Friday, December 21, 2012

Governor McDonnell, Keep Guns out of Our Schools

Dear Governor McDonnell,

During a recent radio interview, you suggested arming and training school officials so they could respond in the event of a school shooting.

Unfortunately, your idea is misguided on two levels: it would not increase school safety and it conflicts with the very essence of why we teach.

Police officers have received countless hours of training and must constantly retrain to be recertified. Educators don’t have the training or the time for training. Our time would be better spent attending professional development to ensure we meet the mental and emotional needs of all of our students so they don’t become violent offenders.  Lacking the training, it would be far too easy for an angry student to wrestle a gun from a school official. As an educator, I don’t understand the intricacies associated with confronting an intruder. I don’t comprehend the dangers of crossfire or when deadly force should be used.

Looking at research about the availability of guns in homes for self-defense, we know that they are significantly more likely to be use for unintended purposes. I don’t want to read about an educator who erroneously shoots an unarmed, but threatening, student. We’ve all heard of suicide by cop, do we want this replaced by suicide by principal? (Teen suicide is the 3rd leading cause of adolescent death and for each completed suicide 25 are completed, we cannot make suicide 'easier'.) GovernNor do I want to read about an administrator who turns the gun on him/herself, a co-worker, or god-forbid a classroom of students.

Even if principals are willingly trained and armed, many recent mass shooters have been armed to the tilt with automatic, high-powered weapons and/or protective gear. Arming an administrator would simply make him/her the first target of a focused intruder leading to more gunfire and more death.

To the second issue, carrying a weapon in school conflicts with why I chose to teach. I entered teaching because I wanted to matter. Everything I do matters. I expand knowledge. But before teaching the mind, I must reach hearts and souls. I try to make the world a better place.

Carrying a firearm directly conflicts with why I teach.

Governor McDonnell, your suggestion of arming educators is defeatist.  Instead, we must proactively prevent these events through better mental health solutions—not to mention gun training and regulation.

Governor, your reaction was based on an unfortunate stimulus. Your suggestion reeks of desperation and helplessness.  Instead, we must consciously respond based on our values.  We must commit ourselves to improving our ability to provide the necessary mental and social services to our students. Instead of creating maximum-security schools, let’s make schools places of peace, harmony, thinking, and happiness.


Reed Gillespie...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Positive Referrals

Two years ago, when I first became an assistant principal, I instituted positive referrals, an idea that I unabashedly admit to stealing from Todd Whitaker and others. The premise behind the referrals is simple, I asked teachers to recommend any student who demonstrated Courage, Character, or Citizenship, which are the three principles on our school’s shield. 

Every other Thursday night, I bake some brownies in preparation for calling the students who received the positive referrals to my office. When beckoned to my office, I’m sure the students’ hearts race, trying to figure out what they could have done or witnessed. Upon entering my office, I explain to the student that he/she has received a positive referral for demonstrating courage, character or citizenship. Sometimes, I ask the student to identify what they did to receive the positive referral or which teacher “referred” them. Overwhelmed and confused, many students ask me to repeat what a positive referral is. Others have no clue what they’ve done to deserve a referral. 

After discussing the positive referral, I use the opportunity for some one-on-one conversation and offer the student a brownie. (Side note: this round of positive referrals, 3 males turned down the brownies, but all the females did accept one. In the future, I’ll be sure to have some fresh fruit.) Finally, I tell the student that I’d like to call their parent(s) to express my gratitude.
Several students have asked me not to call because they’d rather share the referral with them. Others, including one student, who is a frequent flyer to office for disciplinary reasons, have asked me to prank their parents. 

“Hi, Ms. Thompson. This is Reed Gillespie. I’m an assistant principal at Kettle Run and I have John in the office with me.”

[Silent Pause]

“I’d like to put you on speaker phone so John can explain what he did.” (further delaying the inevitable)

“Mom. I got a referral.” 

“What for this time?”

“Well I don’t know how to say it.”

“John! What did you do?!”

“It’s a positive referral. I told Mr. Gillespie about a girl who posted some suicidal stuff on Facebook”

As John’s mom fights back the tears, “I’m so proud of you.” She continued, “I know you’re such a good kid with such a big heart…”

My relationship with John and the students who have received positive referrals have improved dramatically. I’ve had students shed tears of joy. Others use the opportunity to express their gratitude towards the teacher who “referred” them. An unintended consequence—and I hope I’m not jinxing John—but he’s yet to receive a “real” referral since then. 

After getting over the initial shock of receiving a phone call from an assistant principal, they express their gratitude and appreciation. “It’s so nice to hear from a school for something positive.” “That’s great that you take the time to recognize students for their good deeds.” “She’s a wonderful person and I’m so glad that the school recognizes this.” 

Recently, I’ve used the opportunity to solicit feedback from the parents on how we an improve Kettle Run High School. 

Finally, I know the referrals positively impact the relationship between the teacher who wrote the referral and the receiving student. Teachers tell me that the students enter class the next day, thanking the teacher and sharing how his/her parents received the news. 

The simple act of writing a positive referral improves teacher-student, teacher-parent, student-parent, and parent-school relationships. A simple investment with great pay-offs. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Lesson I Learned From a Sleeping Student

During my early years of teaching, I had a student (I’ll call him John) who often put his head down in my class. I had cajoled and spoken to him too many times to count, when one day as soon as class began he began to sleep before the tardy bell even rang. The nerve! I went over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder and flatly stated, “You need to stay awake.” I turned my attention to beginning class.

As the students worked on their bell ringer, I began to take attendance. By the time I had gotten to John’s name, he was already dozing off. How was that possible? I had spoken to him less than three minutes ago.

