An Open Letter to Teachers (and those who love them)

Dear (overly tested subject) teacher, 

How are you?

February in Texas was a rough ride. And, I’ve been thinking about how to support you.

I’ve been thinking about the most meaningful thing to write about this month every day to add to the writing resources and ideas for supporting teachers of writing and writers themselves. 

And, every day at work, while supporting and working with teachers of writing, I am reminded of the requirements 
and pressure 
and tests 
and training 
and intervention plans 
and meetings 
that are required of teachers in overly tested subjects… it is endless. 

What do teachers of writers need right now? 
And, what do we offer to an overworked writing teacher in the way of instruction to help them get through testing season? 
What can we do differently for students to help them get through the end of one of their most challenging years of school? 

These are the questions that have been antagonizing me for months and I still don’t have answers but I figured this month I would write this open letter so that maybe at least one other educator feels a little less alone in this struggle to support teachers and, ultimately, writers. 

Like many others, I have found myself saying or doing things I never thought I would have to say or do. And, I have found myself at a total loss for how to process a problem fast enough to help add to the solution. And, throughout my conversations with teachers, these have been running themes in the experiences of others as well because we are all so used to having solutions to predictable problems. I anticipate we have all found ourselves saying or doing things this year that we never thought we would say or do and we should be able to share what those things are. But, many times, when I ask a teacher “How are you?”, I know I am typically only getting a partial truth or a total ruse of happiness. So… I figured I would go first and reflect on my struggles and realizations as an ELA Instructional Coach. And, hopefully they will resonate with you and perhaps inspire honest conversation amongst teachers of writing and those who support teachers.

Technology isn’t everything.

The mad rush at the beginning of the year to figure out how to do virtual learning set us on a path to focus on how to use a huge amount of technology in a very short amount of time. And, while some were already teaching at 1-1 campuses or district with a well-established LMS in place, many were not. 

Last minute decisions 
and changes 
and implementations 
and distributions set us on a path for a landslide of technology for months to come. 

Everyday, we were inundated with 
new tech tools 
and updates 
and programs 
and error messages 
and temporarily free accounts.

And, everytime we got something new it felt like a solution, just to turn around and see something newer and better being promoted for student engagement. If I have learned anything this year when it comes to technology, it’s that instruction has to come first. Technology is wonderful but there is no replacement for what we do with our students and the love that we pour into everything we do. And, if we start with the love of writing and keep the end goal in mind, technology can return to where it belongs, as a means–not an end. Technology isn’t everything, we are–students are.

Timing is everything.

I am actually a lover of technology, but if the timing isn’t right to introduce a new tech tool or strategy, then it’s useless and just plain overwhelming. This probably isn’t new information, but what I have learned is that timing is also relative and depends heavily upon perspective. Simply because I am ready or think teachers or students are ready for something different or new, doesn’t mean they are. Once again, not rocket science, but something I feel like needs to be said and something that I had to re-learn amongst all the pressure to use and promote the latest technology with teachers and students.

The pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” this year is all too real and magnified because of the plethora of options. And, while no one has all the answers or solutions for virtual, hybrid, or socially distanced in-person learning, it’s easy to feel like everyone else has the answers. It’s easy to feel like a new tech tool will solve our problems, but the reality is that good writing instruction and good teaching hasn’t actually changed. Timing has always been an important part of instruction but, since the pandemic changed everything and we have relied so heavily on technology to connect us with students and each other, it has been easy to forget that WE are the most important part of what actually connects us with students. WE are the ones who engage students–not tech tools.

Ask “How are you? and be ready to listen.

This has been one of the hardest things to do this year. The listening hasn’t been hard; it’s asking the question “How are you?” when you regrettably know the answer is likely to be negative. But, we have to keep asking because of the conversation that comes next. There have been several occasions in which I have avoided asking how someone is because I feel like I already know the answer. And, even though timing is crucial, I regret the times that I didn’t ask people how they are and really mean it and really wait to listen to their answer… or ask them again: “No, really, how are you doing today.” 

On the other side of the token, I can’t even begin to count the times that I didn’t answer the question honestly when I was asked, “How are you?” There is a large part of me that feels that if I answer the question negatively then I am somehow taking away from the space for teachers with my feelings. And because we are always focused on the students, it is natural for teachers to keep their stress to themselves to make room for the needs of students. On the other hand, pretending like nothing is wrong and promoting an environment of toxic positivity is something I know we have all tried hard to avoid. And, while we only have another 9 weeks to go, I hope you keep asking this question and keep answering it honestly because that is the only way we are going to make it through to the other side of this school year. 

Having ‘grace’ doesn’t mean giving up your principles.

This is an important conversation for us to have with our colleagues because the word ‘grace’ has been thrown around all year as if it is something measurable. At what point does having this immeasurable ‘grace’ infringe upon our principles as educators? This is a question that is difficult to answer but an important step in establishing our boundaries as educators as we attempt to finish a year that felt impossible and unsustainable for a long time. All year, teachers have been providing extra time, slowing down curriculum, showing amazing flexibility, and redesigning instruction to meet student needs all while keeping up with administrative demands. 

And yet, many have been told that they need to keep giving more grace. Honestly, what does that even mean? If it’s really about providing opportunities for students to be successful, educators are on board for that. If it’s about saving the administration and district from scrutiny on state test scores or failure rates, not so much. If we are going to ask teachers to have grace for our students, we have to have grace for teachers. 

And, it has to come with something tangible: 
plans
and collaboration
and teacher voice
and risks.

Saying “I have no idea” is a sign of strength and an invitation to collaborate.

I think I have said and heard “I have no idea” more than any other phrase this year. Usually in response to questions like, “How do we get students to talk? How do we differentiate? How do we provide grace with accountability? How do we do this?” And what I have realized is that everytime I say “I have no idea,” that’s not how I am looking to end the conversation–it’s how I am looking to start the conversation. And, when I hear someone else say it, I take it as “let’s figure it out.” In so many ways, we are starting over while somehow also getting back to basics simultaneously and it is stressful to say the least. Our ability to admit when we don’t have the answers is the best way for us to find them–together. 

Ultimately…

Each one of these items isn’t just about supporting teachers, they are about supporting students and supporting writers. And, as we move into testing season and into the last leg of this marathon, I hope that these items stand as a reminder for what we can focus on as we seek to support each other and our students. I hope that maybe you’ll re-ask someone at least once “No, really, how are you doing?” and wait as they decide how to respond and maybe tell someone else how you are really doing when they ask at least one time when you really don’t want to or when you think there is no space for your problems. I hope that the next time that ‘having grace’ is the topic of conversation, you’ll ask: “What does that mean? What does that look like” and stand firm in your principles as an educator because ‘having grace’ is not about preserving the reputation of the school–but about giving student’s opportunities to be successful. You also deserve this grace and opportunity to be successful and I hope that, if you are not getting it, you let the powers that be know. And, I hope that the next time you feel like you have “no idea what to do,” you’ll voice it with an invitation to collaborate.

b l m face mask

Thank you for reading, I look forward to hearing how you are doing, what you’ve learned, and what supports have been successful for you this year.

Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =) Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake, on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters, or email me at starian.porchia@allenisd.org. At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own.

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