Monday, August 20, 2012

An Education in Education - Part II - Waving the White Flag

Mrs. Kniskern's Class - Fall/Winter 2006
Fourteen years after earning a B.A. in Elementary Education and reconsidering my career choices, I was given a second chance. Maybe I would end up using my college degree after all! Over the years, I had listened (all to often) to my parents saying, "It's such a shame that you decided not to be a teacher." I really needed a job too! The previous fall, Rob and I had finally bought a house on the water, never dreaming that the real estate market was about to crash and burn, and we were carrying two houses. So, I spent the summer of 2006 getting my credentials up-to-date, taking Professional Development courses, and preparing myself to teach Kindergarten. I'll admit, the thought of teaching Kindergarten did not thrill me - I had already learned from spending time in my family's preschool that little kids didn't seem to think they had to listen to me. Again, it may have been a size thing, but I preferred to (optimistically) think that once I was the teacher, everything would be different. Maybe being older, wiser, AND a mom would serve me well and help me to be a better teacher.

The week before school started that year, I had my classroom all set up, I had my first week of lessons planned, and I felt "ready as I'll ever be" to teach Kindergarten. Then, on Thursday of that week, the principal got word that she'd have to surplus a teacher due to low enrollment. I was the low (wo)man on the totem pole, so I would be the one to go. But, a new 1st Grade teacher, who lived far from the school, volunteered to take the surplus, agreeing to be moved to a school closer to her home. So, I still had a job, but not the job that I had spent all summer preparing for. Since there were more first graders than Kindergarteners enrolled for the number of teachers, I would now be teaching 1st Grade, not Kindergarten. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm not a fan of change, but I knew that I'd better learn to be flexible if I was going to be a teacher. So, in two days, I set up my new classroom, scrambled to write new lesson plans (thanks to my awesome fellow teachers), and got ready to meet my new first graders. I have to say, I had an INCREDIBLE support system at Norcrest. The teachers there were phenomenal and they helped me with EVERYTHING. I couldn't have done it without them.

We had just returned from a Kniskern family reunion in Hawaii, so my classroom theme was "The Spirit of Aloha" (a theme that has stuck with me and has become the basis for my blog). I wanted my classroom to be a place where everyone felt welcome, loved and respected. I really had a great group of students, whose parents were supportive and active in their children's education. I borrowed great ideas (that I had appreciated as a parent) from my fellow teachers who had taught my own children. Every Friday, each student went home with a weekly report including test scores, behavior, whether or not homework had been turned in, and comments from me. Parents loved it.

Thanksgiving Feast
As you can see - I had a lot of great parents!
I wanted everything to be perfect (this was probably my number one flaw as a teacher). I worked from the time I woke up in the morning to the time I went to bed. I'm sure plenty of teachers out there can relate. The first few weeks (especially) were tough. My anxiety definitely kicked in and self-doubt ruled.  With a lot of support from my fellow teachers and my mentor, Karen, by November, I finally found my groove and started to relax a little and enjoy teaching. The Spirit of Aloha permeated my classroom and most students seemed genuinely happy to be there. It was a blessing to see even my "lowest" students (some of whom barely spoke English) show progress and feel pride in themselves. Maybe teaching was right for me after all. 

As luck would have it, right about the time I started feeling comfortable in my role as a First Grade Teacher, fate stepped in. Norcrest Elementary's enrollment was too low to justify the number of teachers. There was nobody lower on the totem pole than me, so just before Winter Break, I would be surplused. They suggested that we wait until my last day to inform my students (and their parents). Dr. Nicholas (Norcrest's Guidance Counselor whose compassion really helped me through some of my darkest days) came into my classroom and told my students that I wouldn't be their teacher after Winter Break. I hadn't expected the reaction. Several students broke down and cried (some I wouldn't have suspected it from). I was very touched and felt so sad to leave them. I knew they would be in good hands with their new teacher, but many had come so far with me, it was hard to leave them. I promised that they would still see me around school, and I kept that promise by continuing my volunteer work throughout that year. 
My class LOVED to dance!
As the end of the school year rolled around, the principal approached me again, letting me know that my spot in first grade would be open again in the fall. Was I interested? Well, I still hadn't found a job. My house in Lighthouse Point was STILL for sale (nearly two years after we put it on the market), and we were planning to add on to our new house (if we ever sold our other one). Again, I said, "Why not?" 

