far too great. I’m still researching cases in which judges are ruling against teachers’ First Amendment rights. Facebook statuses are getting teachers fired, even when they aren’t breaking any confidentiality, laws, or contract obligations. Yes, teachers always have been held to a higher moral code, and some teachers push the envelope with their language and overabundance of personal information and other things that in all honesty should be actionable. This is not why unions exist, and this is not why tenure exists, and teachers need to be smart about what they share.

But, teachers are people, too. They should have equal protection under the First Amendment when they want to add their voice to “education reform.” They should have a voice when governors slash education budgets by millions of dollars year after year after year (don’t forget, I live in PA, with arguably one of the worst governors in relation to education in the entire country). They should have a voice when administrators bow to parents because they are afraid of losing kids to charter schools and cyber schools that are draining desperately-needed resources from the majority of kids in public schools. And, they should have a voice when they decide to leave their profession for a year because they know they need a break.

I WILL be publishing those initial blog posts in the next couple of days, with a few tweaks. I am a person, too. And I have First Amendment rights, just like everyone else. We will see whether I actually do or not. In the meantime, I’m going to try to do some more research about it, so if anyone else has links to those recent cases, from anywhere in the U.S., please send them my way.

In Response to the Open Letter to Campbell Brown Response

As of 11PM, August 2, 2014, 11,100+ visitors have viewed my Open Letter to Campbell Brown 12,300+ times, and it has been shared on Facebook more than 4,000 times. I am overwhelmed by the amount of support and encouragement I have received today. As a teacher, I never thought of myself as a teacher advocate because my circle of teacher friends always does all we can to support one another every day, even if that means offering a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen when the classroom, standards, and criticism become too much.

Today, I am being labeled one, and I hope to live up to that moniker in the days and weeks and months to come. I have been receiving links and studies and information that I will have to ponder in the next few days. I have been thanked and cheered and, yes, even criticized. A few friends and my husband were worried about how I’m handling the criticism. One of the best things teaching has given me is thick skin, so I’m just fine. I understand Campbell Brown is blocking people on Facebook and attempting to control the discussion; her apparent lack of thick skin simply proves that she doesn’t belong in this discussion of education. I also understand that people have been taking to Twitter in droves about the letter and the interview. I’m going to be honest. I’ve handled the discussion through the comments on my blog and a bit on Twitter because the letter pretty much covers everything I have to say about her appearance with Stephen Colbert.

When I wrote the letter, I was venting my frustration at Campbell Brown and attempting to bring a voice of the teachers to the discussion – a counterpoint to her interview, if you will. Of course, she is just one in a cast of thousands attacking teachers and unions and tenure and, let’s face it, public education, in this country. Today has been bittersweet because I’m being thanked by so many people who are too afraid for their positions to be able to speak up themselves; this issue of educational reform has spun so far out of control that teachers are afraid to exercise their First Amendment right. (FYI – Several people have forwarded me recent cases in which judges are siding against teachers who exercise their First Amendment rights, and that’s another issue I’m going to start researching soon.)

I sincerely appreciate every single person who took the time to reach out to me through email, Facebook, and Twitter today. I understand why so many teachers have chosen to contact me privately. I’ve done my best to respond to everyone while continuing to be a mom and a wife today, and I will continue to answer as many people as possible. I may need a bit of time to recover from this sudden social media presence I seem to have created for myself, but I will have much more to say soon.

In the meantime, think about the teachers who are starting school soon without a contract, without a union, without a voice. Think about the students who are starting school soon without adequate supplies, prior knowledge, or support at home. Something does need to change in this country, but it doesn’t seem to me that teacher tenure should be at the top of the list.

My Very First Blog Post… From 1999 – What the Hell?

The following is an email I sent to my mom September 9, 1999: my first week of classes at Franklin & Marshall College.  I have been searching for this piece of writing for 15 years, and my mom just nonchalantly handed me the worn, yellowed, folded, written-on paper today.  I could have cried.   I guess I was trying to blog before blogging even became a thing.  What the Hell?

Mom,

I want you to read this, print it out, and then read it to Dad, my brother, Nana, and Pap.  I think you ought to know where your $33,000 is really going.

After one week of college classes, I find that I am already wondering why I am here.  I have no idea how any of these things I am doing are going to help me get a job.  I know I could write for a magazine starting today, but I wouldn’t have that precious “BA” behind my name to prove it.

The very first thing I learned is that college is not about the classes.  I just saw a sign that reads: “Don’t let classes interfere with your education.”  This is so true.  College teaches you how to deal with the most undesirable circumstances.

You don’t come here for the food.  You don’t come here for the living facilities.  You certainly don’t come here to take baths.  You learn how to wear the same pair of jeans for four days and the same t-shirt for three days, just so you save yourself from having to do laundry.  You learn how to sleep in the noisiest of places, how to get a shower at just the right time so there isn’t anyone around flushing toilets or using the showers upstairs to put your precious hot water in jeopardy, and how to read four novels in three days.  You also learn how to run a movie and CD rental store.  You learn how to eat snack food in moderation, so you don’t gain the Freshman 15 five times.

College is a learning experience, not an institution of learning.  You find a way to deal with people you would never approach if you didn’t absolutely have to.  You learn how to cram an entire house into a space 14’ x 16’.  You learn that professors do not teach; they make you question everything you thought you have known to be true since you were five years old.  You do not ask questions unless you are prepared to defend not only yourself but also the previous four student speakers.  You learn to read and analyze and take more notes than you will ever need in your life, so that when the professor asks you to write a paper on what you just “learned,” you have some sort of material to make that paper magically materialize.

And, you ask yourself, is this really worth being in debt for the next 30 years of my life?  And, you answer yes.  Because learning how to eat pizza that is fresh, cold, not-so-cold, not-so-warm, reheated, preheated, soggy, and hard is definitely worth something.  But, the best advice you gain from a college student is this: if it moves, don’t eat it.  It’ s probably your roommate.

(Connect with me @baileyshawley, share this post on Facebook so your friends can see what you’ve been reading, or click to follow my blog as a fellow blogger or through email.  There are nifty little buttons below to help you.)