Open Letter to the Lanier Community

Dear Lanier Family,

The last four years serving as a teacher at Lanier High School have been a true blessing in my life. Because of my colleagues, my students, and Lanier’s administration, I have thrived as an educator, and I had so many opportunities to grow as a teacher leader. Over the course of this past year, I made the difficult decision to apply for an instructional coach role out of the Academies and Career & Technical Education (CTE) department at the Instructional Support Center (ISC). My decision was never based on any unhappiness or disconnect I felt at Lanier. On the contrary, every year I have become more endeared to the Lanier community and our cluster of schools. My decision was entirely motivated by the desire to see and know more–to grow through a new experience. In practical terms, this new opportunity would allow me to work alongside and help train teachers across multiple schools, which is an exciting prospect for me. So just a short time ago I was told I was being offered the position, and I accepted.

All that said, this letter is not about me. It’s about my students, colleagues, and the Lanier community. This is my chance to thank and praise you. Although I know I won’t be in Lanier High School’s hallways everyday, my experiences here have prepared me to make (hopefully) a bigger impact and continue my personal growth. For that, I cannot thank you all enough!

To My Students:

My first year teaching at Lanier was magic. It revitalized me as a teacher and really all because of you all–the students I first served starting the fall of 2014. You all challenged me and reinforced in me that my teaching philosophy could thrive here. Those of you preparing to graduate are a special group to me. For one, you’re my last full group of students I have taught, but more importantly I had a blast teaching you! Your freshman year was my most experimental year (which for better or worse you may have been aware of); I challenged myself to provide you all with more authentic writing opportunities and really refine the way I provided feedback. I wanted to make my room as participatory as possible and invite you all to explore who you were and what you were becoming. I’m sure I didn’t achieve what I was after everyday, but what stands out to me is so many of you were willing to buy into the work we were doing together in class. I am so proud of each of you, and calling your name aloud at graduation will be an honor!

There were many of you I had a chance to teach either in the Teaching as a Profession (TAP) class or as a Work Based Learning (WBL) intern. You are all quite special to me as well. You all were my first foray into CTE, and I loved working with all of you. As my recent WBL posts from students demonstrate, there is so much pride to take in the amazing work you all did this year. To the students in my TAP class last year, thank you for exploring world of teaching with me. You will go down as one of my favorite classes who genuinely wanted to explore teaching as an art and profession (most days)! I hope at least a few of you enter the field. We need great teachers.

To the rest of the student body of Lanier, I want to say thank you for embracing me as your academy coach for three years. I tried to improve your knowledge of college and career options and open up opportunities to you that simply do not exist most places. I hope you saw and felt that. You all are Gwinnett’s best kept secret–you are creative, critical, diverse, leaders, and community-driven. This secret won’t keep for much longer, though; it is just a matter of time before everyone knows just what Lanier students and alumni are capable of achieving. Your worth goes so far beyond state and county tests–many of you will lead the way in business and industry, and I feel secure knowing that a Lanier graduate really is ready for a world where in reality not everyone goes to college or completes college; rather, you all understand there are a profound number of professions that do not require a four-year degree. That knowledge is so powerful. I hope you know and understand that!

To My Colleagues:

First and foremost, I want all my Lanier colleagues to know I am not running away from anything! I love Lanier! That love is first and foremost because of our students, but you all are right there with them. The core of Lanier’s staff is amazing, resilient, and so passionate about this community. You simply cannot find that everywhere. I loved coming to work everyday because I knew I was working alongside the best teachers.

When I first arrived as an English teacher, the department welcomed me with open arms, and I immediately felt the camaraderie and collaborative spirit of the group. While some of the great teachers in this department have come and gone, I have continued to be in awe of the work you do as a group. While there is always room to improve, this is a group from the moment I stepped on campus I knew would do whatever was best for kids and would collaborate with anyone anywhere on campus. You are consummate professionals always seeking to get better–I will always admire you for that.

When I become the school’s academy coach, I was suddenly exposed to the wide range of amazing teachers we had in each department. While I know I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with everyone, I always felt you respected me, and please believe me when I say I have the highest respect for you. I am so thankful this position permitted me to work closely with teachers outside of my own content expertise. I especially loved working with my peeps in science. You all are amazing! Some of the best teachers I have ever witnessed are in the science department, and you all were first to give my crazy project based learning (PBL) ideas a chance. I also have to give a shout out to my CTE department, which I had the honor of leading this past year. You are wonderful collaborators, and I admire your work ethic and the relationships you build with students. Many of our students come to Lanier just to be in your class! I’m not many teachers can say that. I hope you all feel I did right by you this past year.

I have purposefully avoided giving specific shout outs, but there are a few people who I abolutely have to say thank you to in this letter. First, Mike Reilly–the man, the myth, the legend–I am so thankful I called you four years ago to ask what was going on at Lanier. That phone call literally changed my life. I now owe you double for that–once many, many years ago when you introduced me to PBL and again when you shepherded me into Lanier’s hallways. To my academy leads and closest confidants, Bill Smith, Randy Crutchfield, Margaret Rohrbaugh, and Steven Pryor, thank you for being part of the vision to create an academy school and advocating for the model and your students. You kept me sane most days, and you sticking around year after year with me meant the world to me. To Collin Jones and Glenn Rhoades, two colleagues I feel I had a chance to collaborate with and mentor a bit, thank you for believing in me and your help at every turn. You both are very special to me and my story as an educator, and I hope you both know that.

