Oh! The Things You Can Learn

I stood in the middle of the room. In awe. I watched as I sent commands to the group of 40 teachers. I they pressed and pulled their bodies into different shapes. I watched as they lay quietly on their mats through the living kindness meditation.

I witnessed the teachers’ stillness even through a long-winded announcement — clearly not ready to come back out to the world, to our school.

This week our school got a milestone. Not only did we bring wellness and yoga to teachers– we created a place where our teachers learn from one another. 
Six years ago when my friend and I told our administration that the way they did Professional Development was not working anymore and we were told to take it over- we envisioned a collaborative space where teachers listen to the wisdom and learning that each person possesses.

This week we organized a mini conference for teachers in our school. We had teachers fill out a survey for what they wanted to learn, and then we had teachers volunteer to present based on their expertise. Teachers got to choose the sessions they attended. We had a total of 24 sessions with multiple people presenting in most of them.

The feedback afterwards was phenomenal. People loved the choice of which sessions they attended. People loved the opportunity to share their expertise. And most of all… teachers realized the incredible amount of expertise in our building. 

If you have never experienced the power of teachers teaching one another, go ahead, sit down with a colleague and see what’s hiding underneath. 

Post in the comments what you learn.

The Strength Behind the Mighty Republic

When I was in my first round of grad school studying how to teach students whose first language is not English, my advisor challenged my thinking about the role of teacher in public life.

She taught that being a teacher is a political act.

Think about this a moment: those of us who have chosen teaching as our professions have chosen to dedicate our lives in a political act.

I know, right?

When I first began to grapple with my understanding of this reality it frightened me. I had done a very good job of keeping a veil between myself and my students, thank you very much. I did not need them to know that I felt strongly about the power of education to fight poverty- I would just go out and do it.

Boy- she was completely right. Today, as I see it, the act of teaching, and teaching in a public school, is the greatest testament to the belief in democracy that I know.

I walk into my classroom each day because I believe that every child has a right to a world-class education. I believe my lowest performing students have a shot to reach their fullest potential. I believe that my students who don’t speak English as a first language have every bit the same right to education as the students sitting next to them whose families have been here since the beginning of our country’s inception.

I have taught in countries where this was not the belief. Countries where education is only thought to be valuable to a certain class or a certain gender of people. It is the notion n that we educate EVERYONE that creates the democratic voice and keeps our republic alive.

Please, friends, let’s not forget that.

Why are you awesome?

They are standing in a circle. It’s their choice. After I tell my story, they say, “Okay, what’s the point?”

I tell them that once their first essays hit the grade book, they are going to need to remember their answer to the question, “Why are you awesome?” That when times get tough in my class, when they don’t feel awesome, they need to keep this fact in mind, the answer to that question:

“Because I am.”

The fact that each of those faces looking at me is awesome because of their very being – THAT is what I want them to tap into in the year they spend with me.

So they’re standing there. I finish my story, and they look so awkward: standing, not quite sure where to look, what to do with their arms, just…well…just awkward. Then a girl says, “This is so dumb Robbins.”

I reply,”It actually feels good. How do you know it’s dumb until you try it? How can you say it’s dumb if you haven’t experienced it?”

And then I say to her…”Why are you awesome?”

She throws up her arms and shouts, “Because! I! AM!”and begins laughing.

I ask the next student, “Why are you awesome?” She automatically responds, “Because I am.” She puts her chin down in response to answering and not fully believing it. Then a student in class says, “C’mon, do it. Really do it.”

That’s the turning point. From that moment on, my students will now randomly ask one another, “Why are you awesome?”

I now see my students in the hallway during passing periods…they will shout across the hallway, “Robbins, why are you awesome?”

This one small thing has changed the tenor of my class. It has created a place where whether students are struggling or they are excelling, the answer is never different, so they will hopefully develop the belief that it just doesn’t matter, they are awesome no matter what.