In August of 2007, I moved back into my former classroom. A lot of my "stuff" was still there from the previous year, as I had left it for the teacher (who had moved down from 5th grade) to use. This year should be world's easier, right? I've done this before, I can do it again. I felt relatively prepared. Then, I got my student roster and all that confidence changed. I knew before school even started that I had a "challenging" class. By that I mean, several of my students had known behavioral issues. That, in itself, made me nervous and set my anxiety in motion. I tried to tell myself that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. They were, after all, Kindergarteners last year, and they may have grown up a little over the summer. 

My Classroom Library
Fall 2007
The first day of school came and from that day, I knew that (mentally and emotionally), I was in trouble. Don't get me wrong, I had some wonderful students in my class who were respectful and eager to learn, but I had a few who (it seemed obvious to me) didn't care and were happy disrupting the rest of the class. Classroom Management not being my forte, I felt like I had absolutely no control over my class. I had one student who constantly disrupted my class. He would  (literally) crawl on the floor from his desk to the pencil sharpener (keep in mind, this was a six-year-old) and once he got there, sharpened his pencil for a good three minutes. The same student broke every one of the crayons I had provided for him within the first two days of school. I gave him a second set, and he did the same thing. When I refused to give him a third set, he sat at his desk and wailed, "My crayooooooooooooooooons. My crayoooooooooooooooooons...." over and over for a good 15 minutes while I was trying to teach Math. I started documenting everything this child did in my classroom (like I had all the time in the world). Whenever somebody would come to observe him in my class, he behaved like a normal child. It was truly unbelievable. In addition to that student, I had another who I had to send to the assistant principal because the older brother of one of my students told me that the student had been cursing at his sister in the hall. When I told the child I was sending him to the assistant principal, his response was "Noooooo, Kniskern (that's what he called me!)! I promised my mom I wouldn't say those words again!" (Again, this was a FIRST grader!). Then, there was the student who arrived on the second or third day of school who would show up fifteen minutes late every day, who would sit in group time, curl up in a ball and cry randomly. Now, I'm as compassionate as they come, but how on EARTH was I supposed to teach a class? It wasn't fair for the children who actually wanted to learn. 

As I did the previous year, I had been focusing all of my attention on teaching, working from sunrise to sunset. I was exhausted and my nerves were completely fried. I felt like I had zero control of my class and I felt like a complete failure. I was barely sleeping and my anxiety had gotten so bad by the second week of school (yes, the SECOND week of school) that I was barely eating either. I was a MESS. Honestly, I felt like the living dead. I felt worse than I had ever remembered feeling when my anxiety was at it's high point. I was TERRIFIED that I would have a panic attack in front of my students. I decided to make an appointment with my family doctor, Dr. Cheatham.

How I felt by late August 2007
Now, I love Dr. Cheatham. He is not only a great doctor, but a great listener. He has always taken time to listen to exactly what's bothering me, be it physically or mentally. When I went to see him and he examined me and listened to what I had been going through, he told me that I seriously needed to consider changing careers - forever. He told me that stress is the worst thing possible for a person's health and that I was basically killing myself. I really hadn't expected to hear that. I went home and talked to Rob (who had seen what I'd been going through and the impact it had on my life). He agreed wholeheartedly with Dr. Cheatham. Although, we needed the money, he felt that it wasn't worth the stress that I was putting myself through. So, three weeks in to the new school year, I made the decision to quit teaching for good. I offered to stay until the principal found somebody to replace me, but it was decided that it would be best if I stepped out as soon as possible. She had me notify the parents that week at Open House that I would be leaving. That was probably one of the most humbling, humiliating things I've ever had to do, but I did it...and never looked back. 

Am I proud of quitting? No, I most certainly am not. I know that my decision to leave affected a lot of people - my students, their parents, my fellow teachers, the was HARD! It was probably the most selfish decision I've ever made, but I cannot say (honestly) that I regret it. Do I regret letting people down? Absolutely! But, did I make the right decision for myself? I most certainly did. To this day, Rob tells me that he truly believes that if I had continued teaching, I wouldn't be around today. He is probably right.

