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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

5 Decades, 6 Schools, 1 Teacher Dedicated to Kids

Work smarter, not harder!

That’s what I’m doing here–this post actually is meeting a homework assignment for me, AND allowing me to write for the Coop Catalyst blog this week as well. The question in my class is: “Reflect on your teaching career and create a timeline of events that have had a significant impact on the educator you have become.” The question here is: “What is your journey around activism as an educator?  What are its milestones, its epiphanies?”  I’m simply merging the two questions.

I AM an activist. In one end-of-the-year ceremony where I was receiving the obligatory Jefferson cup as I was transferring to another school, one of my principals said, “Paula is probably the most aggravating teacher I have ever worked with, as she is always pushing and asking for something. I just have to keep reminding myself, though, that the reason she does that is for the kids. She is also one of the best child advocates I have ever known. Her work is all about the students.”

That’s it. It IS all about the kids.

I left my first job teaching after only one year because the principal called me into his office to fuss at me for having kids stomp their feet in rhythm to music. (He called it dancing, which was against HIS religion.) I realized I had to be in a school with a leader who put kids first.

Right after labor day, I was added as a 3rd teacher to an overloaded grade. The two teachers already there  got to pick the 10 kids each they gave me.  You can imagine my class. Once I figured that out, I vowed never to do that to someone else if I were ever in the giving seat.

That year, even with “those kids,” my principal okayed me letting students work their own way through the math book. I practiced differentiation before it was called that, and watched kids thrive when given the opportunity to lead their own learning.

In my first 5 years, I taught 3 different grades in 2 different schools. I showed resiliency and rose to each occasion to my own satisfaction.

In the mid 80’s, my county hired an Early Childhood coordinator, and we began having EC conversations after school (voluntary attendance).  It was in those I realized I did things differently in my classroom than many people. It was in those I realized how much we could all learn by simply sharing and talking about what  we do. (I’ve continued to experience the power of that epiphany through the PLN I have built.)

In the late 80’s, early 90’s I got my M. Ed in Early Childhood with a brilliant mentor who constantly pushed me and taught me to lead my own learning in school situations. I became involved in state organizations, began presenting regularly and began to experience life outside of my classroom and around the country through sharing with other educators beyond my county.

During this same time period, our county hooked up to the Internet.  I had one of two modems in the school in my room, and connected my kids to other people outside of our classroom through email. Again, the power of people connecting was brought home to me as I watched my 5 year olds connect to others over email, teaching them and learning from them.

In 1991, I left the school I had been in for 17 years because I had an incompetent principal who was threatened by my knowledge and who made my life miserable. That transfer increased my sense of control, and again, I realized I didn’t have to put up with principals who weren’t in it for the kids.

During the 90’s, that same principal who described me as aggravating moved me between grade levels every year but one in 8 years at his school. It was for a variety of reasons, but I realized I wasn’t an “early childhood teacher,” as I had classified myself in my head. I was a teacher and could teach anything and do it well.

It was also during this time I began using technology extensively. I bought my own computer for work at home. And, I began building my presence on the web with an award-winning “Cut Loose With Dr. Seuss” webpage.

When he left that school, so did I–I realized I was a teacher who needed a principal who could deal with my pushing and my activism, so I began my school hopping. I lucked into a position where I facilitated the entry of the first laptop lab in our county. I saw how what I did in a resource role changed what happened in classrooms.  (The school was ripe for this because of years of prep by a fabulous principal. I just stepped into a great situation with great teachers who were ready for what I had to offer.)

In 1999, I added to my global PLN when I was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator and began regular communication with a very special group of educators worldwide. Learning how other people around the world used technology, thought about innovation and worked on the work brought home the power of a global PLN and the incredible growth involved when people connect across countries and cultures.

During the first decade of 2000, I became a Gifted Resource Teacher and realized just how MUCH we bore kids in school. My own grandson entered school and had a hateful Kindergarten experience, so I became a much more vocal advocate for learners at both ends of the spectrum, especially for kids NOT in my classroom.

I’ve had experience teaching at an incredibly dysfunctional school and with an incredibly dysfunctional principal, so I know how crucial leadership in a building is to the success of ALL learners.

I continued to be in the forefront in the use of technology in many ways, and continued to build  national and international relationships through technology and shared experiences, so I know how powerful using technology to build relationships can be.

I’ve discovered a lot of understandings about myself over the many years I’ve learned from my students.  I KNOW that children are the most important resource we have for forging the future of our world, and I have committed myself to support their growth in understanding themselves at an earlier age than I understood myself.

I am an advocate for my students, and always have been.  I am a lifelong learner and that has led me to be “hopping with technology” as a friend once described me. I am in my 36th year teaching and am currently taking the third in a series of  four 3 credit college classes that address being an eTeacher.  The advocacy, lifelong learning and technology use are qualities of me as an activist, and as a person.