This belief that they are awesome by their very virtue of being, of living in this world, will carry them through grades they are not proud to have, through heartbreak they think they’ll avoid, and through disappointments they don’t see coming. It is this belief that will bring them to the other side.

The Learning Collaborative

We have officially launched our Learning Collaborative, that’s what we are calling our Teacher Leadership Initiative. We changed the name because we want to emphasize that we are all learning together: students, teachers, administrators. We are in this boat together and we will leave port together and we will set sail…together. Or not at all.

Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “Start with Why,” inspired our kickoff. Our thinking is that when we begin a huge initiative like this one, it is important to begin with why we’ve signed up to do it. When our Lead Learners team talked about this, it became really apparent that our reasons for continuing to come back to teaching year after year are closely tied to our belief that the Learning Collaborative can do great things in our school.

Our why for the Learning Collaborative? Inspired teachers empower students.

If teachers are given the time and the space to take risks to be inspired, this energy of inspiration will empower our students to do deep learning and to take their own academic risks. This is what creates powerful education.

This why will carry us through the mandates and the tough times. It will set the framework by which our school will create Powerful Learning Communities. When our Teacher Leaders first learned about the SLO goals the state and district wants teachers to complete, there were rumblings at first. But then as we processed together as a group we realized that the way we will implement them feeds directly into our why: Innovative teachers empower students. The notion that teachers are able to create their own goals from what they know about their students is innovative and empowering. We are no longer tied to how our students have performed in the past – we look at our students as they are here and now.


Teachers Making Lemonade

When Beyonce released her album Lemonade last spring, she revealed her life. She laid open all of her struggles for the world to see. The world caught a glimpse into her marriage. We caught a glimpse into her beliefs about her marriage. She opened herself up to the criticisms of the world. She opened herself up to judgement by people who have no idea.

But the critics loved the album. The notion that she released it as a visual album  first was something new and different and caught the world’s attention. She created an album that is a journey, an internal journey. She created an album for the world to see her heart, to see her in the place of life she finds herself.

The album is so personal she even included a clip where her grandmother talks about making lemonade out of lemons she’s been served.

When people get vulnerable, when they work for that which they most deeply believe, they earn the respect of many. They bring more people into their circles. They create a space for others to engage in vulnerability and openness.

This school year I am embarking on something just like this. I believe to my core what I was taught in my work with the National Writing Project – that teachers will solve any problem we put in front of them. When we give teachers the space to be innovative, they will empower their students to do great things in the world.

The dream that I created with my group of four: Tina Barber, Christine Jones, Angela Gallagher, and Christine Archer-Davison, is about to become a reality. Teachers in my building are going to work together to solve problems together. Our vision is that our teachers will examine student work together to make choices that will help our students become better at whatever it is we’re teacher. The idea is that teachers, through discussion and reflection, will figure out how to be even better than they already are.

I can’t wait to see the amazing things our teachers empower our students to do.

But I am white-knuckle scared. I am afraid of the naysayers. I am afraid that we lose focus. I am afraid that teachers won’t see what I see, that their power is so much greater than many of them realize.

I know that when we do what is in our hearts, what we know is true to our core, we must follow. We have to see what it has to offer or we will never know. Queen Bey taught me this. She showed me that to take a risk, to plan your risk carefully, will present the world with something new and something more awesome than it knew before.

A Little Less Ironed

They came to me last August. They were all tanned, bright-eyed, newly outfitted, and confident. They were confident in their abilities to write cohesive essays. They were confident in their abilities to earn A’s in my class. They were confident juniors and seniors, ready to take on AP English Language and Composition.

There is the kid who took my writing lab class last year, a class designed for students who struggle with writing. She knew taking an AP course was a stretch and would challenge her, but she was ready to take on something she very well could have failed. She was willing to take a chance, to take a risk with herself to see what she is made of

There is the kid who, in order to test the establishment of school itself, made a deal with himself not to do any of the homework assigned. He was very quiet about this little deal he made, and I am proud to say I was able to figure it out fairly early into the school year. He wanted to see if he could pass the class with minimal work, only doing what was required during class time.

