Just got called out on Twitter by Eric Johnson @yourkidsteacher, blogger and educator extraordinaire! The challenge is a series of questions originated by Anthony Purcell at Random Teacher Thoughts. I love the collaborative feel of this challenge and am honored that Eric has selected me to complete the questions. I encourage you to go through the exercise and share it because reflection is a huge part of the work we do, and these questions frame that quite nicely for teacher or administrator.
1) What has been your ONE biggest struggle this school year?
I work in a large, urban school district that comes with many challenges of scale. I am a perpetual optimist and idealist so one thing I have really struggled with is differentiating between things I can control and things I can't control. When I can get into the mental space where I am focused on my own sphere of influence, I am much more successful and at peace. But it is a struggle and something I am always having to remind myself.
2) Share TWO accomplishments you are proud of this school year.
a. I am proud that on our gifted program blog we have been able to feature some student bloggers, who reflect on their class experiences. I love adding student voice to the blog and enjoy seeing more entries throughout the year.
b. I am proud of the many things my teachers have been able to accomplish. They have started new academic programs and competitions, seized opportunities to connect with the community, and set up high school academy tours so that middle school students can make important decisions about their academic career. I am proud to be able to support the teachers and equip them with what they need to do their work well.
3) What THREE things do you wish to accomplish by the end of the school year?
a. I hope to accomplish my Innovation Project, which is to create a community of TED-Ed Educators in Birmingham who are able to run TED-Ed Clubs and TEDxYouth events in their schools through the TEDxBirmingham Educator Fellow Program.
b. I hope to become more familiar with Google Apps for Education and equip my staff with the tools available. I would also like to help my team communicate and collaborate using Google tools.
c. We were able to acquire teacher laptops and some Google Nexus devices for our program for the 2015-16 school year. I would like to acquire more technology for the upcoming school year so that the gifted ed classrooms move closer to 1:1 access during class.
4) Give FOUR reasons you remain in education in today's rough culture.
a. I believe you can make the most impact when you are right in the mix of things, so for the time being I feel I am where I am supposed to be. Teachers have the most impact, so I think if I can help good teachers stick in the profession then I am helping.
b. If not us, then who???
c. There are a lot of kids out there whose talents are not identified or nourished. This is the loss of a great resource. We need to keep finding what students love, and using that to engage them in learning.
d. Even on the worst days I would rather do this than a corporate desk job.
5) Which FIVE people do you hope will take the challenge of answering these questions?
a. Jimmy Juliano- amazing teacher and TED-Ed Club facilitator (our clubs got to connect years ago and then I got to meet him in New York!).
b. Amanda Dykes- I had to hear about her from Midwesterners but she lives right here in my town! She is also one of the TEDxBirmingham Educator Fellows and I can't wait to get to know her!
c. Beth Sanders- Heard about her from Canadian Will Gourley. Not sure if she has a blog- but she should! Also a neighboring educator.
d. Della Palacios- I am co-blogging with her for our TED-Ed projects. Even if not a fit for her blog I would love to hear her answers to these questions.
e. Al Elliot- Also do not know if he has a blog but love his ideas and stories. He is a TEDxBirmingham Educator Fellow and speaker! I always love hearing his thoughts on Ed.
It’s month 2 of my yearlong experiment of month-long focus areas rather than a New Year’s resolution. In January, I consumed all things finance and had a major focus on savings to recover from the holiday spending spree. It worked and I am back on steady footing with my accounts. My fellow educators will understand, we get paid on the last working day of the month (Mid-December), and not again until the end of January. Each year I forget about it until those last weeks of January when I’m eating Kraft Mac & Cheese.
For February I will be focused on organization. I had other plans, but then my boyfriend proposed, decided to move in all his stuff, and now there’s a wedding to plan! Hurrah! So I have got to get some systems in place so I don't go completely mad.
There’s a saying “When the student is ready the teacher will appear”. No clue who to credit that to but it fits right now because as I was seeking podcasts and blogs I ran across Note to Self, and just this week they are doing a challenge called Infomagical! And it is magical. Each day there is a new interactive that allows you to clear some of the chaos from your brain by controlling technology and information consumption. Yesterday the challenge taught us how to apply the KonMari method to the phone screen. A little activity that makes a world of difference. I also turned off notifications, sounds, and badges. Today, I’ve diagnosed myself with the plight of the 21st century: infomania.
The term infomania is used to describe a sometimes debilitating feeling of "information overload", caused by the combination of a backlog of information to process (usually in e-mail), and continuous interruptions from technologies like phones, instant messaging, and e-mail.
