Executive Survives as Substitute Teacher in Elementary School

November 2, 2016

For those who have been following my blog as a corporate executive stepping into the Texas public education system, I continued the journey by selecting my first elementary school position posted as a fifth-grade math/science substitute.  I have always held the belief that a parent’s best parenting abilities have a sweet spot that matches a certain age of a child.   As I reflect on my own parenting life phases, I believe I am a great parent for teenagers.  I understand teenagers and know how to connect with them in a way where they will listen and consider thoughts and alternate ideas. I believe my secret is in how I communicate with them, trying to remain judgmeelementary-schoolnt free, helping them see the longer-term impact of their short-term decisions, and empowering them to make the best choices.  I know that parental orders and demands are just manipulative tools that might get immediate compliance from a child but do not build sustainable values and better decision-making that will carry forward into adulthood.   The teenage years bring stress and fear into the lives of most parents, but not me, younger children with wild impulses and underdeveloped frontal cortexes are my most uncomfortable parental stage.  Now, I have chosen a classroom full of these youngsters.  Bye, bye, middle and high school kids, it is time to embrace the elementary kids and find out how the public education system is serving their needs and shaping their minds.

My substitute teaching assignment was for a half day in the morning.  I walked into Martin Elementary* about 25 minutes before the start of my assignment to check in with administration.  When I do not have the opportunity to debrief with the regular teacher, I like to arrive a bit early to review the sub instructions, which helps me to have command of the class activities before the kids enter the classroom.   My first indication of the school’s disorganization was when the main office did not have a sub sign-in sheet ready and my daily schedule was not available.  This was uncharacteristic of my previous sub assignments.  What was the morning plan?  When did classes start and end?  Where was the roster for attendance?  The administrator said she would bring a roster to my room and gave me a key to unlock the trailer which served as my classroom.  She handed me a map, pointed to the classroom, and left me to find my way.    After locating my classroom door, I walked into a double wide trailer disaster.  Two bathrooms stood in front of me dividing one side with 10 computers in various forms of disarray, partially empty bookshelves with books scattered over the floor, and disheveled cabinets half opened with contents on the ground.  The other side of the trailer had a one piece U-shaped desk formation with about 4 individual desks haphazardly placed within the classroom space.  The teacher’s desk and printer area was a disaster with paper and various stuff.  I walked over to the teacher’s chair which was littered with three jackets and sweaters.  I had to move them so I could sit down.  I had never seen such chaos and disorganization in a classroom before.

I searched for the sub instructions on Mrs. Valdez’s* desk and found a stack of crisscrossed papers with several yellow sticky notes scribble with unclear instructions and 24 popsicles sticks with numbers.  The instructions referenced using the numbered sticks for 20-minute rotations between with the computers and working through the worksheets.  Counting the number of papers, it looked as if there were only enough for one class.  What were the other classes supposed to do?  I also signed up for math and science and all these papers where grammar and language arts.   Was I in the right room?  I thought I would be covering 4 periods in this half day.   Considering the instructions, number of papers, as well as lack of roster and class times, I was baffled and concerned.  At that moment, a woman walked into the trailer to give me two permission slips for two named kids when they arrived.  I asked whether she could help me.  “Sorry, but I’m just an administrator,” she said, “but maybe one of the other teachers in a trailer across the walkway can help.”

I immediately knock on the door of another fifth-grade teacher and introduce myself and my confusion.  Mrs. McFadden* took pity on me and followed me into my classroom.  She took one look at the instructions, shook her head, and said, “If I were left with these instructions as a sub, I would be panicking right now.”  She said what I thought.  She first told me that this class was different, because all the kids stayed in the classroom the entire day, except for large group (physical education, art, music, etc.).  She said I had to escort them to gym first period and then I would have my free planning period.   I now realized the paperwork would get the one class through lunch.  Whew! I needed to rotate the kids in 20-minute intervals on the computers, but what were these sticks for?  Mrs. McFadden said, “I have no idea what the sticks would be for.  Just decide how you want to rotate them.”   She was very annoyed with Mrs. Valdez, because thi was not the first time that subs had been stranded and confused, which makes the school look bad and hurts their ability to get subs.   She and other teachers had complained about Mrs. Valdez, but she said administration looks the other way.  Mrs. McFadden highly encouraged me to give online feedback about this assignment with the hopes that the administration would listen to me and act.  Oh boy, put in the middle of education politics.