There is the kid who has traveled to Kathmandu who I instantly felt connected to. He created  spaces to engage in conversations with me about his writing, about reading the Beatniks, and to compare travel adventures.


With one of my students, cheering her on before walking in to her exam this morning. 

There is the kid who started out with a rocky relationship with me – the kid who goofed up some communication early on – who thought I “hated” him, but who ultimately redeemed himself. He worked to create more open communication. He worked to understand where I was coming from when he upset me. He worked to become a better stronger writer.

I could keep going down my list of students who have had an effect on me this year, but that is unnecessary because they know their effect, and I know how much I appreciate how much each class changes me every single year I get to teach.

So when Cullen asked me why I did not cry on my last day with them, it really took me back. He told me that some of his other teachers got very emotional their last day together. He told me that he was hurt that I wasn’t crying or didn’t even seem upset. While he said this playfully, I have thought about this since Monday when he asked the question.

Cullen: here is my answer. Here is why I don’t cry when my students leave me.

I have done my very best to make sure you are a better writer than when you walked in that door in August. We have worked together to think and read and write and create feedback that would help you grow.


With some of my students this morning before walking in to their exam. 

I know that you are leaving me a better stronger writer, a better stronger human being than when you walked through that door. That despite any differences we may have had, all those are laid to rest because all of us know that the intention has always been to prepare you for whatever the future holds for you.

What the future holds is very different for each of you and cannot be predicted in this moment. But here is what I do know – I have done my very very best to prepare you for whatever experiences fortune shines upon you. I have made my greatest efforts to make sure that it is not the difficulty of writing that will ever hold you back from whatever it is you deem valuable enough to spend your time doing.

When you walked into my room for that first time last August, you were naive. You thought you could write. You figured you’d take this class, get some credit, and it would be done. But the fact of the matter is you are now more prepared than ever for greatness.

You are not quite as optimistic, maybe a little more skeptical of some things. Your clothes are a little less ironed, a little less new, a little less neat. You are a little more unsure of  your skills simply because you have realized that the more you know the more there is to know. In short, you are a better thinker, a better writer…and a better human being.

And…I – I am a better human being for having spent a year with all of you. What is there to be sad about that? Yes, I am a better human being: I am a little more open to students who struggle, I am a little more understanding of those of you who create little tests to see what you can get away with, and I am more willing to laugh with you when you goof up, and I am more excited than ever to share travel adventures with you.

There is nothing to cry about, dear ones. There is only joy and happiness and excitement to see what your future holds.  It is with excitement I send you into the world to use your new-found writing skills to create goodness  in the world.


Mom and Me

When I was two years old she put me on skis. She made sure I learned how to swim. She encouraged me to write, to draw, to even make those ’80s friendship bracelets. She cheered with me as I got better and faster on my bike.

She made sure I did all the things I do well now.

She died 11 years ago – Mother’s Day. The week after she died I remember driving to school, wondering. Wondering how my life would change with her gone. I won’t lie- we had a really complicated relationship. Her death, nonetheless, knocked the wind out of me.

In the last 11 years I have worked to become a less judgemental person than she. I have worked to eat healthfully. I have worked to treat myself with compassion.

The truth is- she did none of this.

Her struggles have become my strengths. I have worked at the same school for the last eleven years. In the same time span she and I had moved to at least five different towns. I have stayed in the same career for my whole adult life. I am married to the love of my life and we will celebrate our 18th anniversary in June. She worked her way through three marriages and countless boyfriends.

I have worked very hard to move into a place of loving what I have. It is this love that shows up in my day to day life. It shows up in the laughter with my students. It shows up when I cuddle with my daughter after a long day. It presents its smile while on my mat at yoga. It nourishes me with the foods I choose to eat. And it snuggles in at night as my husband and I share our day.

Love is present everywhere in my life. Losing my mom allowed me the space to work on this love.

