Waiting in the Wings

What are the combined roles of support and collaboration in education?

If you are a teacher, I hope you have had the experience of working with other teachers in an effective Professional Learning Community. PLC’s can reduce the workload for teachers while increasing student success. Teachers often feel like they must be responsible to plan every lesson, individually track every student’s progress, and single-handedly create every assessment. Teachers who work together can set aside teacher burdens and see (and meet) more student needs.

Some PLC’s are more effective than others. If you are working in a less effective PLC, what would make it better?

How do your administrators and district personnel support you? Granted, you may also have had administrators and district staff you feel are less effective, but truly their role is support. Have you taken the time to get to know what they do? Have you communicated with them your needs? Do you know how and where they can provide support?

I am working in a new role this year. I will still be teaching half-time, and I’m so happy that I still get to spend a portion of my time with students. I’ll also be working in the district half-time, helping to build and support the Utah Microcredentials program. If you don’t yet know about microcredentials, I hope you will take some time to learn about them.

Microcredentials are personalized, competency-based professional development for teachers. Work at your own pace, not checking off assignments, but submitting evidence of competency in your classroom. Utah State is working to build teacher endorsements through microcredentials. Several endorsement areas are already available with microcredentials, and the goal is that all endorsements will eventually be available with microcredentials.

This will be a huge benefit to teachers like me, who have changed subject matter and age groups over the years and have had to get new endorsements through university programs for every subject I am licensed to teach. As a full-time teacher, working toward endorsements in a university program can be overwhelming! I’m excited to be able to support teachers who want to work on endorsements as a natural by-product of what they are already doing, without having to enroll in yet another university, pay high tuition costs, and figure out how to attend classes and teach at the same time.

As you get to know me, you’ll learn that I find connections to my work everywhere I go, even on vacation.

Mr. Coray and I were happy to be able to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival at the end of July. For those who haven’t had the chance to attend, the Shakespeare Festival includes high-quality productions of a variety of types of plays, but you can also attend free events and seminars.

We had tickets to see “Clue,” which was more fun than the movie, with stronger female characters, more board-game references, more physical humor, more endings, and even athletics and acrobatics. The actors were wonderful.

My favorite part of the festival, though, was the costume seminar with Sarah McCarroll, Wardrobe Supervisor and Costume Manager. I loved the insider details about the costumes, and Sarah had a delightful sense of humor. I took notes and even asked her afterward if I could quote her.

Much of what Sarah said felt connected to what I do, not only because I love costumes and fashion design, but because it relates to education.

Sarah talked about how acting is a job with a high cognitive load. There’s just so much to remember! Sarah can reduce the cognitive load for the actors by making sure they never have to give a thought to the next costume. She is simply waiting in the wings with the next costume ready to go. She said, “My job is to give the actors the tools to do what they need to do.”

Teaching is another job with a high cognitive load. Trying to remember everything that has to be done is intense! As teachers, we can provide similar support to each other by collaborating on lesson plans and brainstorming solutions to problems together. Administrators, support personnel, and district employees can also ensure that teachers have resources in place so that they don’t have to carry the entire burden of teaching alone.

People who sew tend to fall into two categories—those who create clothing, and those who quilt. Both require a specific skill set, and most people who sew focus on one or the other. Creating clothing requires the ability to get a good fit with quality construction. It’s highly technical and rarely cost-effective in a world of fast fashion. Some people call it a dying art. For that reason, it’s not easy to find quality fabrics for clothing.

Hobbyist quilters, on the other hand, are common. Local fabric stores cater to them with a large variety of colorful prints. When asked about sourcing fabric for costumes, Sarah said, “Here in Cedar City, we have JoAnn’s. JoAnn’s has some lovely quilters’ cottons.” Then, gesturing to a rack of costumes she added, “You don’t see any of those here.”  

Often teachers don’t have something given to them easily ready-made. Effective lesson planning requires technical skill. It’s hard work. And it turns out best when we source quality materials and use effective teaching techniques.  

Sarah showed us the lining and boning on the inside of one of the actress’s dresses. She explained that the costumes have to last the season, show after show every day, which means that the costumes must be just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.

Lesson plans that look easy and beautiful on the outside require significant planning and quality strategies on the inside. Again, effective collaboration makes this task easier.

When asked about the authenticity of the costumes, Sarah told us that they strive for historical accuracy, except in the case of the closures. The festival uses giant parka zippers in the backs of the dresses for quick costume changes. She told us that at the beginning of the season, there are costume changes they think they’ll never get done in time. “After a few weeks,” she joked, “We can do an 18-second costume change with enough time left over for a ham sandwich.”

Teaching is like this too. I remember early on in my teaching career thinking that I would never be able to juggle everything I needed to do at once, including presenting material, managing behaviors, documenting problems, watching for and providing feedback, and fully engaging students. Little by little, things like classroom management come to be second nature, and teaching becomes more comfortable. If you are a new teacher, go easy on yourself as the pieces come together. You’re learning, and you’ll get there!

I was so excited about Sarah’s presentation that I made a collage to help me remember the ideas that came with her words. As a teacher, I hope I continue to collaborate with and provide support for teachers around me. As a district employee, I also want to provide support that makes teachers’ jobs easier.