With strategy in hand, the kids started to arrive and someone from the main office brought me a student roster.  The first student to arrive was a tall, African American, and cheerful girl who greeted me with a big hello.   Then she walked out of the room.   More kids arrived, and they began eating, talking, and playing.  I introduced myself and asked them questions to get to know them.  I talked a little bit about my trip to El Salvador to drill a water well to bring clean water to a school.   They were fascinated and could not believe that kids did not have safe water.  Then, the first period bell rang, and I closed the door to the trailer.   First, I took roll, and when I called out Amy*, all the kids said she was in another teacher’s classroom.  One of the kids added, “Amy always has to go to another teacher when we have a sub.”  I realized the first girl to arrive was Amy, because she was no longer in the classroom.   After roll, I explained their assignments and the morning process.  I asked whether they had used these 24 numbered sticks before.  They replied that they each had an assigned number and knew theirs—no sticks required.

First period I walked the kids to gym, and on the way, I met Mrs. Peters* who was the fifth-grade rotating paraprofessional (para).  She explained to me that Amy was pulled and should never have come into my classroom.  She is not mean-spirited or a trouble-maker but jacks up the kids.  Subs cannot handle her, so she is always removed.   Mrs. Peters told me Amy might come into the classroom during a break, and if she does I am to tell her to get out, and if she does not leave I am to pick up the phone, press the # key, and the principal will come to remove her.  Wow, ok, I have my orders.

When I returned to the trailer, Mrs. McFadden and her co-teacher, Mrs. Smith, pulled a cart into my trailer to get supplies from the cabinet.  They were gathering materials for a group project on sedimentary rock.  I asked whether I could help them.   They politely declined, but talked about going outside to pick up acorns, leaves, and dirt.  I responded that with a free period I was happy to help, and they took me up on my offer which gave me the opportunity to get to know the teachers better.  I found out that Mrs. Smith used to teach at Bloomfield* Middle School, where I previously substituted as a LIFE Skills teacher, and she thought she would go crazy based on the kids’ behavior.  She transferred to this elementary school and was much happier.

As first period was ending, I walked to the gym to escort my class back to their room.  Hopping and skipping over to me as I stood outside the gym, Amy proudly announced, “I’m packing up my things and coming over to your class.”  My calm response was, “Amy, I was told you are not allowed in my classroom, and I will have you removed if you show up.”  She replied, “But, Mrs. Watkins, the principal, said I could.”  I responded, “Unless I hear it from Mrs. Watkins directly, you can’t come with us.”  Mrs. Watkins walked over and explained that Amy promised to be good and asked whether I would allow it.  I’m laughing inside.  I am the sub, and you are asking my permission whether a kid can be in my class.  Mrs. Watkins then added that Amy would be punished and have her cell phone taken away at home if she did not behave.  Any issues with Amy and I was to immediately pick up the phone to call the principal to the trailer.   I turned to Amy and said, “Amy, you have a choice today.  You are completely in control of your behavior.  You can choose to have good behavior.”  Amy said, “I will be good.”  And off we went to class.

One of the single desks at the front of the room was Amy’s.  Obviously, she needed to sit by herself and not in proximity to the others.  Another kid, Raymond*, had a timer on his desk, and a third boy, named Charles, was dyslexic, which explained why he did not want to do his work.   After I handed out the first paper, I explained they were to return it for the second, and so forth.  I started to call out numbers, every other number starting with odd, so kids could go to the computers for those assignments.  Those that remained at their desk immediately started to break out food from their lunches.  I was told by Mrs. McFadden that the kids eat breakfast in their rooms, but this was a little much.  When Mrs. McFadden came into the trailer to pick up a printout, I asked about the food policy.  She gave a disapproving look around the classroom and said, “Mrs. Valdez always lets them eat during class.  The other teachers only allow a snack at 11 am.  I would just let them do it.”  Obviously, the teachers do not approve of Mrs. Valdez’s structure and schedule.

