Learning to Leave Well

International educators around the world are spending the next few weeks saying goodbye. They will say goodbye to colleagues, students, cities, and countries. Some of them aren’t doing the moving, but are still losing important friends and much-loved students who are transitioning to new adventures.

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We all handle these transitions differently. I am here to say that I am a failure at leaving well. However, I acknowledge this fault of mine and am working to be better in learning to leave well.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 2.25.29 PMA few examples of my failures at leaving over the years…

High school graduation– I actually called the Peace Corps to see if they would take me far away from the only place I’d ever lived. They told me to get a degree.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 2.28.00 PMUniversity– I left at the end of my second year. I was meant to take a gap year (or 3). Once I completely wasted my parents’ money on 2 years of not going to class, I burned every friendship and loaded my car with junk that I would eventually toss out. Hurting people I had grown to love seemed to be the best option for me. No one was sorry to see me go. Therefore, no one made me feel guilty for leaving.

The United States– I left my first teaching job to go overseas for the first time. I had a husband, a baby on the way, and an exciting future in front of me. I’m not even sure I said goodbye. It might have been more like, “nanny, nanny, boo, boo – you’re stuck here and I am seeing the world!” Classy, right?

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Saudi Arabia– This was hard. I had been there for 10 years- a quarter of my life! My children were raised there. I had a group of friends who were like family. The last year and a half was a blur made up mostly of me ruining relationships with dear friends. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. It was so awkward. I was so awkward. Plus I turned 40- I wasn’t in my right mind last year.

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Seoul– Only one year later, this should be easy. I didn’t have time to forge forever friendships (although I did). I was hoping we would spend the next 7 years of our life in Seoul, but I just didn’t fit in here. So far, I have declined a final girls’ night out and the option of making a video about our time here. I was planning to tiptoe out and hope that no one notices. It doesn’t look like I am learning from my past mistakes.

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Leaving well is hard for some, easy for others. I think it is important to bring closure to a job, a community, a country. I haven’t figured out why it’s so hard for me, but I need to learn to leave better. I will begin now by saying…

Thank you to those who learned and laughed with me.

I am grateful for the experiences and the adventure.

I grew as a learner, a leader, a friend.

We grew as a family.

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Let me know if you have any helpful hints for leaving well. I love learning from others.



PS- If you haven’t made your own Bitmoji, what are you waiting for?!





Learning Walks Grow Learning

Are Learning Walks part of your school’s culture? What do you look for on a Learning Walk? How can Learning Walks improve every school’s climate?

These were some of the questions asked of our team (several years ago) when Martin Skelton came in and got us “Looking for Learning!” His advice allowed me to step back and notice the learning environment, as well as my routines and daily objectives. Fast-forward a few years and in comes another wise consultant who deepened my understanding of looking for learning through Learning Walks. It was clear that teachers could make small tweaks to what they already do to encourage visiting students, parents, administrators, and the community to see what their students were learning, not just what they were doing.

What Do You Look For on a Learning Walk?

On Learning Walks, you look for learning. What does learning look like? That’s the harder question. There are a few simple ways that I look for learning in our school’s hallways.

  • I look for authentic student work displayed along the corridors.
  • I look for the process of the work, not just the final product. Where did their learning begin and where are they now?
  • I also look for the purpose of the learning (the objective or “I Can” statement).
  • I also look for reflections of the learning, either written by each student or a shared class reflection.

Within the classroom, I look for learning in many different ways. It’s important to first get a feel for each individual classroom’s environment. If each classroom was expected to have the exact same set-up and the exact same routines, then teachers’ creativity and passion would be stifled- we don’t want that. However, if you were a new student and this was your first visit, what would you need to look for to know that you could learn in this room? There are a few simple ways that I look for learning in classrooms.

  • I look for today’s schedule.
  • I look for what we are learning today (and hopefully why and how).
  • I look for instructions of routines (How do kids choose books from the library? What are the steps of the writing process? How do we solve problems? What to do if you’re absent?).
  • I look for varied learning spaces. (Can some students stand or sit on the carpet? Does learning happen in different places in the classroom?).

Learning Walks can also be focused on a specific initiative. Emily DeLiddo of languageisliving.com, is a literacy consultant who narrowed my focus of Learning Walks to Literacy-Rich Environments. Emily drafted a Learning Walk that focused on 7 sub-topics: environment, halls, word walls, materials, charts, library, and environmental print. She recommended that we should share the Learning Walk document with teachers, revise it if needed, then chunk the sub-topics into doable actions. Since most of the teachers already had their classrooms set up for the workshop model, we could celebrate the positive documentation of ENVIRONMENTS.