VocabularySpellingCityI didn't hate teaching. I actually loved teaching itself - the planning, the creativity, etc. I hated classroom management. I felt completely out of control in front of a group of little kids. Rob thought that maybe I would enjoy (and be good at) directing his family's preschool. Again, I tried it...I didn't love it (and didn't think I was very good at it). It all came back to managing others. I know that I can depend on myself to do things and do them right - I am not comfortable putting that into the hands of others. It's just who I am. While working at the preschool, I had applied for a job as a Content Manager for a company that had created a cool website called Now this job had potential! I could put my education, research and organizational skills to good use, and I wouldn't be in charge of a classroom! Unfortunately, I did not get the job, but a few weeks later, I received a call from the company asking if I would be interested in a contract editing position, writing sentences and definitions for the site. I accepted the job (knowing it was only temporary), and loved it. I was able to combine education (the parts I was good at) with editing (which I loved). It was like a perfect job for me!

Meeting teachers while representing VocabularySpellingCity
at national conventions is one of the best parts of my job!
After a few months, the project was coming to an end. I had shown enough initiative that the company offered to take me on as a regular full-time employee, if I was willing to take a customer support position. Customer support? I had little experience in that, but I do like helping people, so I agreed to give it a try. Turns out, I loved it! It was fun learning the ins and outs of and actually being able to help teachers make their lives a little easier! I gradually transitioned more into social media (which I love) and marketing (which I love less) with VocabularySpellingCity (as it's now known). I've had the opportunity to attend many conventions and conferences around the country. Of course I love visiting new places, but I especially love meeting and interacting with teachers who love the site and who share success stories of how the site has helped their students. It makes the teacher in me smile. 

To this day, I run into parents of my former students who tell me that I was their child's favorite teacher. It really is bittersweet. Just looking at pictures of my class that first year back brought back very happy memories. Even seeing photos of the class that I left (and I'm pretty sure this is the first time in five years I've let myself look at the photos) reminded me that I had some wonderful kids that year too! There is a little regret in knowing that I was never able to live up to my true potential as a teacher because my anxiety and self-doubt held me back. But just knowing that I touched even a few lives in a special way means the world to me. 

I know that I'm not alone in my struggles as a teacher. I have friends who graduated college with me who changed careers and are as happy as can be. I also know a lot of phenomenal teachers who are not only great at what they do, they truly love their profession. God bless them! They deserve all the respect and admiration in the world, and they've certainly got it from me! 

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy

Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Education in Education - Part I - Getting Lost on My Career Path

As a new school year is about to begin, I'm once again reminded of my short-lived teaching career. Teaching, for me, was one of the biggest failures of my life. Basically, I failed because I quit. Yes, I am a QUITTER. This is not something I am proud of...quite the opposite. My husband, Rob has always told me that I am my harshest critic, and that trait played a huge role in my decision to leave the profession for good, but it also made that decision a very hard one to accept. Although I think I ultimately made the right decision (for my health and sanity), I know that my decision let a lot of people down, and that is notsomething that I take lightly. 

1970s HoJo Waitress Uniform
Teaching was not my earliest career aspiration. When I was really young, if anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them that I wanted to be "a doctor, a nurse or a waitress at Howard Johnson's." Why did I want to be a waitress at Howard Johnson's? Honestly, I have no clue. I always did like the color turquoise and Howard Johnson's had those cool turquoise pointy roofs. I don't remember loving the food all that much (though I know that my mom was a huge fan of their clam roll). Maybe I liked the uniforms (though I can't imagine - found the lovely number at the right on eBay)! Now, a career in medicine would have been a brilliant idea. As a young child, I loved to read about the human heart in our circa-1968 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by the human body. I love watching Discovery Fit & Health - especially anything to do with unusual medical conditions. Why I didn't pursue a career in medicine, I'm not quite sure. Maybe it was the fact that Science (other than Marine Biology and Anatomy and Physiology) wasn't my thing. Chemistry was my worst subject in school, and I'm pretty sure that's an important one if one is pursuing a career in the medical field. It certainly would have been a more lucrative career choice!