A few kids were focused and methodically working through their worksheets.  Those I rewarded with more computer time.  Many kids wanted to converse with me, and despite their intelligence would not focus on their work.   Mrs. McFadden also confirmed that Mrs. Valdez allowed her class to take off their shoes and walk around in socks, so Charles, began kicking sneakers around like they were soccer balls.  I had to sternly say, “We do not kick shoes in the classroom like soccer balls, sit back down and do your work.”   Raymond just sat for an hour eating and not touching his first worksheet.   The kids complained that the articles they had to read and answer questions were too long and boring.   Casey at the bat?   My response was, “Life is not easy or fair and working through assignments you do not enjoy helps develop the discipline you need to get through life.”   Heads went down towards the paper for a few more minutes of focused effort.  Amy stood up and walked over to the computer area to look over the shoulders of others.  She was not disruptive in terms of jacking the kids up, but just struggled to focus on her work.  When she did her worksheets, they were accurate, but it took her awhile to focus.   I estimated that half the class could focus and the others were either unmotivated or had stunted attention spans.  Constant gentle reminders and re-direction on boundaries and compliance was all I needed.  I used more words than I had planned, but the kids listened when corrected.   I was having no real behavioral issues at least compared to my expectations, and I thought Amy was a delight to talk with and behaved well.   The kids kept saying, “Will you come back and sub again?  You are the best sub we have ever had.”  I asked, “What is it about me that makes me your favorite sub?”  They said, “You don’t yell at us.  You talk to us.”   Yelling was a common theme I have been hearing.  Why are subs resorting to yelling?

Fast forward to 12:15 pm when Mrs. Valdez knocked on the trailer door.  I opened the door, and after she took a few steps in, she spotted Amy in the room.  With big wide eyes, Mrs. Valdez said, “What are you doing here, Amy?”  Amy came running up and told her the principal allowed her, because she promised to be good.   Mrs. Valdez turned toward me for confirmation, and I acknowledged with a nod, and then Mrs. Valdez hugged me.  She turned to Amy, hugged her, and said, “I knew you could do this. I’m so proud of you.”  Amy was ecstatic to be acknowledged.  After Mrs. Valdez and I debriefed, I announced to the class that I was going to handout 4 Golden Passes (school money for treats and privileges).   I gave the first one to Amy, because she completed all the work and her behavior was good.  I then handed out the other three passes to those who had also completed all their worksheets.  The kids were excited to be acknowledged.  They all told Mrs. Valdez that they wanted me to come back.  She turned to me and said, “If you see any of my sub assignments, I would love for you to take them.”  As I was leaving the classroom, I waved goodbye and said I would see them again.

So, what were any new thoughts about public education from my elementary experience?

  • The friendliness of the teachers towards subs is specific to the school and its culture. I felt welcomed and included, although the disorganization was initially a bit unnerving, because I have high expectations in being the best sub possible.
  • On an individual basis, teachers can do a better job preparing their subs with instructions. This not only benefits the sub who will be more inclined to take jobs but also allows the sub to carry out the teacher’s plans.
  • The kids are controlling the schools and the teachers/administration is using bribery (Golden Passes) and yelling/threats to illicit good behavior from students.

My experience with the older students in this elementary was positive, although I am gravely concerned in how they are raising and rewarding our children. Children spend about 8 hours or half of their waking lives in the school environment.  Putting academic knowledge aside, the schools are shaping the soft skills of our children and how they will interact with the world as adults.  Stay tuned for my next elementary sub experience!

 *Names have been changed to protect personal identities.

For those interested in my other public education blogs visit:A Day in the Life of a Middle School Substitute Teacher;  From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher; What Can An Executive Learn From A Middle School LIFE Skills Classroom?

Church-as-Business: Visioning, Missioning, and Equipping

Many pastors, missionaries, and laymen understand the Kingdom power held in the relationships of church-on-mission or business-as-mission.  However, many fail to acknowledge the power that can be unleashed when churches embrace the concept of church-as-business.  In fact, the concept that a church would be run like a business may feel unnatural, uncomfortable, and even sacrilegious to some pastoral heads and laymen.

wcom-emblem-2016-11-03People love church-on-mission, because the idea gives them a warm, fuzzy and satisfying feeling of doing good, being charitable, and aligning with the mission of the Gospel.   Most Christians think of mission as helping people in need, servicing the poor, making disciples, showing Jesus’s love, and preaching the Bible.  The concept of mission conjures up serving locally or through short-term mission trips across the globe.   Churches readily partner with missionaries, providing regular financial and prayer support to people who are called into full-time mission.  Churches extend their congregations’ reach by investing in those who are called to be the hands and feet on the ground.   In more recent times, the concept of business-as-mission has grown in awareness and popularity, as churches realize the Kingdom impact of helping third-world families and leaders develop sustainable businesses that bring economic health to impoverished communities.  The goal is to give someone a hand-up versus a hand-out—give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will feed himself for life.  Therefore, churches are sending teams into third-world countries to teach business skills and sometimes providing micro-loans with the hope of helping men and women start or improve their business acumen, build sound business plans, and grow their enterprises.