For that, I am grateful.


I have a confession to make. I am a kindergarten dropout.

It’s true.

I failed kindergarten. The report card objectively stated “motor skills not strong enough for first grade” in perfectly curved cursive handwriting. 

The teacher, I don’t even remember her name, tried all that year to get me to write with my right hand. The results of these efforts were evident by that report card. My second year in kindergarten went better bad I was graduated to first grade.

It was in third grade that my school taught cursive handwriting. I had that left- handed style where my whole arm would drape over my paper and my little hand would create letters almost upside down. My paper would be turned at a right angle compared to all my friends’ papers. 

My teacher would draw perfectly curved letters on the board. Then she would hand out the chunky blue and red-lined paper so we could practice. 

I could never figure out how to get the loops to curve to the right like all of my friends. I could never get the letters to look right. My teacher would try to help me, but would soon get frustrated.

She finally told me to color, to practice using my hands with crayons to get the motion. 

Yah, right. 

In my estimation, these two early school experiences were the foundation for my belief that I couldn’t write. This belief stuck with me through high school and finally ended in college in Dr. Findlay’s adolescent literature course. He wrote, “You have a lot of important things to say” on my paper. This is all it took.

One person to believe in me enough that I could believe in myself.

I will never give up on my students.

I know what it feels like to have someone give up on me. This feeling, this is not something any child should be burdened with. 

I teach to empower the next generation to believe. To believe in their abilities. To believe in their talents. To believe in their in manifested potential.

To believe they have something important to say.

The Mythology of Teaching

“Oh my gosh, you work so many long hours. You must do incredible things in your classroom.”

“Boy, your car is parked when I walk into school in the morning and when I leave every night. You really work hard.”

“You’re always running around, you must really be working hard.”

These are things that I hear teachers say to one another daily to commend each other for what looks like hard work. Teachers who support one another in the mythology that to be an excellent teacher, one must give up their personal life, that they must look like they are running around, that they should have the appearance of being overly busy and stressed. This mythology has GOT to stop or we are going to continue to lose our newbie teachers from burnout.

The truth of the matter is that even those of us who hold it together and who look like we are not overly stressed are just as overwhelmed as those who are running around feeding into the mythology. The difference? I do not want to emit negative energy, I do not want to bring “stressed” energy into my life. I want to feel calm, so I try to behave in a calm way.

A colleague of mine told me today that another teacher’s view of me is that I don’t work hard, that I have it easy. So here’s my question: why can’t we just be supportive of one another? Why must we judge each other based on our own truths?

The mythology we have set up for ourselves is that if we don’t lose ourselves in our profession, then we are not worthy teachers. How about we change this narrative?

I propose we change it to: let’s do our best. Let’s keep things positive and loving for our students. This means teachers love themselves enough to treat themselves and each other like everyone is doing the best they can.

What’s your narrative? What would you change about the mythology around teaching?

Let Them Know You Believe in Them

I am a little heart broken. I have a 15-year-old daughter who has swum on and off since she was 5 years old. She is thinking of quitting the sport altogether.

Yes, the practices are hard. Yes, the practices are early. Yes, she has had a number of her friends quit the team. Yes, she has other commitments in high school she prioritizes over swimming. Yes, she loves the sport. Yes, she began to excel.

And then she got a new coach. It was great at first. But then she could tell that he stopped believing in her. And now…well now…she wants to quit. Because of her age, she doesn’t want to switch teams.

If it’s not with this team she’s on now, she’s done.

She wants someone who will believe in her. Someone who will push her to reach her potential. But this coach, this coach has her swim with elementary-aged students, not even with her age group. She is never tired after practice, and she is calling enough already. If she is going to spend so much time doing something, she wants to spend it with someone who believes in her.

The classroom lesson? Students know when you don’t believe in them. They give up and disengage when you don’t believe in them. So go out, take a risk, let your students  know without a doubt you’re on the journey with them.