I've always a little nerdy. :)
I loved to play "school" as a child. I would pretend to have a class in our garage. I had a chalkboard hanging on the wall that I would use to teach lessons. I'd even have a grade book and call roll. I wonder if my parents worried about the fact that I was constantly talking to a class of children that weren't really there. In school, I was always a good student, often getting straight A's (in everything but P.E. (shocker) and maybe Music). I was definitely a teacher's pet. I LOVED to help my teachers grade papers, prepare art supplies, etc.

As I got older, I started to get more into art and photography in high school. At that time, I really thought I might like to go to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and study Graphic Art or Photography. My parents did not support my decision. I was an 'A' student and they insisted that I go to college and get a four-year degree. That meant I needed to redirect my ambitions. I'd always loved to read and loved to learn, so I figured that teaching might be a good career path for me. (Obviously, at this point in my life I had completely blocked all of those years that I dreaded going to school out of my mind. Had I stopped to consider this, my life may have gone in a totally different direction.)I really only applied to one school (Florida Atlantic University) and not only did I get accepted, I earned a full scholarship. 

Me & Mrs. Bolte
She was an AMAZING teacher!
As always, I worked hard and graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Elementary Education and a 3.8 GPA. I enjoyed planning lessons and using my creativity to make the fun for kids. Even upon graduation, though, I was leery of teaching. I had completed my field experience at two of the toughest elementary schools in our area (during my first field experience, the teacher asked me if I thought one of the (5th grade) students might be pregnant!). I did my student teaching at Norcrest Elementary under the guidance of an absolutely wonderful First Grade teacher - Mrs. Bolte. She was phenomenal and taught me so much about how to be a great teacher, but even then, I had my (self) doubts. I vividly remember losing the battle of wills (with myself) and having tears rolling down my cheeks while trying to teach a math lesson (all while being observed by my college supervisor.) Nothing was going right and I couldn't hide my disappointment in myself. In spite of that, my college supervisor gave me a wonderful recommendation. Clearly she saw something in me that I did not see. After graduation, I began searching for a teaching job.

In the fall of 1992, teaching positions were almost as hard to come by as they are today. As the new school year approached, newly married to Rob (whose business, KMC Marine, (see link at right - shameless plug), was struggling to get off the ground), I knew I needed to find a job, so I decided to try substitute teaching. Oh. My. Word. WTF was I thinking? On the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, I received a call from the automated (and soon to be DREADED) "Sub Finder" system that I was needed to teach a fifth grade class at Norcrest Elementary (where I had student taught). FIFTH grade? I was intimidated by first graders! Keep in mind, at the time I was all of 5'2" and 91 pounds. I was terrified. But, I took the job (and honestly hated every second of it). Because I had no choice, I continued subbing through the end of the year. I subbed everything from Kindergarten (which often had me in tears in the Teacher's Lounge) to a horribly-behaved fourth grade class (the teacher repeatedly requested ME as a sub because she thought I was doing such an awesome job). Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure I was developing an ulcer and the early seeds of anxiety and panic disorder were taking root in my psyche. Don't get me wrong, I was a good substitute in the fact that I followed the teachers' lesson plans (if they were kind enough to leave me any), I'm organized (to a fault!) and I always left a detailed report of the day. When it came to classroom management/discipline, though, I was terrible. I think the straw that broke the camel's back was having a student that I'd sent to the principal (yes, I actually did that - ONCE!) for constantly being disrespectful and disrupting the class I had been subbing all week, return to class (with the principal) eating candy she had given him. Oh, HELL NO! Thanks for the support, Mrs. K...I'm DONE! By the end of 1992, I realized that pursuing a career in teaching had been a HUGE mistake. People tried to convince me that subbing is very different from having one's own class and I should just hang on. But I  had  lost all confidence in my teaching abilities. My heart was no longer in it and I felt like a complete failure. 

