Monday, August 22, 2016

Keeping the flame of excitement burning

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio have come to a close, and what an Olympics it was for the United States!

The U.S. won medals of all colors, but in particular we won gold after gold. An American won the gold in the 1500-m run for the first time since 1908. Winning a medal, no matter the place it represents, is an incredible achievement and great honor.

During the Rio games, we saw athletes displaying way more than their athleticism. They also showed an incredible dedication, respect and love of their countries. Yes, some exhibited embarrassing behavior, but far more represented their individual countries well. Many winners shed tears on the medal stand during their national anthem. U.S. pole vaulter, Sam Kendricks, stopped in the middle of a full run through to stand at attention for our national anthem. And even Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter and fastest man in history, stopped an interview out of respect for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. It is heartening to know that through the Olympics, every couple of years, the world can come together and people of different nations can forget their respective differences.

Still, this year’s games are over. In some ways, I am glad – I am a complete Olympic junkie. It did not matter what the event was, I was going to watch it. Now that the last lap has been run, the last shot put thrown and the last floor exercise completed, it means I can sleep again. However, it also means we are back to “normal.” How will we handle that? Do we just forget the games happened? How long will the “glow” of the games continue?

As I was watching the closing ceremonies, the focus turned to the future and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think of our schools. The “glow” of opening day and the excitement of our new students was bright, and maybe still is for some. But invariably, as we get into the school year, that opening day “glow” will begins to dim. The flame of enthusiasm for a new school year burning inside our students and teachers may flicker and eventually be extinguished as the routine of homework, grading, teaching and learning sets in.

Our educators have a very difficult job, but I am going to challenge us, and I mean all of us including me, to remember the excitement from the beginning of the year. I am also going to challenge us to focus on the future as they did in Rio. Our future is a little different, it is not four years from now. It is this year. It is the focus on keeping excitement on learning and not on the stuff that can make our jobs feel like a job and not the honor that it is.

Finally, as we go through our year, I believe we will have a banner year in terms of our achievements. Those achievements do not come without three critical things in my opinion. First, no achievement comes without hard work.  Second, no achievement comes without commitment and focus. Third and equally as important, no achievement comes without the competitor (or educators and students in this case) being able to visualize their own success. If they cannot see themselves doing it, they will not be able to do it. We cannot let ourselves be so encumbered by everything else going on that we lose sight of the fact that all students can learn and we can teach them. We must continue to have high expectations for all.

So, have a great year. I am looking forward to working together to improve our system of education in Kentucky.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Dream

Ask any teacher this week if they’ve had “the dream” and most would say yes.

It all has to do with the start of the school year – the most exciting time of the year in so many respects. Whether it is the smell of new school supplies or the excitement around buying them; whether it is students wondering who their teachers will be this year; or parents knowing that yet another year is ticking away; it is a time of new beginnings.

My daughter loves back to school shopping and always has. She buys what she needs and often what she doesn’t. This year she is a senior and oh the excitement! She loves Kentucky and her school, which as a dad, makes me pretty proud. She and her friends have already planned a pep rally and what they will wear to the first football game.

This same excitement was evident on Sunday, as I had the opportunity to meet most of our wonderful students and their parents at registration for the Kentucky School of the Blind. They are so happy to get the school year started.

So, what does all of this have to do with “the dream” you may be asking? Well the dream for our students is generally wrapped up in the excitement of the new year and all the fun ahead. For our teachers and administrators, “the dream” includes that element, but also usually is symbolic of the large responsibility placed on their shoulders.

Seems amazing, but I have been out of the classroom for 13 years. Yet, I still have “the dream” about this time each year. For me, it starts with me teaching in my lab. All is going well, but a gradually increasing murmur begins in the back of my class and spreads across the classroom until all of my students are completely out of control and they are not paying the least bit of attention. They are running around and throwing paper and to my amazement not interested in learning science at all. At this point, I wake in a cold sweat.

The best “dream” or maybe I should say the worst “dream” I have heard lately was from a Lynette Ballard, a 6th-grade math teacher in Estill County, who told me her version. She and her math colleagues went on a vacation and crash-landed on a desert island. While rescuers saved them, they were taken immediately to the school. Their first day back after surviving this horrible ordeal was the day of the district walk through!