This quarter, our elementary teachers are going to implement Learning Walks as part of their professional learning.

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Teams can decide when they’re ready for other teams to visit their team for a Learning Walk. Hopefully, this will allow teachers to be confident in their work, while also giving praise to colleagues.

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Each grade level has an Apple Tree (I know it’s corny; I can’t help it). They simply stick the apple (possibly the Word Walls apple) to their tree and the other grade levels know that they are ready to show off their Word Walls. Everyone has a different take on Word Walls and how to use them, so teachers can get lots of ideas from their colleagues that may help them learn a different way.


Learning Walk1

Teachers will have a chance to share what they’ve learned from visiting other classrooms during staff meetings. It’s a great chance to take a few minutes from the agenda to celebrate learning.

How Can Learning Walks Improve Every School’s Climate?

Learning Walks, when used as a learning tool and never as an evaluation, will focus the entire staff on learning and feedback. They allow teachers and students to be more comfortable and confident with what is happening in the classroom. When the school community can easily look for learning in the hallways and classrooms, the school becomes a museum of learning and an art gallery of understanding.

Reaching Reluctant Writers

How do we inspire kids to be writers when they just don’t want to? This is the case for lots of kids. English Language Learners, perfectionists, those with insufficient experience or knowledge of a subject, those who prefer to tell stories rather than write them… the list is endless. Some kids (and adults) just don’t want to write.

Teachers can easily Google strategies to help reluctant writers- and find a plethora of resources to guide their lessons. The surest way to inspire writers is to be one… and share your ideas, your struggles, your stories. When I show a student the way I have used a certain strategy, in my own notebook, it shows them that I am in this with them- not teacher to student… but writer to writer. That is deep.

My Writer's Notebook. I need to fancy it up with pictures and ideas for stories!
My Writer’s Notebook. I need to fancy it up with pictures and ideas for stories!

This morning, I was asked to model a lesson in a sixth grade ELL class. The students participated in a Week without Walls experience last week, and their teacher, Mrs. Garrick, wanted them to write about it. Knowing that these two students were reluctant writers, I decided to show them a strategy that took the overwhelming pressure of staring at a blank page of many lines, and turned it into a fun way to hold on to memories.

The Model: I attended the EARCOS Leadership Conference last week in Bangkok. Looking back on my notes, I chunked my learning around 5 topics. I have 5 fingers, so I thought that if I traced my hand in my writer’s notebook, then not only do I have a place to brainstorm, but I have taken up some space, and won’t have to write as much (this is my middle school thinking). Genius!

Modeling the strategy
Modeling the strategy- trace the hand
Modeling the strategy- brainstorm the topics
Modeling the strategy- brainstorm the topics

Interactive Writing/Shared Writing: After I modeled my topics and journal entry, I asked the students to think about how they could divide their writing into topics. Since the subject was their Week Without Walls trip, they considered these topics-

  1. What was the best part of the week?
  2. What was the worst part of the week?
  3. What was most fun or most embarrassing?
  4. What did I learn?
  5. How did I make new friends or show leadership during the week?
Sharing ideas about topics
Sharing ideas about topics

Independent Writing: Hands were traced, ideas for each topic were jotted in the fingers on the page, and the writing began. They wrote topic by topic until they wrote to the very end of the page. “Now what?” they asked. “Turn the page and keep going,” we smiled.

"This was the best day of writing! It was so much fun! Look how much I wrote; can I finish it at home?"
“This was the best day of writing! It was so much fun! Look at how much I wrote; can I finish it at home?”

Sharing Time: I was barely able to get them to stop writing before the lunch bell sounded. My question was simple- what was different about today’s workshop, than other days? With smiles from ear to ear, they exclaimed…

“This was fun!”

“The topics made it easy to know what to write next!”

“The hand in the middle of the page meant that I didn’t have to write as much (even though they actually wrote more than any other workshop this year).”

This made us grin from ear to ear. Today we reached the most reluctant of writers.

My journal entry.
My journal entry.

Thank you, Mrs. Garrick, for sharing your wonderful students with me. I love spending time writing with you all and learning with you all.

Mrs. Garrick- fellow teacher, fellow learner, fellow writer.
Mrs. Garrick- fellow teacher, fellow learner, fellow writer.

Some History…

This post is not about me. I could only hope to be the teacher that he is.