Church-as-business provides a third, yet important side of the triangle—a side that has been overlooked and missing from many churches.  Inclusion of church-as-business can propel church growth.  Why the general taboo in thinking of churches operating as businesses?  I have only theories.  One theory reasons that with most pastors and church administration educated in theology—not business, marketing, operations, and finance—they lack knowledge or exposure to understand the value of business principles at play within the church.  Another theory, is the cultural taboo associated with church and business—people should not talk about religion in the workplace, so perhaps the backlash is they do not talk or associate business with church.   A third theory is the preconceived ideology that church and business are compartmentalized enterprises with nothing in common.   Faith followers operate in businesses Monday through Friday, sometimes on Saturday, and Sunday is reserved for church service and other religious and social activities.  Our culture supports the separation of church and business based on old Biblical standards such as honoring the Sabbath, Blue laws and practices of not talking about religion at the workplace.

I contend that churches and businesses have more similarities in how they work and what they want to achieve than people may want initially to admit.  If my argument rings of any truth, churches can flourish by embracing many of the best practices identified, deployed, and further refined by businesses.  Although the product manufactured by a church may be different than a business, the strategy and processes are fundamentally the same.  With churches commissioned to grow disciples and businesses chartered to increase revenue/profit, churches can learn best practices in new business development from successful businesses.

For those who are not yet convinced that churches can learn from the business world, the table below defines the structural and operating elements which are unarguably similar between them with the only significant difference the output.

Focus Area Church Business
Enterprise Purpose Grow disciples Grow revenue/profit
Human Capital Members/Pastors Employees/Management
Compensation Salary/Bonus/Reward Paycheck/Bonus/Incentive
On-boarding Process Membership Classes Employee Orientation/Training
Human Capital Deployment Service/Discipling Job Responsibilities
Finances Tithing/Expenses Sales/Expenses
Infrastructure Church Facilities Offices/Plants/Warehouses
Consumers Community Members Customers
Marketing Sermon Series/Missions New Products and Offerings

Do you see the similarities in the building blocks and processes between a church and business?  Many churches, just like businesses, grow and then lose traction, slow down, and in some cases, go bankrupt.  Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Rainer, 2014) estimated that healthy churches account for only 10% of the church population, 10% are dying, and 80% are sick or very sick.   Rainer (2014) studied churches to uncover what makes certain ones thrive and what are some signs that a church is sick or dying.   Key signs of sickness include a congregation’s attitude that the best days are past, decline in worship attendance, programs and ministries which focus on members rather than outside the church, and no true sense of disciple-making.  Busyness and activity replaces meaningful purpose.  With these sobering statistics, I would expect a church to have an on-going self-evaluation process and focus on implementing best practices.

Don’t these key signs of sickness sound familiar to when a business struggles?  Employees adopt a bad attitude, unmotivated employees frequently call in sick, management becomes increasingly focused on retaining employees with programs and rewards to the detriment of its customers.  Employees lose focus on the business purpose and cultivating customers.  Businesses grow through innovation and a customer focus through knowledgeable, aligned, and motivated employees who understand and believe in the business vision and purpose.  They know their role in the organization and how they contribute to the goals.  Churches attract members when they focus on serving others, making disciples, and living out the mission of the church.

On the other hand, businesses suffer as customers leave and take their purchasing-power elsewhere; churches suffer when members take their tithe money and time to another church or at worst use it for personal consumption.  In the business world, studies run the gambit to identify and quantify the impact of best practices.  What can churches learn about best practices from these business studies?  Although an internet search would likely provide handfuls of articles on best practices, I have my own list cultivated from my more than 30 years working and developing new product lines and businesses.

Leadership cannot lead unless they can define and clearly articulate for its employees and members the purpose and direction they plan to take the company or church.   First, leadership must develop a vision and mission statement as well as define the operating values that support the purpose of the church.   The vision must be detailed enough that it differentiates itself from other churches and provides a clear sense of direction for its members.  On the other hand, the vision must not be too specific that the boundaries constrain how God wants to empower and use its members.  Just as God designed individuals with specific spiritual gifts, so too has God breathed life and gifts into various churches to accomplish a purpose.  In my opinion, the weakest mission statements are those which are “motherhood and apple pie,” which deliver a feel-good message that no one can argue with and which appeals to everyone who passes through its doors.  An example would be “Making disciplines who are making disciples.” No one would disagree that should be a job assignment of every Christ-follower.  However, I expect with this vision many members would not feel equipped or understand how they will achieve that mission.  They do not even understand how they will know if the church is achieving its mission.  With so many questions, people feel left to their own devices and at worst never become truly engaged in the church’s vision, just taking from the church what satisfies their curiosity and spiritual need.