According to the podcast, this is the curse of curious people! There is so much information in a constant waterfall, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory begging us to try everything, to click and click and click. So I am thankful to have a tool to begin organizing my brain. As for organizing stuff, I was an early adopter of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and spent days vertical folding and deciding whether or not things brought me joy. Some systems I set up were great, some a total flop. I am also influenced by The Minimalists, who, like Marie Kondo know that less is more. This month I will work on getting rid of the things I don’t need.
In February, I’ll be working on the organization of my things, my time, my projects, and my thoughts in order to have more space in my brain for the things that do bring me joy.
You didn’t get into this for the money. I know that. But I also know that money matters. It’s how you fund your aspirations and how you gain independence. Nobody wants to talk about money. It’s awkward—like talking about politics. But if you are a public school educator I could quickly find your salary based on where you teach . Are you Nationally Board Certified? Do you have a Masters? Doctorate? From these facts your salary is public knowledge. According to Payscale.com the average salary for all K-12 teachers is $44,439. We receive incremental raises, based on aging and the occasional higher degree (you can only get so many of those). If you stay in your job, you will plateau at your final salary level after 25-27 years.
In my quest to learn more about finances I’m fascinated by this idea of negotiating for a raise. It’s something that as long as I’m in education, I may not learn how to do. But I do think that as educators, we are worth so much more than we are paid. The value we provide to families and to society is immeasurable but you wouldn’t know it based on teacher compensation practices. This blog post won’t teach you how to negotiate your salary. Unfortunately that’s just not an option for most of us, and I couldn’t give you any good advice on salary negotiation in the first place. But the advice I can give you is how I wish I had managed my finances over the last 10 years in education in the hopes that you can avoid my mistakes, or join me in the late bloomer's club.
1) Plan for Retirement
As soon as you start teaching part of your paycheck goes into your Teacher’s Retirement System. You make decisions early on about how much you want to go in and then you never have to look at it again. This automation is nice, but it is problematic in that you don’t have to actively engage in your finances. You should know what you are contributing to your TRS and monitor it just as you would any other accounts. You should also look in to additional retirement savings you can contribute to. In Alabama, it’s the RSA-1 (a 457 deferred compensation plan) which allows you to make tax-free contributions to buffer your retirement savings. In addition, you should try to understand the vesting system in order to maximize the amount of money you put into your retirement.
2) Actively Monitor Your Finances
In Mint.com you can create accounts for your retirement, other investments, your paycheck, credit cards, and any other income or spending. This will help you manage all of your assets. It is also a helpful tool for budgeting and financial goal-setting. Nicole Lapin’s book Rich Bitch has some helpful tools for creating budgets and spending on the things that are important to you without guilt.
3) Manage your subscriptions
I learned this trick from Ramit Sethi’s book I Will Teach You to Be Rich. I cringe at the thought of how many subscriptions I let go unnoticed. Tiny things like that 3.99 subscription to streaming music or the one time annual fees can add up. In an audit of subscriptions I actually found a dating site subscription that was still on, 7 months in to a new relationship! The horror. Go through your credit card and debit card statement and make sure you are actually using those subscriptions, and determine whether there are any you can do without.
4) Find a side income
This advice comes from James Altucher's podcast: You can only save so much money. If I set out to save 1,000$ the most I can save is $1,000. But if I set out to make $1,000 that might just be the beginning. One of the best ways to set yourself up for financial success is to discover other sources of income. Passive income is the best kind, because once you have an available product and people are buying it from you it does not have to take up your time. The best tool I have found for educators to build passive income is Teachers Pay Teachers. You can create products that you can actually use in your classroom and that other teachers will buy! TPT is a remarkable innovation for our field, and I suggest that you set up shop and share your talent with the world, all the while being paid for it. You can also get paid for your expertise. I have many teacher friends that tutor, do adjunct work at local universities, or babysit. Do you like to write? Some education publications pay educators for their expertise, like Noodle.com, who has “Noodle Experts” that are compensated for their work. It’s time we step up and are paid what we are worth.
Finance intimidates me, but I believe that with the right teaching and learning, anyone can learn anything. So I’m playing catchup right now for 10 years of financial neglect. I am very fortunate to be brought up in a financially responsible family with parents who taught me to manage money, but I still have a lot of learning to do. One thing I’ve learned from reading about getting rich, is that being rich isn’t always monetary. It’s buying yourself the time and having the resources to make your dreams come true. Two of my favorite retired teachers are living the richest lives of anyone I know. One is a retired 3rd grade teacher who is a travel photographer in Paris. The other, a retired gifted education teacher goes on an annual archaeological dig in Bulgaria. A rich life is not beyond our reach as educators if we plan early, work hard, and dream big.