Finally, to the administrative and clerical teams I have had the honor of serving alongside for the last three years, thank you! While my experience is limited, I cannot fathom a better team of administrators or clerks. You are each about kids first and foremost, and you do your jobs with excellence in mind. You are collaborative, respectful, and do your jobs at a high, high level. I am so thankful I had a chance to work with you. You each have taught me so much about what it takes to run a school, and you reminded every day to never lose sight that what we do is and will always be for our students.

To the Lanier Community:

Much like I wrote earlier to the students, I feel that the Lanier community is one of the best kept secrets in Gwinnett. You are deep and rich with love for our schools, our neighbors, and our city. Having a community so connected and caring is so very rare. Moreover, to see how genuine that connectedness and care is–that is truly very rare. You are comprised of amazing parents, church-goers, city employees, small business owners, and community leaders. I am thankful and humbled that I have had a chance to work so closely with so many of you.

While Lanier will not be my home base or sole concern any more, please know I am still very much part of this community. I live in Sugar Hill, and I believe in our city and schools. Trust me, I am not going anywhere!

I’ll close with a final thank you to all who have supported me, gently corrected me, and pulled me up when I was down. I could not thrive and grow without the time and care you have given me. You are all truly special to me as a professional and as a community member.

Hook ‘Em Horns!

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The Parkland Conversation: Caring & Empathy in Our Schools

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In honor of the nationally student-organized Parkland walkouts today, I am posting this today.

Take heart reader, by in large, this is not a politically charged post, but it will serve as a call for change as many of my colleagues and the students I speak to each day are clamoring to see happen. I have spent hours since the February 14th tragedy wrestling with the realities of continued shootings in schools, the emotional fallout, political discord, scared children, attention-seeking adults, and the list goes on and on. I have started and stopped this post in my head many times, but as you can plainly see, I have decided my thoughts and the solutions I will try to convey are worth sharing.

Let’s start with what this post will really be about–I want to posit not only the need for our classrooms to be caring and empathetic in general but also the need for building caring and empathetic classrooms from the inside out, starting with teacher preparatory programs. While I am all for some extended gun laws and restrictions, this post will concentrate solely on what we as a society, in our little nook of it, can do to curtail or even prevent these events immediately.

Before we dive in, I would like to invite any educators who read this post to comment on it with their own use of care ethics and responsive classroom techniques and more specifically where and when you encountered those techniques. Continue reading

2017: A Retrospective

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My family after successfully defending.

2017 has been one of the most eventful years of my life. I became a dad; I earned my doctorate; I published an entry in SAGE encyclopedia as well as a few other neat moments along the way. Today’s post is dedicated to recounting and appreciating this past year, so fair warning that this post is selfishly about me and my family. I will unpack and reflect on my pedagogy, of course, but I’ll spend time doing the same about me personally.

A BIG thank you to the many in my life who made this year a special one for me. Continue reading

Care & Empathy Training: Preparing Student Mentors to Work with Reluctant Peers

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Today I had a tremendous opportunity to put some of my research from my doctoral study to use in a whole new setting. A few weeks ago my special education department chair came to me with concerns about her peer mentors struggling to connect with her most at-risk students. (For quick background, my school has an ‘academy’ dedicated to serving our 50 most at-risk students as identified by grades, behavior, attendance and other factors under the special education umbrella.) I immediately jumped at the chance to provide training for these mentors, believing my newfound expertise in care ethics could help enlighten these mentors approach to working with their more reluctant peers.  Continue reading

“Lessons in the Family Orchard”: A Poem for the Mother of My Child

Happy Mother’s Day to one and all! To new moms, veterans, step-moms, mothers-to-be, mothers-in-waiting, motherly figures, single dads acting as mom and dad, and especially to those whose moms are no longer with us and those mothers whose child is not able to celebrate with them.

I rarely post personal work on the blog, but today is awfully special as it’s my wife’s first Mother’s Day as a newly minted mom. Below is the poem I gave her this morning. Enjoy!

Lessons in the Family Orchard

In elementary school, we learn about plants

and trees and their anatomies. Not

in detail, like the process of photosynthesis.

We learn about roots,

branches,

leaves.

Roots that dig deep into the earth;

branches that stretch into the open air;

leaves that color the sky.

We learn to admire trees for their age,

their colors, their breath of life. And

we see them as emblems of our own family.
We learn to trace our family’s roots,

branches,

leaves.

Roots that ground us to traditions;

branches that grow our legacy;

leaves that lead to new life.

I have learned to see you as our tree,

steadfast against the elements. You

continue to grow, reaching new heights.

I have learned about your roots,

branches,

leaves.

Roots that hold fast to us;

branches that protect us;

leaves that gave us new life.

You will learn to watch her grow in our

orchard only to start her own. She

will thrive in your umbrage day and night.

You will teach her about her roots,

branches,

leaves.

Roots that tell her she is known;

branches that show her reach;

leaves that lead to legacy.

She will grow, fed by your love–both pruning and watering;

she will love, led by your example–both truly and deeply–

just like the roots, branches, and leaves

of her mother.  

-W. K. Jones