20 years ago, I met someone who affected my heart and soul. Little did I know that he would affect the souls of hundreds of students- all over the world.

Shane did not start out teaching. He was an engineer for a huge company; and he hated it. The money was good, the benefits were more than fair, he ate donuts every morning. What could be so bad?

When we met, he had quit his career, moved 800 miles from home, and was waiting tables on the beach. Those first few weeks together, we began talking about the future. What were we going to do with our lives? His answer was very clear- he wanted to leave work each day feeling that he made a difference. I know, it sounds very cliche, but being a teacher’s kid, I got it.

Habitat for Humanity- Nepal
Habitat for Humanity- Nepal

Together, we became middle school teachers- because they are the best teachers (my completely biased opinion)! Even though Shane’s degree was in Humanities, his first teaching gig was actually STEM (well, what we would call STEM, 15 years later). After that, he was hired to teach science, then math. His passion was Social Studies, yet his years as an engineer were hard to resist for administrators.

Finally, he had his chance- but it was out of middle school and teaching in high school. Would that faze him? Any true middle school teacher is flexible, adaptable, and a little bit crazy. He handled it just fine. He didn’t change his philosophy. He still sang, danced, built collaborative projects, and loved his students. Kids can tell when a teacher loves his job; and it makes the class more enjoyable. When students WANT to attend class, they perform better. It’s not rocket science. He does miss middle school- that is where he truly shines.

I am so proud of the Master Teacher with whom I share my life. He is humble, though. He does not save the letters from former students who are now at MIT, UCLA, or Northeastern. He did not want his graduation speech shared on YouTube. He does not know I’m writing this. He doesn’t “follow” me.

Teachers, when you receive those sweet notes from students… keep them safe. Scan them and put them on your website. You do have a website, right? Check out our website, it has a little bit of everything (shameless plug to follow): prairieworld.wordpress.com.

He leaves tonight for Manila. His Varsity Boys Soccer team have a tournament. I guess I am missing him already. Travel safe.


Teams with Poor Coaching Don’t Win the Big Game- in learning, every day is the Big Game

Some people work better on their own; I am not one of those people. I like being part of a team. I like everything that being on a team means… building a plan together, stretching together, practicing together, playing together, succeeding together, failing together, reflecting together, and improving together.

As a teacher, I was so blessed to work on some amazing teams of teachers and students. A few that come to mind are the grade 6 team at ACS Beirut (2001-2003)- we were energetic, passionate about learning, and made learning fun! The Dream Team of Seven Springs Middle School (2003-2005)- we took interdisciplinary learning to a whole new level, looping allowed us to really bond, and I worked with master teachers. DEMS (2007-2011)- I found my philosophical twin, and we team taught the heck out of grade 8- always keeping the students’ emotional well-being ahead of everything else!

Sometimes I was being mentored; other times I was the mentor. That’s what teams do- everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone helps their team improve. No one is better than anyone else. PS- I am including students in my definition of team, so should you.

Being part of a team was what made teaching and learning so meaningful, but here I was, an administrator- with no team. I was lonely.

Then something happened… Something significant… Something that gave me goose bumps. I realized that being an administrator meant taking on the role as the coach of a team. A coach’s job is to inspire as a team, set goals as a team, learn as a team, communicate and model effectively as a team, play-succeed-fail as a team, reflect and improve as a team. Every team needs good coaching or the players are just playing for themselves.

This realization came last week during a professional development day. Grades K-5 team leaders assembled with their principal and me to develop division-wide Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions for the writing units of study. Here is how we worked as an effective (and totally awesome) team:

  • We built a plan together- What are the lifelong learning goals of writing?
  • We stretched our thinking together- What do we already know, and what do we need to know, about the significance of being lifelong writers?
  • We practiced and played together- What work have we done that is meaningful and should be honored?
  • We succeeded together- What are we doing well and is worth continuing?
  • We failed together- What should we stop doing, and why?
  • We reflected together- What did we used to think and what do we now know?
  • We improved together- When can we do this with other subjects? This was powerful!
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll

Think about the inspiring coaches and teammates that you’ve had over the years. If you don’t have that same inspiration and passion to win the Big Game, then make some changes. Your team, whether they are colleagues or students, need a quality coach. Don’t let them down!

Teachers are Just Big Students

Passing notes, checking email, stalking Facebook, needing a bathroom break- no, I’m not describing the actions in a typical middle school class, I am describing staff development meetings across the world. I should know; I’ve been on both sides of them. Teachers (myself included) are definitely the worst behaved students I have ever seen.

