Trenton Makes, the World Takes: Leadership & Teaching in the Capital City

There is a saying in Trenton which states: Trenton makes, the world takes. It is a bold statement made by a city as vibrant as its diversity. It’s also something you wouldn’t know about Trenton unless you lived and worked in the area. While the statement comes from a time where Trenton was a huge manufacturing hub for Roebling Steel, the adage has taken on new meaning in more recent time.

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From nj.com via google images

For me, personally, I can say that Trenton made me the educator that I became. I grew up in East Brunswick, NJ about an hour north of our Capital City. I lived in a suburb of New York City and on 9/11 we were lived close enough that we were able to see the dust cloud from the top of my street. I attended Rutgers University and graduated with a dual degree in Art History and Journalism and Media Studies. I lived abroad in Paris and thought my life was going to take me to places very far from here. Trenton was not on my radar other than it being a place that you didn’t go. Where I lived, Trenton was the hood and we were often told that if you stepped foot in Trenton you would be shot. That is all I knew about our capital.

Fast forward some years to my mid-20’s when I was a teacher that was tired of my original school district making me a French teacher each chance they had instead of hiring me for tenure track English positions. I sent resumes out to everywhere I could and had several offers that summer. Trenton was one of them and Trenton was the one that I chose.

Yes, I chose to come to Trenton.

I chose Trenton because for a couple of summers I wrote and facilitated programming for the CYO in Ewing and I found that I loved the kids and the families. While Trenton is rough and raw and yes, you can get shot and killed in Trenton, our capital city also makes some of the best families and kids I have ever had the privilege to work with.

In my six years in the capital city, I have lost a student to gang violence (she was one of my favorites too), watched several of my students become mothers before their time, coached sports and facilitated clubs, run home instruction for sick kids that are often forgotten in the system, met my husband and gotten married, bought a house, finished my master’s degree and am in the final chapter of writing my doctoral dissertation. I have had kids write essays about being smuggled into our country, sat and listened to them as they cried about their losses—no matter how big or small, and have sat with kids in police stations after they were arrested and waited with them until their parents came.

And in each of these experiences and relationships I have made with students and their families, I became the educator I couldn’t have been able to become had I stayed in my original district. Trenton taught me the importance of relationships and the importance of rising up to meet the needs of your students. However, those needs aren’t always academic and sometimes a student just needs someone who would listen.

I think that is true of most people, not just kids. I moved into teaching college at a campus within our capital city and I teach foundation courses for students who do not test into regular classes. I teach reading and so often, my students are products of Trenton who are trying to better themselves. Foundation classes have a high dropout rate because they are hard and work heavy. And so often with nontraditional students, you have nontraditional problems. I have students who are under 30 and already have five or six kids. Some women are pregnant and others are part of a parole program with the state that are coming to school to better their lives out of poverty and out of the system.

And that’s the tricky piece: poverty. When you live in poverty all you know is survival. If you’re lucky enough to get to the mind frame of betterment, then you need people who are going to lead you to accomplishing something better for your life and more often than not, the key to bettering your life is through getting some form of an education whether it is completing a college degree, certificate or learning a trade is up to the person, but regardless of their choice, they need people who will help lead them out of poverty.

For me, on a teaching level, that means I allow my college students to bring their kids to class if they can’t find a baby sitter. I allow my students makeup blocks to fix any grade they don’t like. I offer embedded extra credit opportunities that they often don’t even realize is extra work because it’s quick and often, they take ownership of the task because it lends to their interest or their point that they are trying to assert on any given topic.

Now, as an emerging school leader, I see helping students living in poverty not only needing everything I provide them on a teaching level, but on a leadership level we need to be offering students consistency. We need to stop implementing new program every other year, we need leaders who are going to stay in our schools and not push to privatize and outsource teachers and staff to save money. We need to put money into our infrastructure and fix the buildings we have been teaching in (and neglecting) since the 1920’s. Our kids and our families deserve better.

They deserve a light that leads them out of poverty and into a comfortable life where day to day survival isn’t at the heart of their existence. We need leaders who care and who are going to stay and fight for our kids instead of creating situations where we’re just fighting each other.

Ruh Roh: Doctoral Comps Meets a Big Surprise

I want to get back into my writing.

