Saturday, December 14, 2013

I Was Absent Because I Wasn't Here

Post by Joni Bruecken: Joni has served as the attendance secretary at Bettendorf High School since 2005.  Joni & her colleague Vera are the welcoming faces of BHS. 

“Good morning, Bettendorf High School attendance, how can I help you?”  Sounds straight forward doesn't it?  A simple little job writing passes for kids while keeping meticulous attendance records, sipping coffee and keeping the information highway at BHS running smoothly. While all of this is part of a day in the life of the Attendance Office, my small world has opened to a larger, more complex view of how students move through the high school experience.  Some are equipped to take on additional responsibility with confidence and maturity while others struggle with emotional overload, parental shortcomings and the inability to set an alarm.

“And why are you late today?”  Oh I see, you are late today because you were, “waiting for your pants to dry,  field dressing a deer , up late for the premier of Hunger Games, flat ironing your hair, eating pancakes, helping Mom find your missing hamster, thought there was no school today” or a host of other humorous reasons involving siblings, pets and mismanaged time.

In these cases, we simply smile, point out that what is excused at home may not be excused at school, give the student an unexcused pass and send them on their merry way. There are other reasons for being late that are more compelling.

“And why are you late today?”  Oh I see, you are late today because “you’re living at your friend’s house, your parents are getting a divorce and they’re fighting, your grandpa is dying, your mom has cancer and you can’t stop crying, your brother was arrested last night, you were too depressed to get up”.  All of these reasons have been offered as excuses for being late.  The challenge is how to help without intruding, how to show we care without being too emotional and how to tap into the resources available (and there are many) for a struggling student.  We have called counselors on many occasions to alert them to students in tears or expressing anger when they check in. Our administrators have gone on record saying we should get to know our students, personalize their school experience and let them know they are not an interruption. We work toward that goal in the attendance office. 

In years past, there were many non-teaching adults in the High School to offer support and encouragement to our students.  Each floor had at least one resource secretary that offered another pair of watchful eyes, a pencil, a calculator or an encouraging word. Their function was support; support of teachers and kids, no grades to be given, no class performance to be measured; just an adult to listen and lean on if needed.  The value of that adult presence is difficult to measure, but it did have value. 

As you all know, a student with a challenging home life is not always the most attentive, engaged or punctual. Being the first person a student sees in the morning is kind of an awesome responsibility.  The moment a student checks in late, it is not about being tardy, it is about how our interaction can set the tone for the day. We can connect personally with our kids if we greet them with positive energy and a smile. It’s good for both of us. Some kids are hyper cranky in the morning, looking as rumpled as an unmade bed and resistant to our charms.  Others are sucking down a Starbuck’s as big as your face and telling us they’re late due to car trouble…apparently the stop at Starbuck’s is not what made them late. :)

There are just as many reasons to celebrate our students as to bemoan another late arrival. Everything that happens in a family will eventually touch our office.  We get parent calls for family weddings, new babies, scholarship interviews, rowing teams, community plays, college signings, individual achievements, “once in a lifetime vacations” and so much more.  It gives us a chance to share in the more personal details that make up a family, building trust and relationships that can last for years. That’s the fun stuff.

Our office is the first line of defense, the gateway to all other offices in the school. As in the movie, The Lord of the Rings, a particular passage resonates with me as gate keeper to the entrance of our school: “You shall not pass!!”… until you state your business, show your ID and remove your hood! Students and parents grumble very little about having to wait to be buzzed in when the doors are locked at 8:15 a.m. The added layer of security is another way to show the kids and the community how much we value them. The benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

The Attendance Office is so much more than attendance. We are actually a welcome center. Kids appreciate a little humor, a comment about their hair color du’jour and the occasional bag of skittles.  We have just a few moments when kids check in or pass through our office to check their mood barometer, make eye contact and share a word of welcome. It is the most important part of our job!