Each New Years it is so tempting to make ambitious plans for the year. Lofty New Years resolutions haven’t worked well for me in the past. I can’t tell you what last year’s resolution was because I likely stopped doing it in February or March. There is so much noise about how to improve yourself and our newsfeeds are filled with life hacks and productivity tips. We are bombarded with resources on how to live better and at this time of year there is pressure to make big goals and to stick to them.
This year I propose a new kind of resolution. For each month of 2016 I’m selecting a focus area. In this focus area I will set goals and actions around learning and improving myself in that area. For January I’m going to focus on finance. I spent a good deal of time in 2016 improving my financial literacy, creating budgets and long term planning. In looking over my post-holiday Mint.com trends I can tell that I still have some work to do. this month I will be learning more about managing my finances and sharing what I learn with you. Other potential focus areas could be: home improvement, organization, fitness, career, family. You will know what you need to prioritize.
Here are some ideas for getting focused on a specific area, and some action steps you can take to make the most of each month.
1) Learning: Reading books, listening to podcasts, taking a Udemy, Skillshare, or Coursera course
2) Measuring: Is there a number you can reach to create goals for yourself? For finance, that might be: Save x amount of money or make x amount of side income.
3) Habits: Is there something you could do each day or week that would help you improve in your focus area?
4) Accountability: Is there a friend or family member that you know is working on the same thing? Check in with one another along the way.
5) Journal: Keep track of what you are working on by journaling about it or keeping up with data (If you are working on time management, track your time for two weeks. For finance, see where your $ is going)
At the end of the month you will have learned something new and potentially created a new habit that will last throughout the year. You will stick to your resolutions without giving up on them because they will be manageable. 31 days is much easier than 365 days. I look forward to what we can learn together in 2016.
What if we had just one more day? We will in 2016, on Monday February 29. But what if you could get extra days every year?
In 2015 I discovered something that has saved me time: 1.8 days, to be exact. How do I know? Because my virtual assistant keeps track of that for me. Virtual assistants are most commonly used among small businesses and start-ups but they are increasingly available for just anyone—educators included!
What is a virtual assistant and what can they do for you?
Definition: A virtual assistant (typically abbreviated to VA) is generally self-employed and provides professional administrative assistance remotely.
What kinds of projects can they help you with?
1) Phone Calls
This is my number one favorite way to use the VA. It can be so hard to make phone calls during the day, especially if you’re teaching. For those calls you need to make to the cable company, to set up a hair appointment, car repair, to make a dinner reservation—they can do it for you! You can set it up the night before and your VA will call during business hours.
If you’re putting together a lesson plan, a professional development presentation, or writing a blog post your VA can research for you and save you some minutes that would be spent googling. I’ve also had them create handouts asked on Powerpoint presentations, or create Google Docs and forms for me.
Some Virtual Assistants can do shopping for you. If you’re in education you are probably invited to lots of weddings and baby showers! Your VA can order your gifts for you. They can also help you with your holiday lists or upcoming birthdays. I've even had them pull outfits from my favorite stores helping minimize my decision time.
You get the book club calendar, the board meeting calendar, or you’re told that you will meet on the 1st Monday of the month for faculty meeting. Your VA can put these events in the calendar for the rest of the year. Your VA can also communicate with others to find a mutually agreed upon time.
Spring break will be here before you know it! Start researching vacation rentals, flights, rent-a-cars for your trip. With your VA you have your own personal travel agent.
There are quite a few virtual assistants out there ranging from US-based or foreign-based, and ranging from personal to business use. The one that I use, FancyHands, is perfect for my needs, but you may find others that fit with your lifestyle, especially if you are an educator with a side business! You’ll find good reviews of the sites, and referral links at Virtual Assistant Assistant.
FancyHands works well for me because it is affordable (49.99 a month for 15 requests). You can also purchase more or less. With FancyHands you don’t have one dedicated assistant, but many assistants. The task will go to the first available assistant. They keep track of how much time they’ve saved for you, including how many calls they’ve made, events scheduled, emails, etc. If you are interested in FancyHands, tell them I sent you with this Link.
We all need help every now and then. Our work is challenging, sometimes unforgiving and your time feels like it is slipping away. Start taking control of your time by delegating- if not to a VA find other ways to free up your time for yourself. You deserve it. The time that you can save by delegating is time that could be spent curled on the couch watching Netflix, hiking, coloring, blogging, or whatever you fancy!
