I learned to play Jambalaya on the guitar when I was ten.  Though originally by Hank Williams, I’d only heard it played by my guitar teacher, a scraggly guy named Jerry who in 1976, wore long hair and beads and taught lessons in living rooms.

Hearing Jambalaya again, this time strummed more soulfully than accurately by Kentucky Teacher of the Year Holly Bloodworth in her keynote address at the KEA TALK conference, certainly brought back memories.  The room was full, and everyone was staring at her, not quite sure what to think.  Then we got it.

Teachers have some new, shiny tools available to us — technology, the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, project-based learning, brain research, and a progressive professional growth system.  Unlike many recycled trends, these offer genuinely new challenges to both teachers and students.

Our job is public. It is not easy for new or veteran teachers to work in their public classrooms trying out these new, unfamiliar tools. Yet, if we want to get better at what we do, if we want out students to reap the benefits of modern research and technology, we must be brave.  As we teach our students new skills, we must push ourselves to learn new skills, too.  And, just like we tell our students, we must be willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again.

So, Holly, who’d just challenged herself to learn the guitar, played and sang Jambalaya, badly, for a packed room of over 300 teachers.  And I cried.  Tears of pride, of excitement, and love for my profession and for those other teachers who also spent two summer days talking about their practice, their desires, their fears and dreams for their students and themselves.

As we broke into sessions, I found myself engaged by both the content presented and the character of the people:

  • While learning how to re-imagine teaching the five-paragraph essay from teachers Jean Wolph, Missy Callaway and Suzanne Jackson, I also got to share stories with English colleagues from Fayette, Nelson, and Woodford counties as we talked about how to best support student writing.  We’d never met before, but we shared a passion that instantly bonded us.  This is us:






  • In a session about creating a climate of success, teacher Johnathan Eppley stood on a table and demanded that we engage every single child everyday, no matter their predispositions or circumstances.  I sat with teacher Christi Elkins-Gabbard from the urban middle school, Lexington Traditional Magnet.  Feeling bereaved, she explained that of her 100 students, nine had failed her class.  She didn’t take our time together to share all of the magnificent ways she helped those who succeeded, but bemoaned her lack of success with those who did not.  Almost as an aside as the session ended, she told me how her team will transition to project-based learning groups in the fall to make sure this doesn’t happen again – an entirely new landscape upon which she can push harder and try for that 100%.

So what did I learn at the KEA TALK Conference?

Talk to teachers.  We are bursting with ideas, determination, and dreams for our students.  We want them to learn to read, to write, to solve problems – and to fly.  This is both an exciting and challenging time to be a teacher.

Have patience.  We have the unique job of blending what we’ve learned from experience with new, complex and intriguing advances in our field.  We want what is best for kids, and we will work tirelessly to make it happen.  We just might hit a few bad chords while we try to get it right.

I quit guitar lessons by the time I was eleven.  Yet, I’ve stuck with teaching for twenty-three years. Holly reminded us what it feels like to be brand new at something.  That’s how our students feel every day.  At TALK, I felt that way, too.  As I start back to school, I want to remember this feeling and infuse my classroom with the unlimited possibilities it suggests.

Strum on, Holly Bloodworth.  We hear you.

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