Following a brief stint as a receptionist for a company in a very "questionable" business (when shipping people fail to return to work with no further contact, color me suspicious), I landed the job that changed my life. For the next 13 years, I worked as an Assistant Editor, then Associate Editor, then Editor for reference-book publisher, Omnigraphics, Inc. The anal-retentive perfectionist had found her place in the world! :) Although I started my editing career working on business reference books, I eventually transitioned into travel reference books. I LOVED researching cities - their history, attractions, quality of living, etc. It was fun, and the best part was, I was able to work full-time FROM HOME. I probably would have been happy doing that forever, but the Internet quickly made reference books all but obsolete, so thanks to cut-backs, by 2006, I was out of a job.

By now, the economy was on the downslide and jobs were hard to come by. I volunteered at my kids' school (Norcrest Elementary, where I had done my student teaching and subbing what seemed like ages ago) and really enjoyed it. At the spring Volunteer Breakfast, the principal (who knew that I had a teaching degree) told me that she had an opening for a Kindergarten teacher in the fall, and asked if I'd be interested. Hmmmm... I needed a job, I LOVED volunteering at the school, loved my kids' teachers, and I figured that, now that I had my own kids, maybe my classroom management skills would be better.  Why not? What did I have to lose? (Oh, just my mind, my health, my dignity...) 

To be continued...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sixteen Candles

Ahhh, Sixteen Candles is the name of my favorite movie of all time. I still know every word to the dialog by heart and still love watching it. At the time (although I was only 14 when it came out), I could absolutely relate to the story of a high school girl who had a crush on an "untouchable" senior (in my case, it was Clayton Montgomery, the place kicker on the Pompano Tornadoes football team). I was that girl as a freshman (Sam was a sophomore). The most important difference between the movie and my life is that Sam got the guy...I did least not that guy (nor any other guy until I was a senior myself (and, uh, he was a sophomore)!)

My first car
My Sweet 16
My baby girl is turning 16 in just a few days and I can hardly believe it. I think back to where I was at 16. I was a junior at Ely High School (wishing I was a junior at Pompano Beach High School - read on...). I had been working at Kay-Bee Toys for a few weeks already with several of my best friends. I didn't have a boyfriend, but I'm pretty sure that I had crushes on at least four guys whom I would never have a prayer of dating. But, I had great friends, a great family, and a sweet black 1983 Toyota Celica that my dad bought me for my birthday with the condition that I'd have to learn to drive a 5-speed. Incidentally, it was actually my sister, Melanie who taught me how to drive it - my poor dad couldn't handle the frustration of dealing with a 16-year-old girl who kept stalling the car. ;D One thing that has always stuck in my mind is the fact that on my 16th birthday, I was picking up my birthday cake from Publix (surprise) and the cashier said to me, "Your life is going to fly by from this moment forward." I didn't believe it, but it was 100% true. Where DID the last 25+ years go? I have no idea. 

My sweet baby girl
The last 16 years have certainly gone by in a flash. This time 16 years ago, I thought I still had a month to go before I became a mom. Alana had other plans! She was headstrong from Day One. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it. Her determination even prompted me to sing the following lyrics to the tune of 'The Macarena':

Screams like a banshee 'cause she don't wanna
Sleep all night like a big iguana.
When it's time to feed her, you better wanna.
Hey, it's Alana!

At seven weeks, she developed colic
Cried so much, made her mom an alcoholic.
Gonna buy her a a one-way ticket to Botswana.
Hey, it's Alana!

Mrs. Tarney and her "assistant"
In spite of many sleepless nights early on, I did love my baby girl! :) She was such a sweet girl! Sometimes when I look at Alana, she morphs into the five-year-old who insisted that she was her Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Tarney's assistant. She has always been too smart for her own good. I remember going to Kindergarten Round-Up at Norcrest Elementary when she was still in preschool and asking the principal about the Gifted program. He looked at me as if I was "another one of those Lighthouse Point moms who thinks her kid is a genius" and told me that most kids don't qualify until at least third grade. The first few weeks of school, Alana's teachers knew that I wasn't blowing smoke. Miss Alana had a little something special. She was tested and qualified for the Gifted program as a Kindergartener. I'll never forget her first "presentation" before a group of parents and teachers at the PTA meeting. She got up in front of the crowd like she owned the place. The principal (who had previously questioned my perception of Alana's abilities) looked at me and said, "Wow! If she's like this now, you're in trouble when she turns 16!" Yes indeed, Mr. Vesey. Yes indeed.