The experience of writing on the Cooperative Catalyst blog, and the power of building and being a member of a PLN outside of my building, my county, my state, and even my nation has made me look not only at my own practice differently, but also my own life.  I am more committed than ever to teaching adults as I do my students–with all of my heart and in ways that impact upon their hearts.

Leading and learning with the adults that surround your kids is just as important as leading and learning daily with your students. Teaching in a silo-especially when you are good at it–is like living in a well, deep and cold.  Are you in that silo or are  you building the bridges that connect you and your kids to the world in ways that stretch you all and connect us all globally?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


22 thoughts on “5 Decades, 6 Schools, 1 Teacher Dedicated to Kids

  1. The interplay of experience and reflection in your post makes for a captivating read, Paula.

    In thinking about mentors, principals, and the overlap (sometimes) and exclusivity between the two (other times), have you come up with a profile you look for in learning from others or working for them?

    More broadly, what do activist teachers need in their leaders? From their own mentors and teachers?

    If teacher evaluation and tenure are going to be overhauled, as they have been locally, how can principal evaluation be overhauled, as well, to allow for more organic, lateral work and influence between teachers and building-level administrators? What formal changes should be made to the principal’s job to push collaboration and learning over management and judgment?

    Thanks for finding a way to post this week, Paula – I’m so glad you did.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 6:19 am
  2. Chad,
    I have come up with a profile for someone I want to work for and with in a school. I first look to see if the person is a listener. One of my trusted mentors (and a principal of five years) told me (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that she sometimes wished she could give an IQ test to teacher applicants. She said that if a person was smart, cared about kids, and intuitively connected with them, then the teaching skills could be taught. But if those things weren’t present, then the person probably wouldn’t be successful in the classroom.

    In thinking about that (which I thought was pretty wild at the time), I’ve come to recognize the wisdom in it. I do look for intelligence in a principal. I do look for someone who connects to both adults and kids. And I do look for someone who cares. . . What do you look for?

    I think one of the major actions that needs to happen in our county, Chad, (and probably in most systems) is for our leadership team to have conversations about social networking. We have enough principals and central office folks on that can talk about their experiences–but we have others who just don’t get the importance of building a global connection. How can our leaders council teachers on how to facilitate/watch out for/keep kids safe in social networking sites if they don’t get it or understand it themselves?

    On another note, I went and got some of the coconut milk ice cream last night–haven’t tried it yet, though. Thanks for the tip!

    Loved your post this week–hoping to get a chance to respond.


    Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 6:32 am
    • Paula, I look for many of the same qualities in my principals and mentors. I need a listener to help me process my more outlandish and ambitious designs. I need a critic who pushes me to question myself and my plans. I need a student, parent, and teacher advocate who can call me honestly and constructively when I mess up, and who can help me get past self-recrimination to improve my practice. I need a little bit of a manager who can help me set immediate goals. I need somebody who gets me; I don’t always know what to do with what I’m thinking about, and I always need help tracking and recording things. I need a vision-sharer and a details-coach. I need somebody who extends every teacher the flexibilities they need to meet the non-negotiable expectations of teaching and relating to kids at a student-first school. I need somebody who lets me go out a bit too far and helps me problem-solve solutions for moving forward without going back.

      What do you other Catalyzers look for in a mentor or leader?

      I agree about social networking, especially concerning public education’s needs for authentic learning experiences, lateral power and decision sharing amongst adults, timely action on kids’ behalf, and transparent, public accountability for teaching and learning.

      I hope the ice cream is delicious. I will have to buy a pint on the way home.

      I look forward to your comments on my post, Paula –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 9:22 am
    • Paula, Jumping in here quickly. I completely agree about social networking. Something we haven’t talked about yet in the blog is what I consider to be the DRAMATIC TRANSFORMATION in teaching and learning that is occurring (will occur whether educators get with the plan or not) due to the new tools we have available for learning. Social networking is just one tool. Who is authorized to provide knowledge, how it is validated, who has access to it, and therefore, what the purpose of the school is, being metamorphosed before our eyes. I’m so glad you’re on this. Although there are lots of other groups talking about this, maybe it should be a CoopCat topic for us at some point?

      Posted by Kirsten | May 12, 2010, 4:24 pm
  3. I love it! This reads eerily like an assignment I had for a CAGS class several years back,; I kept moving (a moving target is harder to hit!) and administrators found the revolving door. 7 administrators in 9 years-or something like that. It is so important to create learning experiences for yourself and to learn from your experiences( is that doubletalk?)
    Last night I was trying to find the Boston Globe column Donald Murray wrote on the Success of Failure-but I failed. He wrote about his success in life was a direct result of all of his failures-such an important lesson! Thanks for sharing, Paula!