I have heard other teachers talk about "the dream.” For some they cannot find their lesson plans; they don’t have any materials; or no one showed up but them; and even some say they realize they left home without an important piece of clothing!

The pattern always seems to be the same. But why? My interpretation is that, as educators, we realize how important it is to be ready and prepared for our students. We realize that their future depends on our preparedness. It is that concern that manifests itself in "the dream." As with any profession, there are those who see education as a job, perhaps having lost sight of the fact that students are why we do this job, and some that are not prepared to do what must be done to better themselves and their instruction. But, I believe this is the exception and not the rule.

Most of our educators are excited about the new year, and realize that the future successes of our students rely on us to be great at our jobs. Each year we should strive to be better than the last, because our students need and deserve it. As educators, we dream our “dream,” so that our students can realize their dreams.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Making the Decision to be Great

As I watched the opening ceremonies and first few events of the 2016 Summer Olympics this past weekend, I was reminded what an incredible experience the Olympics is. 

In 1996, when the summer games were held in Atlanta, I had the privilege to work at the track and field venue. Through the athletes' eyes, I saw both the happy moments, and the moments of sadness and disappointment when things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. 

As we watch this year’s Olympics, we should pause and realize we are seeing greatness. The athletes pursue greatness in terms of medals, but also by dedicating their lives pursuing the opportunity to even participate in the games. The honor to represent your country is overwhelming. We also see greatness in the meaning of the Olympics. It is a time, once every four years, when the world puts its differences aside and comes together to watch and celebrate the hard work of thousands of athletes from across the world.   

So, what do we consider greatness in the world of education? What prompts us to "go for the gold?" Is it high test scores? Is it a school labeled Distinguished? Is it a well-rounded graduate ready for a life and who contributes to society? I suppose it could be any of these things, although I would say high test scores should never be the sole measure. Greatness in education, much like with the Olympics, is based on your point of view. 

In Kentucky, I have seen firsthand the greatness of our educators. Last week, I attended four opening day kickoffs for staff – something I had never experienced before, since my previous states did not celebrate opening day. The teachers in each district I visited were excited, even fired up, for the 2016-17 school year. They inspired me and have me fired up for the new school year. 

For our teachers, greatness is not simply test scores or the number of points they can help accumulate for the school in the accountability system. For them, greatness is embodied in the students they teach and the impact they have. 

In my opinion, what makes our educators great is the determination they have, so that instead of a student saying “I can’t” he or she says “I can.” It is their dedication that prompts a student to seek them out at the grocery store to simply say, “Remember me? I want to say thank you.” It is their care that results in a student who was into a bad scene turning her life around and sending a message on social media to say because of you, she was graduating with a degree in nursing. It is their persistence that results in a student, as he crosses the finish line in his last cross country race, lifting up his coach up in a giant bear hug as he whispers, “Thank you for never giving up on me.” It is a teacher’s greatness that prompts students to leave a note that says, “You will NEVER die. The things you have taught us in class and about life will be passed to our children and our children’s children. Your legacy is us, you will live forever.”

I realize to some, this sounds self-aggrandizing, given all we must do in education to close the achievement gap and provide a quality education for each child. Should we even think about greatness in education? Absolutely we should. 

Educators do what they do because of students. If things do not get done, it is because we lose sight of that. It is time that we allow our teachers to focus on that greatness. It is time for all Kentucky educators to be great. It is time for us, as an education community, to stop doing what we have a right to do and do what is right. It is time to be great! 

That’s right, greatness is a decision. Olympians make a decision each day to work hard in pursuit of a goal so that they can stand atop the medal stand and hear their national anthem. Educators make a decision every day they will provide their students the opportunity that will change their lives. It is time we all make the decision to be great. 

I dare you to be great. I dare you to put students ahead of the day-to-day issues that currently face us. I dare you to put student needs above a traditional approach to content. I dare you to put what is right for students ahead of the state test. I dare you to be a bridge for students that allows them to see a new horizon they have never seen before. I dare you to allow students to see themselves in a future they thought was reserved for someone else. I dare you to be great.

Opening day is here. Greatness is in our reach. Our educators inspire me, but more importantly, they inspire greatness. I challenge us all in education to seek greatness and make Kentucky education great!