Does this look familiar?

Like students who sit in our class each day (hopefully more engaged), teachers have the same fears every morning as they walk through the school doors:

  • Will I be evaluated fairly?
  • Are my peers judging me?
  • How will I adapt to all of the changes that occur year-to-year, week-to-week, and day-to-day?

Teachers are constantly being evaluated. Even when your administrator says that they are not evaluating you, they are. It’s human nature. They want to know what, why, and how you are teaching- that’s their job. Some administrators will ask for daily or weekly lesson plans, while others will access your unit plans at any time. Hopefully, your administrators will regularly visit your classroom and observe you in your natural environment. Maybe it’s a quick pop in every week or a formal observation each semester; either way, as long as you are the best teacher you can be, it’s a piece of cake. Always ask for feedback.

The fears you have about evaluation are the same as your students. You are always evaluating (I prefer assessing) them. You want to know what, why, and how they learn- that’s your job. You walk around and informally listen to their discussions or observe their work. You formally assess their learning of understandings and skills. As long as you are the best teacher you can be, it’s a piece of cake. Always give them feedback.

Teachers are curious about other teachers. Are they better, worse, more loving, too uptight, team players, or doors-closed-doing-their-own-thing teachers? I know some fantastically dynamic teachers who want to curl up in the fetal position and cry when asked to invite colleagues to observe them. We are so afraid for others to see our weaknesses, but how do we improve if we don’t invite others in to observe and help us reflect in our teaching? We need to trust each other and always presume positive intentions.

The fears you have about your peers’ opinions are similar to your students. Are they smarter, stronger, friendlier, more loved, perfect-in-every-way students? Kids are very aware of how their classmates are treated, and they are quick to pick up on that, so we need to treat all students equally and fairly. Students are also vulnerable and feel humiliated when their peers see them struggle. It is our job to protect them. We want students to presume positive intentions about one another as well.

Finally, how are teachers expected to adapt to continuous changes in leadership, standards, curriculum, schedules, report cards, technology, new students, leaving students, and more? Do other professions have this many changes year after year? I can’t think of a single one.

My advice is the same that I would give students who are dealing with the same changes and more…


slow down,


reflect on what’s important right now,

and do it well.

Then give and get feedback and presume positive intentions.

Seriously… Kids Really are Counting On You! Inspire them and be a teacher worth remembering.

Imagine that you are a student. It is 6am, you’ve pressed snooze 3 times, and your first thought is of a specific teacher. How does that teacher make you feel?

  1. “I am so excited to go to school! My teacher is always happy to see us, and includes us in planning our units and projects. The time goes by so fast, because we are always moving around and doing interesting things that keep us on our toes and learning in new ways. I feel safe to make mistakes and don’t stress out when we have a test since the tests are fair and allow us to talk about what we learned.” – Sounds like a Master teacher!
  1. “I wonder what today will be like? Sometimes we learn really interesting things and have some fun; we even get to talk about our thoughts and ideas. Other times it seems that we’re all in trouble and don’t know why. Usually we can tell as soon as we walk in and look toward the teacher’s desk. Unfortunately, if it’s a bad day, we are stuck working out of the book and no one’s allowed to talk. It’s not fun to guess what kind of day it will be.” – Oh, boy, that sounds like a moody teacher.
  1. “Ugh, I don’t even want to go to school. All we do is the same thing every week. Read the pages, complete the worksheets, go over the homework, take the test, and repeat for 30 weeks. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a project, but it’s the same project this class did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. This teacher must be as bored as their students. I guess I just have to survive the year.” – This is the meh teacher. Most of us have had at least one of these- every year of middle and high school. It’s not you, is it? 

Are you a master? Are you moody? Or, are you… (shoulder shrug goes here) Meh? Trust me, your students see you in one of those categories. Understandably, expecting a master teacher every day may seem unrealistic. We all have a few bad days, but if you are not inspired to be the kind of teacher who inspires kids to have a passion for learning, then please remind me why you are a teacher?

The best part is that you get a chance to be better, every single day! All it takes is an honest conversation with your students. What do they love about your class? What would they like to see changed? Why? How? Students expect feedback to make them better learners. Shouldn’t we expect feedback to make us better teachers?

Be brave, teachers! Kids are counting on us to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. Workbooks and textbooks don’t cover that. Be better than that. Don’t you want to be remembered as a great teacher?