Joni Bruecken

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Waiting for the Bell to Ring

Post by Katie Howard: Katie has been an English teacher & theatre director for 12 years, serving in both capacities the last 6 years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Katie on twitter @Katie_Howard1

What would my boss say if he knew that every day when I walk into work, I’m already thinking about the moment at the end of the day when that final bell rings and the students are out the door? (I’ll probably find out since he’s sure to be reading this). That’s right, I admit it. I am as excited for the end of the school day as are the kids. Now, it’s not that I don’t love the work I do in my classroom, I do, and I take great pride in my work and the success of my students, but when that bell rings at 3:10, I get to do something that I first fell in love with in high school. I get to go to the theater. And the most beautiful part is that within those walls are a group of people who have been staring at the clock all day waiting for 3:10, too. This place is my home, and it’s where my passion lies.

As teachers, we are most effective when we’re passionate about something, and my passion lies in the theatre – in creating relationships and telling people’s stories. So lately, I've asked myself what it is about the theatre that inspires me. Here’s what I've discovered so far.

Theatre is magic. Within the walls of the theater you can be anything you want to be.  The self-conscious girl who spends the majority of her days worrying about what others think, can instantly transform herself into a confident woman who can captivate an entire audience for hours. That kid who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere else suddenly becomes the one person that everyone relies on when it comes to making things work backstage. It's a place where, for a few hours, you can set your own reality aside and see the world as you wish it were (in my perfect world, people would randomly break into song.) The possibilities within these walls are endless; there is no limit to what can be achieved. These are the things that ignite my passion.

 Theatre is knowledge.  Each day as I enter the theater, I shed the skin of an English teacher and suddenly I teach history, music, science, art, math, and even PE (push-ups and sit-ups are required if you don’t know your lines!) Lessons of teamwork, selflessness, and cooperation are not just ideas, but a reality. For us to succeed, these must be our guiding principles, and commitment to these ideals is not a request but a requirement. I challenge my students to think about things they've never considered before, to look at the world through the eyes of another, to imagine things they never thought possible. And then work to make them a reality. In the process, not only are they learning, I’m learning, too. This is what excites me about my job.

Theatre is acceptance When you walk into the theatre you will find no two students that are the same.  Here are students that represent different races, religions, socioeconomic groups, sexual orientations, political affiliations; the list goes on and on. Here you will find athletes, artists, musicians, and scholars. You will find those that will go on to pursue doctoral degrees and those whose will complete their education with a high school diploma. None of it matters. Here it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done before, students aren't less because they’re different, they’re appreciated for their individuality. The safety within these walls allows students to look honestly at themselves, to acknowledge not just their strengths but weaknesses as well. In this way they not only accept one another, but learn to accept and appreciate themselves.  This is what gives me hope for the future.

Most importantly, theatre is family. I have my children, two beautiful girls, and “my kids,” more than one hundred creative, inspired, caring young people who will, I have no doubt, change the world. This family we create isn't perfect, no family is, but we love and support one another. What is unique to these relationships as opposed to most other student-teacher relationships is that they last far beyond graduation. Fifteen years after graduating from high school, I myself maintain a strong relationship with my teacher and director, who I am honored to now call my colleague and friend. I have had the privilege of watching my former students walk down the aisle, I have held their babies, and have stood in the audience and tearfully cheered with pride as they achieve their dreams.  This is without a doubt the greatest reward of my job. This brings me joy.

 As I look at these truths, these things that ignite my passion, I realize that these are not and should not be specific to the theatre or any other place that connects you with your passion (the football field or basketball court, the science lab, or photography studio). These are the things that exist within our classrooms each day. We as educators want our classrooms to be a magical place, not Disney World, but a place where anything is possible. A space where students learn not only the rudimentary facts of our subject areas, but push themselves to look at how things fit into the bigger picture.  We want students to ask questions and challenge their thinking, to feel accepted for who they are and pushed to be more today than they were yesterday. We want them to work cooperatively and think outside of the box, to feel empathy for others and learn to put others before themselves. We want to help them find their own passion.

For us to do this, we, as teachers must all rediscover our own passions and allow them to be a guiding force in our classrooms, creating for our students a place where they can discover their own. As this year comes to an end, I look to the possibilities that lie ahead, and I challenge myself to create a classroom environment where all of this is possible.  And while I’ll always look forward to 3:10, this process of self-reflection and introspection has shown me that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “if I should ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further,” than my classroom walls.