I am bad at saying no. Just look at my calendar and you can tell that when people ask me to do things, I say yes. Saying no is extremely important for maintaining work-life-balance. It is something I am working on and am by no means expert on it. When I've made some greater milestones in the area of saying no, I'll write a blog post about it. But for now, I'd like to explore the benefits of saying yes.
Several weeks ago I was talking about TED-Ed with an educator friend of mine who is working with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta. She mentioned that she would love for me to share what I've learned through the TED-ED Innovative Educator program with her teachers. It so happens that my project is to share TED-Ed, TED-Ed Clubs, and TEDxYouth with 500 educators. When she mentioned an Opportunity Fair for teachers on a weekend that I was free, I gladly accepted.
In the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday rush I did not pay much attention to the upcoming trip, and several days before I looked on the map to plan my trip. I was heading to Delta State University-Home of the Fighting Okra. My iPhone map placed it at 4 hours, 20 minutes away. And I was supposed to be there at 10 AM to set up. At that point I wanted to throw in the towel, call up my friend and tell her that an 8 hour trip was going to be too much and could I be excused from the program. But, because of my problems saying no and my even bigger problems with backing out of commitments, I decided to go, and I decided to make the most of it.
I convinced my boyfriend that he should join me, and that we should make a mini vacation out of it. At 5:30 AM on Saturday morning I wasn't sure he was going to make it, but he managed to get into the car. We arrived right on time and set up. During our time at the opportunity fair teachers who had never heard of the TED-Ed lessons lit up at the possibilities of using these lessons in their classrooms. We spoke with about 25 teachers, but each of those teachers is likely in a classroom with 25 students. So two hours with 25 teachers could potentially reach 625 students!
We had lunch in Cleveland, Mississippi at the Mosquito Burrito and were impressed with the small town, which seemed to have plenty to do thanks to the Keep Cleveland Boring campaign. After lunch we traveled north to Clarksdale where we checked in to our place. Due to an error on our part (booking the wrong day-oops!) the owner put us up in another, unlisted place that was set up like a Bed & Breakfast. It had all the charm of the Mississippi Delta, with juke boxes, artwork, and enough New Orleans Jazz Fest posters to make me feel at home. Although I'm fairly certain it was haunted.
We headed out to the sports bar, The Stone Pony to watch the Alabama v. Florida football game. Before we left for our trip our parents requested that we return with tamales. We had several recommendations for the same place (Larry's Hot Tamales) so we headed there for dinner and to collect the tamales to bring home. They were as good as everyone said they were. At this point we were sleepy but really wanted to check out Ground Zero Blues Club so we stopped by there on the way back to the house. We struck up a conversation with a couple who visits there every few years from Texas. The wife leaned over to me and said that she had just taken her picture with Morgan Freeman. I turned around and sure enough, Morgan Freeman was having dinner at his restaurant. The friendly couple next to us tried to get him in the back of this picture but to no avail- you'll just have to trust me.
This morning we headed in to town for Our Grandma's House Pancakes, some of the best I've ever had. Then we left the tiny town of Clarksdale and headed back home. If I hadn't said yes, and followed through on my commitment we wouldn't have seen this little corner of the world that is so fascinating, we wouldn't have had a celebrity siting, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to share great programs and resources with teachers.
While saying yes too much can be a problem, it can also create opportunities. You never know who you will meet or what doors your yes will open for you. This is a small example that only affected 24 hours of my life, but the yes phenomenon extends to larger life decisions, like when you are asked to consider a new project at work or in your city. These projects could create your next career move or introduce you to someone you will work with in the future. Whether you say yes or no, move forward without regret, and enjoy the surprises that come with your decision.
Here it is, the day before before the most insane time of year for educators—between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. December is especially hectic for educators. My guess is that it is something like tax season for accountants, or the holidays for those in the tourism industry. Why is it so stressful? Closing out all projects, tests, assignments by the end of the year. Preparing for all the holiday programs, making sure you’ve communicated with parents, inspiring kids not to lose steam in these last weeks. Trying not to lose steam yourself. You have a number of personal obligations as well. Party planning, holiday shopping, meal planning, decorating, and the list goes on...
At the tail end of this Thanksgiving holiday I’m reminded how very important is to take full advantage of every break you get. As an educator you do not have a very flexible schedule. Of course, you get all the major holidays and summer. Non-educators don’t realize how very little wiggle room there is in those other days, and how many teachers are working in their rooms or teaching summer school during the hot summer days. For both teachers and administrators it is often more difficult to take a day off than it is just to come to work and keeping things moving. So whenever you get those amazing days that have been gifted you by your District Calendar Committee, I beg you to take absolute full advantage of them. It’s not being lazy, it’s being smart. And it’s good for your students to have a rested teacher than a strung out one.