One of my favorite pictures!
Truth be told, Alana has never been a problem. She has always gotten good grades (she is currently a straight 'A' student and I hope that she can maintain her GPA with a full load of AP classes AND a job this year). She makes the most of tough situations. Two years ago, she was one of only a few kids who did not get into Pompano Beach High School. Admission is based on a strict lottery system, so in spite the fact that she had straight 'A's and 5s on her FCAT, she couldn't go to PBHS.  At first, she was upset. I was devastated. This was the high school from which I should have graduated, had the school board (including our current Property Appraiser who is still sticking it to me nearly 30 years later) not voted to close the school in 1985, following my freshman year. My mom graduated from Pompano High, HER mom graduated from Pompano High, I SHOULD HAVE graduated from Pompano High and I really wanted Alana to have a chance, but luck was not with her. (Perhaps because her mama was born on Friday the 13th?) In true Alana fashion, she gracefully accepted the situation and willingly agreed to at least "try" the Broadcast Communications Magnet Program at Deerfield Beach High School and reapply for Pompano High in the winter. You know what? She LOVED DBHS and never wanted to try and get into PBHS again. She really enjoys the magnet program and is doing great - she's going to be the Managing Editor of the school newspaper her Junior year! Ironically, some of her friends who did get into Pompano High have changed schools because they weren't happy - some even go to Deerfield High with Alana. :) 
Always my little mermaid

Alana has never really been in any serious trouble. She has been...let's say..."on the outskirts" of bad situations, but she has always made the right decision, even when her friends may have made the wrong ones, and for that I am eternally grateful. It really proves that she is a leader and not a follower, which brings me to the number one trait that I admire in my daughter: an incredible sense of self esteem. 

Alana has been self-confident from the time she was a little girl. She has never been afraid to get up in front of a group of people and speak (I would still be terrified). She has always been confident making her own decisions (I will question myself till the cows come home, make a decision and then be convinced that I made the wrong decision). Although she has battled her weight for most of her life (as I did in my adolescence), she's never let that hold her back. She has been working very hard, trying to eat healthy and exercise, and she has lost weight and gotten much, much healthier. But she knows that she is just fine ANY way she is. A couple of weeks ago, she told me that she was going running with her friend. I asked her if she was going to be able to handle it (it was in the 90s with 95% humidity and I, for one, am not a runner). She looked at me and said (gesturing to her body), "Do I not look fit and fab?" As if to say, "Mom, REALLY? Come on!" I LOVED it! :D I often think that if only I possessed that sense of self-esteem, I really could have gone places! ;)

Alana's first car
In just the past few weeks, several of Alana's best friends also turned 16 and got their driver's licenses. Suddenly, our chauffeur duties are starting to lighten up. Just like my parents did for me, Rob and I bought Alana her first car for her 16th Birthday. Thanks to a  little help from my parents, she ended up with a very NICE car - a red 2009 Volkswagen Jetta that she named "Ariel" after the Little Mermaid. (Incidentally, I suggested "Joan" and she was not amused.) She's been driving it and getting used to the feel of her new car. She loves it (the night we drove it home she told me that the car is "literally perfect.") and I love seeing her so happy! On August 13, she will take her driving test. Rob and I wonder once she has that new bit of freedom if we'll ever see her. Probably not much...

Birthday Princess - Age 2
Do Alana and I always get along great and agree on everything? No, we most certainly do not! Alana's (extremely) loose interpretation of "clean, neat and tidy" drives me crazy. I've learned that, "I WILL!" often means "I have no intention of doing that, so I'll just put it off in hopes that you will forget and stop asking me to do it." We tend to get snippy with each other from time to time (as most females do). But, when it comes right down to it, my Alana is beautiful, she is strong, she is smart, she is self-confident and I'm so proud to call her my daughter. 

I love you Lani K! May your 16th Birthday be the sweetest so far and may every birthday after be even sweeter. I love you! <3 

With love and aloha for my girl ~ Nancy

My beautiful 16-year-old Alana
(with Devin Oliver of 'I See Stars')