I have really missed it.

I also have such great ideas for things too.

However, life seems to have given me other plans for a bit.

After a really long summer of interning, teaching college and working full-time in a hotel to save for the wedding, I thought once November was over I would coast into doctoral comps and dissertation. I did, to some degree.

I began my doctoral comprehensive exam last week. It will take me a month to complete and it is tough. However, I am so close to the end of this journey that I will do whatever I have to to make sure that I get to the finish line. I am ready to be a doctor and move on from life in the classroom. I would really love to move onto teaching college full-time or working as a supervisor somewhere.

This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the year for that, though. I got a big surprise several months ago and it didn’t take long for our baby to make his/her presence known with the extreme fatigue and nausea that killed me my first trimester. That’s right, folks, I am pregnant and due this summer.

I was pretty shocked and took every pregnancy test I had. Followed by going out and buying two more just to be sure I was in fact, 100% knocked up. Turns out I am and two more doctor’s appointments following has made this so very real.

I never thought I was going to be a mom. I also never thought I was going to meet someone and get married, but I did and now, I get to have this little baby in the summer. I wrote up a much more eloquent piece about all of this and I will post it soon.

For now, though, I just wanted to share my news. That I am not only on the cusp of becoming a doctor in education, but am also planning on bringing home our baby this summer and the little prince or princess will sleep soundly in the crib we bought them the moment I crossed over into the second trimester:

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Happy Halloween!

This is one of my favorite days. I love pumpkins, and the colors and the cooler temperature. I love how for one day out of the year you can be whatever you want to be. I love hearing the kids in my neighborhood running around and  ringing doorbells. I love doing something special for my students.

This year my grade level team decided to dress up as character from Hocus Pocus. Only…no one got it. Have I officially become….old? Granted they were distracted by the fact that one of the male teachers is one of the Sanderson sisters and I got to be crummy Allison so my costume looked more everyday than it did costume, but COME ON!

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Hocus Pocus is one of the best movies. It was the first movie I ever got to see in a movie theater. And it came out not around Halloween and I remember it pouring rain, but my mom took me to see it anyway that day. And it was just the coolest. 

I may have then spent home room projecting movie photos and explaining it to them. It was in that moment I felt so old. When I first started teaching, I was in my early to mid-20’s and the kids just liked me because I was young. Add in the fact that I look like I’m 12, and kids saw me more as of an older, cooler peer than an authority person. And that worked for years, but more recently, I have noticed the shift where I have become the authority figure and though I am enjoying every moment of that, at the same time, I am a little sad that my references are now….outdated.

Kids these days need to brush up on their movies because if they don’t know this one, then they sure are missing out on some great flicks.

Seasons of Your Life

Women are different then men. We think differently, we respond to the world differently, we approach life differently and more even more noticeably, we age differently.

For men, I think life is a long continuous line of experiences and outcomes. They are born, they grow, they become old and they pass on. Women, of course, do the same, but it’s so much different for a woman.

Women age in seasons.

And each season is compartmentalized with old wants and desires, dreams and achievements that you know you will only have a chance to hit at certain points in your life. Women are much more aware of the limits of time and how time takes all. 

Looking back at my own life, which I have been doing a lot lately as I prepare to become a wife, I can categorize big chunks of time. There was of course my childhood, my adolescence, my first real boyfriend, college…

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My first real love.

Not that I didn’t love my first boyfriend, but there the first time you fall in real love as an adult it is very different from the high school/college boyfriend that was probably most if not all of your firsts.

There’s the inevitable heart break from that first real love.

Then there’s your wine-fueled 20’s where you are working on your career, but not really settled and since you’re not over your first real love, you’re just dating idiot after idiot because the only time they can ever really hurt you is when they do something that reminds you of that great big let down that was your first real love.

Out of nowhere your life will begin to settle. You’ll finish graduate school maybe. You’ll find a stable job, you’ll eventually get to ditch the room mates and take on a cat or two. You’ll get so busy with your own life that the drama of your 20’s seems to die down and you’re no longer spending Thursdays at the bar with your girlfriends drinking too much wine and going to dark scary places of thoughts borrowed from TV shows.