Here are some tips (inspired by my own behaviors this break):
1) That home project that’s been on your To-Do list for half a year:
When you have 3-4 consecutive days off you can really accomplish some of those tasks around the house that you’ve been meaning to do. To make the most of this time, plan ahead of time what supplies you may need or order materials online. That way during your break you’ll make the most of your time and the home project can be fun and relaxing vs. stressful. Here I am in the middle of a furniture project that I spent 6 months planning and about 5 hours actually doing, and it turned out alright.
2) Netflix binge:
I will admit that I am 6 episodes in to Jessica Jones and I only started watching it yesterday. Netflix binging during the middle of a workweek or even on a regular weekend can feel like a colossal waste of time, but on holiday I find it restorative! It’s an escape and can keep you in vacation mode, sometimes against your will. Some of us workaholics need that from time to time.
You know you’re an educator when you wake up at 7 AM and you’ve “slept in”. Sleeping is really important. On my first day of this break I kept falling asleep and I think that was just my body’s way of helping me not to get sick and to get as much rest as possible. Sleeping is always important but the holidays give you a time to really catch up on ZZZ’s that you may have been shorted throughout the year.
4) Time with Family & Friends:
Family and friends are what the holidays are for! So spend time with people wisely. When you’re with them, be with them. This holiday my family did the StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen. Instead of staring at our phones, we used them to record our family history.
Set up an autoresponder on your work email and then don’t look at it. This is not possible in all professions but it is fairly safe in ours. It’s not easy but it will help you to recharge. If you push your work emails to your phone, turn off that feature temporarily and then reload it when you return to work.
These are just a few tips on making the most of your breaks when you get them. I hope that this Thanksgiving you have rested to your fullest potential and you are entering this completely mad time of year with all the energy that it’s going to take to make it to the other side. This next little section of the calendar is a sprint to the longest break inside the school year. Let’s make the most of our work at school so that we can make the most of our lives at home.
At some point in your life, you made a decision to become an educator. You knew that you would be overworked and underpaid. You knew that you would have students who tested every bit of your patience. You knew that you would have parents that didn’t agree with you.
But you did it anyway. Despite the hard work, that student that was such a challenge is actually the one you will talk about for the rest of your career. The one you will be most curious about and the one whose parents tell you “If it wasn’t for you, he wouldn’t want to come to school.” You found that at the end of the day most parents are just trying to figure out what’s best for their students. You became a parent, and you understood. You made the decision to become an educator knowing there wasn’t going to be a whole lot in it for you.
Someone may have asked you at some point “Why are you a teacher? You could have been a doctor or lawyer.” What they are really saying is that you are too smart to be a teacher. Too smart to be in a profession where you would be lost in the crowd, where there is little reward or compensation, and where people don’t view you as a professional. Where people will tell you how to do your job, because they don’t trust that you can do it on your own.
Maybe you do want something more, for greater rewards or recognition, compensation, or to be promoted in your organization. You’ve only got one way to go: administration. You find that you are a little further away from students, which is why you got into it in the first place. Those moments from the field that keep you invigorated, the way students light up when they are excited about a subject or when they win the academic competition they have worked on all year, those moments become fewer & fewer the further up the ladder you go. You’re not as close to them, but you do get to see many more of them, and you can hopefully make them happen for more students, more often. Administrators, I hope that you lead teachers with your same passion that you can inspire, support, and empower.
We’ve got a lot of problems. Bureaucracy, lack of resources, lack of time, lack of support. Always lack. It’s time we flipped this deficit thinking of ourselves and think in terms of abundance. If we all carry around the weight of the whole system on our shoulders it’s amazing that we come to work at all. What if you had abundant resources? Abundant time? Abundant support? What if you could work beyond the constraints of the bureaucracy to be your fullest self? To reach your ultimate potential as an educator and as a person?
You’ve picked a profession that will leak into all areas of your life. It’s the paper you grade while you watch Scandal, but you put it down and have to start over because who are we kidding, it’s really hard to do anything while watching Scandal. It’s the kid you can’t stop thinking about because you could have done more to help them. It’s the professional organizations you’re involved in or the twelve committees you’ve been asked to lead.
I am writing this blog to give you back your time, to help you unlock the resources that are available to you, and to give you the tools to push through the madness to a place where you can reconnect to the reasons you made the decision to become an educator in the first place. It is my hope that you will find tools here that will help you move into a new career for yourself. One where you are empowered, supported, and can create the best possible education for your students and the best life for yourself. Despite the jungle of paperwork, committee meetings, emails and policies-this is still the best gig around. My hope is that together we can remember this on even the toughest days.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.