The vision and mission are critically important so people can make an informed decision to join the church, because that vision/mission resonates with them.  The church should set an expectation that all are welcome where they stand and will grow spiritually by supporting the defined vision and mission.  All churches cannot be all things to all people.   Better for a church, which is functionally its members, to define how God has called them to serve in this fallen world.  Churches are most effective when they can define what fits and what does not.  The vision/mission becomes the referee on how they will direct their resources when bombarded with endless opportunities and demands.  What would be a solid and compelling vision and mission statement for a church?  If I had to describe what I would be most attracted to as a Christ-follower, below is what I would be called to join.

Vision

Build a transforming Christian army to love the world as Christ loves all

Mission

Coach leaders to crush their limiting beliefs, love who they are, and discover their identity in Christ.  This mission will be accomplished through the following:

  • Self-exploring to identify lies that are holding back personal identity and service and replace with the truth
  • Driving on world service in ways that show Jesus’s love to others and honors personal spiritual gifts and talents
  • Meeting people whether they are in their personal spiritual journey and providing information and encouragement to purse Christ as their personal savior
  • Developing and encouraging future world changes to organize and move out in service

 

The above vision/mission is detailed, yet flexible enough to move in many directions.  Visitors would have a clear understanding of what the church stands for, how it operates, what they could expect from the church in terms of support, and what would be required of them.   Hopefully, it would inspire versus confuse them!

The second most important church practice is to assimilate its members who are the human capital that fuels the outreach in the community and grows the church.   Many churches have a bunch of social and crisis-intervention programs for the congregation that attracts membership.  Caution!  All these services can be beneficial to support the rough spots in the lives of its members as well as attract others to Christ in the process, but leadership must be canvasing the landscape to ensure a healthy balance of services with their mission.   An imbalance can be a sign of a sick church.

Many churches host membership classes for those who are interested in learning more about the church or becoming members.  These classes typically provide a history of the church, explain what it is doing in its community, ask one to be part of the church, and then want to sign one up to a life or small group.  I believe a more sustainable method of attracting members is to provide the full landscape and plan, explain what the church expects of its members, and then explain how the church will partner with them to contribute.  Share the story that they are part of the story to create change and make an impact!  However, the message cannot be held at a high level.  Sell the story with enough granularity that they can see themselves as part of the team or solution.  Once they see themselves part of something bigger than themselves, the church can equip them or convince them they are equipped for action.  When people feel part of a mission bigger than themselves and buy in emotionally, their resources of time and money will follow.   Their excitement builds.

Many churches may successfully develop their vision, mission, and values, but fail to equip the congregation.  As in business, many strategies have been dead-on best in class, but the execution fell apart, and management blamed the strategy for failure.  Churches are not immune from the same malady.  Visioning and missioning is tough but relatively much easier than execution.  Visioning takes a finite amount of time and culminates in a final statement—it has an end; whereas, execution is an on-going fight for growth.  The process is fundamentally endless, and leadership may tire in trying to keep the execution ball moving forward towards the pins without it going into the side-gutters.

Many pastors preach from the pulpit on what is required by the congregation to meet its vision and mission.  First, there are requests, then more forceful pleas.  No one in the congregation disagrees, but they fail to act.  Using the former mission statement example of Disciples making disciples, everyone would agree that is an important vision for any Christian church, yet despite the pastor’s encouragement, the majority sitting in the pews feel ill-equipped to have conversation with non-Christians about their faith and Jesus. This post-modern world does not provide an environment conducive to Christians sharing the Good News with non-believers.  Most Christians are uncomfortable discussing their faith even if it means the church body does not grow (Rainer, 2014).  Carter (2012) found that despite 80% of Christians feeling equipped to communicate their faith and believing they have a personal responsibility to share the Gospel, greater than 60% have not shared the Gospel even once with a non-believer in the previous six months. Some have never shared their faith.   These studies make the case that churches need to empower their members (employees) and provide tools, ideas, and perspectives that allow them to be more comfortable in talking about their faith and overcoming the barriers of inaction. Soul Whisperer (Comer, 2013) is a must-read for the current age.  Comer’s (2013) message breaks the long-held paradigms of evangelism and introduces more relevant coaching for Christians to share the Good News.  Build a relationship, start where they are and not where you are, read what they need, and show them how God is helping you now, are all powerful ways to share the Gospel.