If you’re a teacher, I hope I can help reduce your cognitive load by sharing ideas that will help you feel like you don’t have to worry about the next costume. It will simply be waiting in the wings, ready to go.


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USU Clothing and Textile Training and the Mental Health Benefits of Sewing

A week ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of the best professional development conferences I have ever attended. Teachers attend a variety of required trainings every year to maintain licensure. Some of the trainings are mandated, and many are redundant. I’ve been at full-day trainings that go from 7:30-3:30, and teachers are counting the minutes after lunch until the training is over. This training was totally different. It ended at 5 p.m. both days, but few people left that early. The first day we stayed 45 minutes late; then arrived an hour early the next morning with a large group of others all excited to continue work on their projects. What kind of training would make us want to put in so much of our own time? It was the annual USU Clothing and Textile Training.

I had been looking forward to this training for over a month. I knew I was going to get a couple of mental health days at the conference, even though I would be working at the same time. I was so excited to attend the conference, that my substitute joked that she was going to tell my classes that I was going to a sewing spa day.

I have long understood the mental health benefits of sewing in my own life. There was an emphasis on those benefits for students at the USU Clothing and Textile training. The subject came up during multiple workshops. One presenter talked about research showing that there are specific mental health benefits that go along with hand-eye projects, and that we have lost a lot of those benefits in our society as young people rarely participate in such projects anymore.

In her young-adult novel, Sparrow Road, (Puffin Books, 2012) Sheila O-Connor describes a teenage girl named Raine, who is trying to find the solutions to some difficult problems in her life. An adult mentor begins to teach Raine to sew. After several days of sewing, Raine says, “I still didn’t have an answer, but the steady act of sewing gave my heart some peace” (page 154). I love that line! I truly believe that creative activities have a healing property.

Creativity, and the peace that comes with it, is a gift we can offer our students. Sewing, when projects are personalized, is automatically engaging. There are adults who tell me that sewing stresses them out, and I know there’s a story behind that. Actually, I’ve heard the story over and over. I know it’s a true story because I saw it happen during my junior high years. There were some sewing teachers who were so strict, they scared their students half to death. I’ve had grown women who have faced difficult life challenges tell me that they are terrified to try to put in a zipper because of the way their sewing teacher made them feel when they were just 14.

We can alleviate stress in our sewing labs first of all by helping young students understand that there will be mistakes. I make mistakes every time I sew. Secondly, we must assure our students that when those mistakes occur, we will be willing, available, and patient as we help them understand how to fix those mistakes. We can also reduce stress by teaching problem-solving skills and allowing students to take short breaks as needed if their stress level begins to rise. Sewing should be joyful. When it is joyful, teachers will naturally build their programs.

During the USU training we heard stories of schools that have eliminated their sewing programs. Principals or districts may feel that sewing is no longer practical or necessary, but when we take into consideration the enormous need our current students have for mental health support, and when we understand that sewing provides that mental health support, we recognize that eliminating our programs is simply not acceptable. The critical-thinking and problem-solving skills learned in a sewing lab are important academic reasons to include sewing classes in our schools. I encourage both students and administrators to see sewing classes as the perfect place to incorporate the engineering design process. I also love to point out how sewing and clothing design are all math; textiles are all science; fashion is communication, history, and social studies; and fiber arts are art.

The USU Clothing and Textile training combined everything I love about sewing and design. We had two fantastic keynote speakers. Carina Gardner, who currently designs fabrics for Riley Blake, talked about fabric and paper design and marketing, and how designers who understand the marketing aspect can achieve financial success in the design field.

Melissa Clark, professor in the USU Outdoor Product Design Department, described the USU program for Outdoor Product Design. I’ve been watching this program since its inception. I love what they are doing, and I encourage young, aspiring designers to consider that program in their future.

Melissa was generous enough to let us try out her own outdoor product design by sewing a lightweight rucksack. This project was probably our most challenging project of the 2-day conference, and I was especially excited about this project, because my son has been telling me how much he needs something like this.

The patch on the backpack was not part of the original design. My daughter brought it home from a work-based learning experience at her own school, where someone from Hill Air Force Base had presented to her class about Homeland Security. My daughter didn’t feel strongly about keeping the patch, and my son loves everything about military planes of any kind. He hopes to become an aerospace engineer. I knew he would be excited about the patch, and it was a perfect match for this bag, so I couldn’t resist adding it on.

Besides the rucksack, we had opportunities for service sewing. This is just the beginning of the pile of mastectomy pillows we made for donation. You should have seen the way we worked together to get these done.

We made this lovely, lined travel jewelry clutch with pockets, zippers, snap-on attachments, and places for earrings, rings, and necklaces.

I was skeptical about learning to make macrame keychains, but this turned out to be a fun workshop.

We made swimsuit cover ups, and we did some hand sewing with this cute “circles to hexagons” quilt block. I don’t do much quilting. I’m much more focused on clothing. But I enjoyed the hexagon project, partly because it was a great opportunity to feel the mental health benefits of hand sewing. Does it have mistakes in it? Sure enough. Same as all my projects. But it turned out nice anyway.

One of the best parts of the conference was the opportunity to visit and collaborate with a teacher from my own school and with teachers from across the state. I loved to hear their stories and find out about the projects they are doing and how they are finding success!

If you teach, I hope I see you at the USU Clothing and Textile Training next year.