You’re so busy in fact that you don’t even see the real, big love coming. You’re not really dating jerks anymore or any really because your life has become your job and the life you’re building for yourself. You kind of like it that way too, it’s easier to just worry about yourself and your fur-babies.

Then it happens, the blind date that you reluctantly agree to go on because your new work friend is just so excited to be introducing you to her friend. You had talked to him for a little bit on Facebook and it flowed well enough, he seemed to like your jokes and had some of his own. Before you know it though, there’s that instant spark and without either of you really planning it, you’re together from that moment forward.

He’s the only guy that will bring flowers to your mom when he meets her for the first time. And as he’s courting you he brings flowers to you whenever he’s thinking of you which is often. He holds doors for you and since it’s the winter when you meet he starts carrying a blanket around in his car because he knows how cold you get, you find it absolutely endearing when he tucks you into your seat each time even if it’s only a 5 minute car ride. It’s easy to love him and it’s even easier to be yourself, the good and the bad around him.

You blink again and suddenly you’re a tenure teacher and becoming a leader in your field. You buy a house and for the first and only time in your life, you agree to live with someone and it’s the best decision that you ever made because you slowly watched as your love for each other grew and changed until he asked you to marry him and you accept without hesitation.

You plan a beautiful wedding at the venue you fell in love with long before you ever met him. You enjoy your year long engagement but before you know it, you’ve blinked again and it’s fall, the season of your wedding.

Your shower comes and goes, you’ve cleaned your house out of most of the old stuff that came from apartments and past lives, making way for an entirely new life with your husband. Suddenly, you’re home from your best friend’s house where you held her baby all day and you’re cleaning out your guest room for wedding guests, eagerly selling and throwing out artifacts of former dreams and suddenly a new one really begins to take hold…

When your guest room starts to look empty and you label a few more pieces of apartment furniture for Facebook marketplace and begin to think about your best friend’s baby and how suddenly ready you are to turn your guest room into a baby’s room.

And just like that, you’re into your 30’s, ready to become a wife and mother, and for the first time in many years, that sounds just exactly like what you want to do even if it means you have to slow down in other parts of your life and not work 80 hour weeks.

Back to School

This summer was an absolutely crazy period of my life, so I apologize for going MIA for a little bit. I worked full time to save money for our wedding, wrote a lot of big checks to people FOR the wedding, interned at my district’s high school where I logged over 160 hours, took a stats class (my LAST PhD course) and took another class towards my certification in arts integration.

It was absolutely crazy and I actually found myself longing for school to start so that the craziness would kind of end. I finished the stats class and the art class. However, I am still working 3 jobs but the wedding is…58 days away so it shouldn’t be for that much longer even though the extra money has been nice.

I also re-did my entire classroom for the year with special thanks to Princeton University for the couch and chairs donations and to Target for heir amazing dollar bins this summer:

I hope everyone else has had a wonderful start to a fantastic school year!

Finding Your Voice as an Educator

I have been teaching for about 9 years. Of that, I have been in public schools for 7 years and of that, I have taught college for 2 years. Out of all of my experiences, I have found that teaching college was the hardest because of my age. I was 29 when I became an adjunct professor, but I did not look a day over 21.

My first class was filled with nontraditional students, mainly adult learners that had come back after many years of not being in school. The looks that they gave me when they saw me walk in and out my bag down on the desk, would be enough to have driven someone less driven right outside the door.

Instead, I made a joke about how I know I look like I’m 12, but I assured them that I did in fact have the credentials to qualify me for the position. It turned out to be one of the best classes I have ever had and to this day, I am still in contact with many of my students from that course.

I created my class with many opportunities to complete the required work and in cases where assignments were missed, I offered alternatives. Mostly, students are successful in my classes because they not only learn the material, but find a way that fits them in meeting the requirements and expectations outlined by the college.

This semester has been a hard one for me, as I have been working full-time at a hotel for wedding money while interning full time for my PhD requirements AND teaching a summer class. I am also enrolled in a quantitative research class that I am somehow maintaining my 4.0 in. Oh and let’s not forget the arts integration certification program I signed up for before I realized I had to take the hotel job. So, I cry a lot.