In addition to discipleship, members can grow in their spiritual walk by serving others.  When someone asks me, “How can I find myself,” I have one and only one answer.  “Go serve.  You will find yourself in serving.”  Therefore, churches should have a variety of outlets for service.  By service, I do not necessarily mean greeter, parking guide, worship and service child provider.  Although these are important functions and membership needs to help with these services, the church should have service opportunities outside of the church that are aligned with the vision and mission.  These options should focus at a minimum within the local community, because this is the source of your new membership.  However, if the church’s mission supports a cause such as sex-trafficking or orphan care, the outreach opportunities should have no boundaries.

Does the church offer members a spiritual gift inventory?   Are there opportunities for members to apply them?  As the church grows, leadership should empower individuals and teams to carry the torch on various initiatives—similar in how businesses launch project teams with internal sponsorship oversight.  Success stories should be shared from the pulpit as a means of stimulating the quest for service.   Members are the lifeblood of the church, they are the church, and empowering them in a way to bring in new members by serving in their communities and sharing the Gospel is what the church should focus on.  Do we need another sermon from the pulpit to add to our knowledge or just encouragement to learn Jesus through serving?  Too many times I have heard, “Just one more Bible study and I’ll be ready to serve.”    We are all equipped to serve in one way or another exactly where we stand.   Our stories of service are our most powerful tools and what we use to harvest and feed ourselves.  Instead of being a spectator in the pew, be a world changer in the field.

Next, I will discuss my business thoughts in building a personal church brand and marketing.

References

Carter, J. (2012). Study: Most churchgoers never share the gospel. The Gospel Connection. Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/study-most-churchgoers-never-share-the-gospel

Comer, G. (2013). Soul whisperer: Why the church must change the way it views evangelism. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications. ISBN: 978-1-62032-183-6.

Rainer, T. S. (2014). Autopsy of a deceased church: Twelve ways to keep yours alive. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing.  ISBN: 978-1-4336-8392-3.

World Changers on Mission

Excerpt from Sandra Dillon’s LWI El Salvador 2016 Mission Journal (November 2, 2016)

I typically write my closing journal entry several days after returning from mission, so that I have time not only to unpack my bags but also the messages God shares with me during the week.   Although I know God uses my hands and feet on the ground to serve, I am also to receive.  God did not disappoint.   I believe he put all the pieces together for me starting from my journey to Kenya in 2013, Haiti in 2014, Honduras in 2015, and then Kenya and El Salvador in 2016.  Besides these short-term mission trips, God placed on my heart Shine Crossings and World Changers on Mission (WCoM).  At the end of 2015, God closed the door to my employment at TPC Group and opened another door for me to attend Liberty University full-time to purse my second Masters which is in Human Services Counseling, Life Coaching.  God made this all possible by bringing Darin into my life as a soulmate, supporter, and now financial leader of our home, so I could walk through the threshold and into the calling God has for my life.  God has a plan, and I am living it!

Two years prior, God told me to watch for the Cross laid over the Star of David.  Well, the corners of that star started to take shape about 6 months ago.  God gave me the vision of the first triangle with corners of church (people), mission (developmental service), and business (enterprises).   After my trip towcom-emblem-2016-11-03 Kenya in early 2016 another inverted triangle started to take form with dignity (in service).  This trip completed the other two points of this triangle which are equipped (where we stand) and connectivity (God has no borders).  So, when you put the two triangles together you have the Star of David.  When I stepped into the Tabernacle Church in El Salvador and saw their emblem, the message was that Christ covers it all.  The puzzle is complete.  I believe when God told me to look for the Cross over the Star of David, he was telling me that he had given me everything.  It is done! Now go!

I will be honest.  I’m a bit scared.  Not scared of failure, but just scared, because it is just so overwhelmingly big.  Therefore, I remind myself again of TD Jakes’ message at the Global Leadership Summit (GLS).  If you can accomplish your dream on your own, you are not dreaming big enough.   I am also reminded of the bracelet that God encouraged me to buy just weeks before mission—FEARLESS.   Dream big!  Fearless! And fear less!  I better embrace it all, and as I like to coach others and must take my own advice—just MOVE!  GO!  Have no fear, God is with you always.

What Happens When Middle School Students Are Asked To Self-Reflect?