As a relatively novice teacher, I was furious. I took it personally. I walked over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder. No response. I leaned down to him and whispered, “You have work to do.” Again to no avail. My frustration mounted. Many of his classmates were now watching. As a young teacher, I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let a fifteen-year-old show me up.

I knocked—maybe even pounded—hard on his desk.

He shot up! In one fluid motion, he pushed his books off his desk and shouted “Leave me the **** alone you ****!”

Any eyes that weren’t on us before, now surely were. I was stunned. Silence came over the room.

I stood speechless as he stormed out and slammed the door.

I’m sure I stumbled over my next words as I tried to regain my composure and the class. I was furious that a student had just cussed me out, but I knew I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me (although in hindsight, they already had).

I managed to teach the next portion of the lesson before I stepped into the hall to confront John. John sat on the floor, curled into a cocoon. Stunned, I searched for words, “John…”

He looked up, tears rolled down his face. I stood speechless. How could he go from this maniac who just cussed me out to a timid, fear-ridden young boy?

Changing tactics, I bent next to him. “What’s going on?”

“Mr. G. I’m sorry. I’ve had a horrible night. I shouldn’t have cussed.”

I paused. Again, unsure of what to say.

John opened up, “Last night my mom’s boyfriend was over. They started arguing. My younger brother and sister were scared. The argument grew worse and worse.”

He continued, “He started beating her. Right in front of us! We're in the kitchen and they were in the living room. I tried to pretend not to be scared. But my mom was crying. My brother and my sister were crying. I didn’t know what to do. I just held my brother and sister. I held them tight. I took them to my room.”

“My mom’s boyfriend, he’s such an ***. He's drinking. My mom’s crying. Everyone except him is crying. I’ve talked to her about him, but she says they love each other.”

I stammered, “I’m sorry.”

“He yelled at her all night. He beat her up good. My sister and I never fell asleep. All three of us cuddled up in one bed for the entire night. My mom didn’t get up in the morning to send us off to school. I was scared to check on her when I left. I did though. She got beat up good.”

“John, I’m sorry. Let’s go to guidance.”

Another teacher, walking towards the teacher workroom, crossed our paths and asked, “Everything alright?”

Immediately I experienced an epiphany. If only I had started off the class by asking John, “Everything alright?” 

The entire confrontation would have been avoided, but more importantly John would have known that I was there for him.

Instead of my unwieldy attempt to demonstrate power, I needed to open up my heart and soul.

I had succumbed to thoughts of revenge, when my thoughts should have been of compassion and mercy.

As teachers, before we reach our students minds, we must reach their hearts and souls.


John, the guidance counselor and I spent the remainder of the period talking while the teacher who passed me in the hall covered my class.

Social services and the police were contacted.

Over the remainder of the year, John and I had an uneasy relationship. If I saw his name on the absentee list, I worried. I’d check with the attendance office and if they knew nothing, I’d call home.

In class, I tried to comfort John; to be there for him. He never opened up, and I never  pursued/pushed the issue. I told him many times that I was always there for him and would talk whenever and wherever. He never took me up on the offer.

Sadly, I don’t know what happened to John and his family. During the summer, they moved to another county.

I doubt I positively impacted John’s life, but John forever changed my approach to teaching and to life. To this day, I wish it were the other way around.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Educators Can Learn From Gordon Ramsay

What can we learn from Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares?

Watching the BBC America version of Kitchen Nightmares one morning, I asked myself, “Why do I watch this show?”

I don’t watch a lot of television and I don’t like most reality shows, but for some reason I’m drawn to Kitchen Nightmares.

Then it hit me; Gordon Ramsay is in essence a teacher with high expectations. He expects and accepts nothing but the best from everyone.

After a brief conversation with the restaurateurs, Ramsay sits down for a meal—one that he will undoubtedly rip to pieces. This initial meal serves as a pre-assessment, enabling him to accurately assess the kitchen’s strengths and weaknesses.

After eating, Ramsay interviews the staff, soliciting feedback on the restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses. Their frankness and honesty often brings the owners to tears, but the information gleaned from the process enables Ramsay to further pinpoint what he needs to teach.

Most every episode includes a kitchen inspection that invariably reveals a disgusting and unsatisfactory kitchen. He emphasizes the importance of organization and cleanliness; much like a teacher who teaches, emphasizes and models organization. 

Within the first 30 minutes of the show, Ramsay has accurately assessed the wait staff, the cooking, the management and the infrastructure. As a teacher, he can’t just go to each restaurant with a uniform blueprint for success. Each restaurant is unique. Instead, Ramsay differentiates based on each restaurant’s needs. Like a teacher, he must meet the restaurant where they are and progress from there.

After the initial assessment, Ramsay tailors his instruction to meet the restaurant’s needs. Often, one of the first things he does is simplify the menu. Much like teachers who narrow their instruction to ensure mastery of key material (depth over breadth), Ramsay takes a multiple page menu and whittles it down to one page to ensure the kitchen can get each meal perfect.

Like great teachers, Ramsay insists on the restaurant’s best. He implores chefs not to serve anything that does not meet minimum standards. When a chef says, “The rest of the meals [for a table] were being sent out. We needed to send it out too.” Ramsay goes off.

His message: only serve your best, accept nothing less. Do your best or don’t do it at all.  Redo the meal until you get it right.

This message resonates with teachers. We cannot accept anything but our students’ best efforts. If we focus only on performance, that is getting the meal/assignment done, the restaurant or teacher is cheating its customers or students.  On the other hand, restaurants and teachers with a mastery orientation constantly seek to improve their competence. Restaurants and classrooms with a mastery orientation will constantly improve because people will believe they have control over their learning.  

Ramsay maintains high standards and strives for perfection. As educators, we must do the same.