I pretty much don’t sleep. And the white stripe in my hair is I believe about twice as big as it was at the start of June. However, I am at the end of the summer class and my integration program and internship are winding down too. I am almost into the “I did it” phase.

The stress of this, I think, led me today to find my teaching voice in a college class. I teach a 5-week long course, I email students a month prior to the start with their book lists and inform them how intense these shortened classes are. I provide them with an outline, ways to structure their workload to ensure success and make myself available as much as I can. So, today, when several students request on the day that their course project that they have known about and been given opportunities to work on every day of class for 5 weeks, ask for an extension on it, my teaching voice came bubbling to the surface before I could stop it.

I, nicely, said to my class who looked at me wide-eyed; “You all have known about this project since May and I have been giving you chances to work on it since early July. I am sorry that you have to work or babysit, but the reality is you are in college and in college a deadline is a deadline is a deadline, especially when you have had a month of knowing that deadline.”

I don’t think I would have said that a year ago, I probably would have given the extension and stayed up late to grade. However, what this summer taught me, even in my PhD program as I have watched more and more people get weeded out, is that there are a lot of people who talk the talk and will tell you about all the things they want to accomplish, but they never set out and just do it.

And it really is that simple. If you want it, you just have to do it. And if you choose not to do it, no one is going to hand anything to you. You are entitled to nothing. And your life? Your life is pretty much what you make of it as well as the choices that you choose to follow. Sometimes, you will have to ask for an extension or a pass– but those times shouldn’t happen when you know that you haven’t proven yourself yet.

The Secret to Success as an Urban Educator

I saw a status from someone who began teaching around the time that I was deciding to commit to teaching myself. She wrote that her former students were shocked that she had had a baby and that just because she has high expectations and wasn’t a “nice” teacher doesn’t mean she wasn’t a nice person in life.

Seeing that, just dumbfounded me. Particularly because we both teach in inner cities and teach special education populations, her more so than me as I am not a special education teacher, but for the majority of my years in the inner city, I had volunteered to be the general education teacher in inclusive classrooms for my grade level.

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And there is a side to teaching wherein if you want to be successful, meaning you help students achieve academically in your subject area, then you have to have high expectations, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t love your kids as well or that you have to be “a not nice teacher” to communicate those expectations. With city kids, that means being consistent in your judgement, consistent in your love and your criticism as well as being flexible and truly listening to what these kids have to say.

The majority of the students I have taught remain in contact with me, updating me on their lives and their dreams. They visit sometimes and when they do, it’s always with big hugs and excitement. That is how I know I am successful in what I do. Sure, I have years of data that back me and show my administrators that I am successful in teaching kids how to read and bringing them towards career and college readiness, but that’s not all there is to teaching.

I remember the first time a student called me mom. Continually. Later, when I asked them why I had become their mom I was told it was because they knew that I was there for them, even when they were acting a fool. They knew that they could come to me with anything and I would do my best for them. That was when I knew that I was on the path of becoming the kind of teacher I knew that urban kids needed.

Urban kids are different from your suburban kids that come from nice homes, with semi-intact families and better financial support systems. Urban kids are often starting school well below their suburban counter parts because of the environments they are raised in, they often have parents or grandparents working multiple jobs meaning they’re home alone more times than not or in state-funded daycare. Urban kids are also semi street smart, because really, kids are also kids in any environment and come into school with an attitude more times than not because they feel like they don’t fit.

However, if you hold these kids to a high expectation of achievement as well as give them them the empathy and love that so many just need, then you are not only going to have success in their academics, but you’re also going to have success in helping to raise a better future in that, your love and acceptance may be what sets that kid up for an entirely different path in life.

Within urban education, I firmly believe all students need it. Some more than others, specifically kids with difficult home lives and worse yet, the kids that have spent their lives in and out of the system. If you pursue your teaching career in an inner city district, you have to become an educator with clear expectations as well as someone who will become another mother or father towards the kids that you are working to educate.

And I carry that belief with me in everything I do. For instance, the college class I am teaching this summer is at the city campus. It took me less than 5 minutes to e-mail the students who missed the first class to just remind them that class was today. Within 30 minutes, I even had one show up late to class.

Sometimes, you just have to be that person for other people. If you want to be a successful teacher, you need to remember that you have chosen a profession where you are in service to others.