November 8, 2016

For those who have been following my public classroom observations and stories, this former business executive continues to be amazed by what the public education system is not developing or inspiring in our student body.  These students are ourschool-blackboard-jolly future leaders, and quite frankly, I am worried about who will be making decisions about our country and its policies when I retire in 12 years.  Why am I worried?  Well, I accepted a substitute assignment as a 6th grade ELAR (English, Language Arts, Reading) teacher at the same middle school where I had previously served as a LIFE Skills teacher.  Although I enjoyed learning about the world of special needs, the experience naturally did not give me an accurate perspective of the average student population.  Hence, I stepped into a normal middle school classroom for a deep dive.  Wow, the students’ reactions to the various curriculum activities revealed how the system is cultivating academic robots who are trained and rewarded to learn and regurgitate information in excess so that natural self-reflective thinking paralyzes them.  The classroom focus seems to be more about controlling behavior than it is about learning.  You may think I over-exaggerate, but alas I do not.  And the story goes…

I arrived for my full day assignment 25 minutes before the first bell.  When I entered Mrs. Whitmore’s* classroom, it was extremely neat and organized, and I appreciated that she had left a 3-ring binder with detailed instructions, seating charts, and handouts.   As I read the day’s agenda, she helpfully listed the behavior-challenged students in each of the classes and gave strict instructions to send them to the Assistant Principal’s (AP’s) office if their behavior was not appropriate.  She had zero tolerance for bad behavior and wanted a list of those who acted up, because she had warned them of an automatic d-hall for bad behavior with the substitute.   Mrs. Whitmore had an all-day in school planning meeting, so I would see her at the beginning and end of day.  I had ELAR blocks (2 periods) of on-level, above-level, and then on-level students through the day.  As I scanned the rosters and seating charts, I noticed that each class had about 20 students who sat in table clusters of 3-5.  Very manageable I thought to myself!

Even in middle school, the teachers have a reward/punishment system.  Mrs. Whitmore let me know that I had the authority to dispense rewards in the form of school blue bucks which give special privileges.  In addition, she had developed her own in-class reward system with blue raffle tickets.  These reward methods incentivized good individual behavior.  She also employed a third reward system for good team behavior.  On the blackboard for each class, she had five hollow squares that made room for printing the word J-O-L-L-Y.  As the class demonstrated good behavior another letter was added.  With bad behavior, Mrs. Whitmore would erase a letter.  When a class spelled JOLLY, they were all rewarded with an extra break and a Jolly Rancher candy.  Are we in elementary school?  Does bribery with candy still work?

When the first bell rang, the kids started to file in and grabbed the worksheet that was stationed on the shelf.  The kids were very friendly, greeting me and asking questions.   After introducing myself as Mrs. Dillon and taking the roster, I explained their teacher had left detailed instructions for multiple assignments that I would take the class through over the next two hours.  The first assignment was easy and appeared to be routine, because when I said they would have 10 minutes of silent reading, they immediately pulled out their books.  The room was so quiet!  Off to a good start.  Next, the students were to fill in two blanks of a sentence pertaining to a question about their book.  Except for Frank*, who would not do any work and just rested his head down on his desk, everyone was focused on the assignments at hand.  I learned later that Frank was either not taking his medications at home or needed a higher dose as it was affecting his ability to wake-up and engage his mind.  Mrs. Whitmore had called his parents to inform them of his class behavior.  During the second half, Frank’s medication kicked in, his brain woke up, and so did his disruptive behavior.

Then they had the worksheet to complete on similes and metaphors for the remainder of the first block.   As opposed to the other classes to come, this first on-level class was not to work with partners, and the teacher gave strict instructions for them to work alone.  I had to address the students many times with, “No talking.  This is not a group activity,” or “If you’re done you can read independently.  No talking so your classmates can concentrate and finish.”   About two-thirds of the students completed the worksheet, and the other third could have finished but instead chose to goof around despite my continual warnings of how much time was left before I collected the papers.  These kids did not seem to care whether they completed the assignment for a grade.  Despite academic performance, these kids were relatively well-behaved.