    Posted by Cathy Brophy | May 12, 2010, 7:22 am
  4. Cathy,
    When you’re an out-of-the-box thinker, I believe your supervisor must at least be able to tolerate ambiguity and sometimes even what may look like chaos. . . I sometimes wonder if we lose MANY bright young teachers because of the imposing, rigid structures typically in our schools.

    Just as I go looking for the odd ducks in classrooms as I observe, I often seek out the odd duck teachers, too. We all need to feel accepted and like we belong and too often different thinkers don’t. Sounds like you were looking for just the right place and didn’t manage to find it in that school division! Wish you were in Central VA, Cathy–we’d welcome your innovative ideas!

    Thanks for responding. I’ll see if I can find the article, too, as it sounds great. I love reading his work.


    Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 7:59 am
  5. your journal is inspirational. it shows great commitment and strong desire to engage children in their learning. It’s sad to read that principals are not there for the children. keep on living your dream of making learning challenging and interesting so that all learners are engaged.

    Posted by Trish | May 12, 2010, 8:09 am
  6. Wow! What a great read and a great career — so nice to know that there are educators who do “put the child first.” This can be such an isolated field of work, but you have shown how to keep going in positive ways and you give others confidence that this is not only OK, but the “right thing to do” as I heard so many times in my generation. — We have some similar traits and I’m proud you are an internet friend.

    Posted by linda mcdermon | May 12, 2010, 9:43 am
    • Love my internet friends. . . we always have to inspire each other and ask the hard questions, don’t we? Then, we try to share the answers we find and also the additional questions we discover along the way. It’s the sharing and the questions that keep me going. . .and I appreciate you, too.

      How do we reduce the isolation, especially for newbies ? How do we show the power of the network to people who claim no time, or no desire to forge relationships beyond their face to face ones? How do we paint pictures of what the kids need –and deserve–from us in this day and time to those who don’t se beyond their classroom? I’m trying to figure out how to help my local peers grow out of their classrooms into the world. Any ideas?

      Always trying,

      Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 8:44 pm
  7. Paula, I enjoyed reading about your journey as a teacher and a learner.

    Journey’s with roadblocks, barbed wire and land mines are the norm – not the exception.

    thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 12, 2010, 2:21 pm
  8. Paula, This is a truly inspirational post. One of the marvelous pieces of it to me is that you kept on going with your focus on students and their learning (I just wrote a piece for EdWeek about that), even before the Net and your ability to colleague around with lots of folks from around the globe. I think the comment from your principal, “Paula is probably the most aggravating teacher I have ever worked with, as she is always pushing and asking for something…” is fantastic. I have to echo that. In graduate school I was talking with a very high status professor about another student, saying how much I admired him because he was ALWAYS in trouble in graduate school, always pushing folks and never saying things that would get his bread buttered. That professor just looked at me to say, “Girl, you are @##$ crazy.”

    Glad to know ya. Trouble. Hope we can make some together.

    Posted by Kirsten | May 12, 2010, 4:31 pm
  9. I’d love it, Kirsten. . .maybe the Coop Crew should present somewhere and see what we could stir up! LOL

    Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 4:45 pm
  10. Paula,

    What a great reflection! Your story is an inspiration to me that even when we are forced to work in conditions that seem impossible and dysfunctional (the first 5 years of my career!) that by being strong, level-headed and creative we can find success and follow our dreams. I, too, am leaving my current school and hoping for the best.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | May 12, 2010, 7:05 pm
    • Mary Beth,
      I hope your new venture helps you grow in ways you want. Look for the like-minded folks there to have friends to talk to, and be your level-headed questioning self to the ones you wonder about. Find the good in all and use their strengths to help them–and yourself– grow. I look forward to reading about your adventures and the new skills and ideas you develop on Twitter and in your blog, and I hope to hear about them face to face next January at Educon!

      Always hoping to inspire!
      And, always hoping to be inspired!

      Posted by Paula White | May 12, 2010, 8:35 pm
    • I can’t wait to learn more about your journey – I’m so glad you visited and joined in the conversation, Mary Beth!


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 12, 2010, 9:02 pm
  11. I think it would be awesome if we could all go to the AERO Conference at the end of June. Kirsten and I will be there and hopefully Adam. We should hold a Coop-in there.

    And Paula. I just wanted to saw thank you. Your story makes me smile for so many reasons. Thank you for caring and being there for the kids and yourself. We need to remember how great some teachers are, when we are talking about the ones that are lacking. I hope have as much passion after 36 years as you do. Year one will began next year….and I can’t wait…. and hope to continue to learn from you.


    Posted by dloitz | May 12, 2010, 10:03 pm


  1. Pingback: Understanding Teaching « Cooperative Catalyst - June 6, 2010

  2. Pingback: Teaching In A Silo | Reflections of the TZSTeacher - June 10, 2010

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