The bell rang, signaling end of first period, and the kids rushed out of the room for their 5-minute break to use the bathroom or socialize with friends before starting the second half of the block.  The next assignment was 10 minutes of vocabulary.  Only a few minutes i-am-poem-templateinto this assignment, Mrs. Martinez* walked into the classroom.  I greeted her at the door and asked how I could help her?  She explained that for this on-level class a para-teacher floats among the classrooms to provide supi-am-poem-instructionsport.  With only 20 kids, I did not understand why the school needed the additional expense.  She was here to stay for the remainder of the period.  As she walked around the room interacting with the kids, I noticed the class dynamics changed.  Everyone started talking, and I eventually lost control of the students. Why did Mrs. Martinez approach kids who were diligently working on their assignment and start a conversation?  I repeatedly had to announce, “Focus on your work, please.  This does not require discussion.”  They did not listen.  What is going on with the group dynamics?  Are the students falling into regular behavior patterns with her presence?  I continually paced the room, occasionally parking myself near the table of students who were most disruptive.  I had to use the evil eye a few times to get compliance.

The last assignment was the “I am” poem.  I explained I would be handing out two sheets of paper.  One sheet was the partial poem and the other the instructions on how to complete it.  This poem was based on introspection and self-reflection.  After handing out both pieces of paper and instructing them to glue both sheets into their Writer’s Notebook, I watched as most of the class became parallelized. Only a handful of students were thinking and writing, thinking and writing.  The first line of the poem required them to choose and write two adjectives that described themselves to complete the sentence of I am….   Apparently, this was a stumper question.  The noise level increased as they murmured their frustration.  I said to the class, “This should be easy; this poem is about you, and you know yourself best.”  More blank stares.  Students responded with “I don’t know what I am,” and “This is too hard!”  I was baffled.  I then added, “If you are having difficulty filling in the first line, go to the next and then come back.”  The second line was I wonder…, and I said, “Complete the line with something you are curious about or wonder about.”   More blank stares.  My suggestions and the students’ responses continued in the same vein.   Every other assignment which required answering questions about what was read or learned was a simpler task for these students than pulling information from their heads and hearts—answers that are neither right or wrong.  Since I could not believe their responses, I rationalized that maybe it was an issue with this class—they had lost concentration by the disruption of the para-teacher.  I would test this assumption during the second block—an above-level class with no para-teacher.

Meanwhile, I could not wait until this class was over.  The students kept asking me if I was going to give Mrs. Whitmore a bad report about their class.  My response was, “I guess you will find out tomorrow.”  I kept asking myself, “Am I in elementary school?”  The dynamics were dysfunctional, and my words and instructions fell on deaf ears.  I even had to threaten pushing the button to bring in the AP.   Then Mrs. Martinez, who has not helped me in the least to encourage good behavior, tells the kids to listen to me which falls on deaf ears again.  The bell rang early because of the mandatory DEAR program.  Interesting concept—on specific days, all school activities stop at an appointed hour and everyone reads a book for 15 minutes.  DEAR could not get here soon enough.

The second block students were identified as above-level.  Their behavior was great the first half, but upon starting the “I am” poem, they too, started complaining, wringing their hands, and racking their brains.  This was an independent assignment and the chatter was loud.  I had difficulty getting them to focus, so they could work through the poem.  Many could not complete it.  After 40 minutes, some had a few lines written on their paper, and some had blank lines.  This was an above-level class?  I was awestruck regarding the mental aptitude and capabilities of these students.  Are these 6th graders who cannot answer simple questions about themselves?

Fast forward to my third block.   Although this experiment is over, and my initial conclusions drawn, I am holding out hope for this last on-level class.   The same pattern was repeated.   I kept repeating to the students, “You know yourself better than anyone.  This should be easy.”  My words fell on deaf ears.  I struggle in how to reconcile what I experienced.  My only explanation was this assignment was atypical, in that the students were asked to not just spit back information taught but were required to have some creativity, independent thinking, and self-reflection.  I believe this assignment challenged them to think differently.

I am gravely concerned that the Texas public education system is teaching to pass the STAAR Test and nothing more.  We are not cultivating the ability to think independently, tap into creativity, or problem-solve, which are critical life skills for success.  We are creating a bunch of academic robots, who store information, retrieve it from their memory banks, and spit it back upon request.   What a disservice!

If I could choose one word to describe what I have I experienced as a substitute teacher in six different classroom settings, that one word would be IDIOCRACY.  Several years back a friend suggested I watch a fictional movie called IDIOCRACY (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiocracy) with a story line that describes what America has achieved 500 years into the future.  After watching this black comedy, it reminded me of the expression “the dumbing down of America.”   As I continue to walk through the classrooms of our public education system, I think we, as society, are laying the foundation in making IDIOCRACY a reality. Truly terrifying!

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of teachers and students.