Jennifer Borgioli Binis, President
Too long, didn’t read (Tl; dr): Former middle school special education teacher, 20 plus years providing professional development to teachers. Lots and lots and lots of experience giving feedback, doing research, and fact checking. My resume. Why “Schoolmarm.”
25 years ago, I was a struggling new teacher. I couldn’t figure out how to best start a 40-minute math class for eighth graders with learning disabilities immediately after their lunch and I knew I needed help. My principal had assured me I could reach out to any of my colleagues and so that’s what I did as soon as I felt I had a handle on the problem. I screwed my courage to the sticking post and, walking back to my classroom after PM bus duty, popped my head into a colleague’s open door. I asked, basically, “can you help me with this?”
I can still recall the echo of the late bell and the annoying pain that comes from not yet finding shoes that are both comfortable and professional. I will always remember my colleague’s response and the way I felt. My entire drive home (and countless drives after) was spent reliving that moment. I could have been clearer in my request. I didn’t need her to come teach my class for me, I needed help thinking about the first 10 minutes of class. Yes. I was aware I had my Masters degree from Vanderbilt University and yes, I did great during my student teaching, thanks for mentioning that. No, I didn’t consider how tired you would be at the end of the day. No, I don’t think I’m more important that you. Yes, you’re right. I’m so sorry.
It would be years before I asked a colleague for help again. Eventually, I found my footing and much to my surprise, my path led out of the classroom. From the age of 13 or so when I decided to become a teacher, I could envision no future for myself that didn’t involve being a teacher. Through a series of delightful and wonderful coincidences, however, I ended in the position of teaching teachers. For nearly 20 years, I was able to work with, for, alongside, in front of, and next to classroom teachers across the East Coast.
In effect, I went from being a teacher figuring out how to ask for help to a professional development provider a teacher could count on for help. I developed expertise in assessment and curriculum design and facilitated large and small programs. I helped individual teachers redesign their classroom tests and teams of teachers design assessments that would hopefully someday supplant state-mandated multiple-choice tests. My skills weren’t in coaching or pedagogical feedback, but when teachers needed help with an article they were working on or taking a curriculum or assessment idea and turning it into something tangible, I became a person who heard the question, “can you help me with this?”
Each time someone asked, I remembered how it felt to be dismissed and I did everything in my power to keep anyone from feeling the same. I practiced getting better at giving useful, meaningful feedback and asked for feedback on my feedback whenever feasible. I took formal courses on editing and informal, independent study when I couldn’t. I did coursework for a PhD in special education and got even more opportunities to provide feedback and do research in an academic setting. I read articles before they were submitted to a journal, offered recommendations, and celebrated with peers when they were accepted for publication. I learned how to make sure the feedback I gave matched what the person looking for feedback wanted. I started to get requests from friends of friends and added to my skillset.
There came a point a few years ago when I realized the larger-scale projects I was facilitating weren’t as helpful as I thought. It was important and, I still believe, critical but it was a lot of work. I was facilitating teams of teachers through the design process to create authentic, meaningful assessments organized around topics their students were interested in. We were working very hard to thread the needle between top-down mandates and students’ lived experiences and sometimes managing to pull it off. It was good and interesting and important.
It was also one more thing the teachers had to deal with, one more day to be out of the classroom, one more task for them to work on. While we created a number of interesting tasks that students enjoyed, the feedback from participants was generous, and the work was worthwhile, I began to consider a future where I could support teachers and authors in a way that didn’t pull them out of their classroom.
While preparing for a keynote on negotiating large-scale state-mandated tests, I came across Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History. It was a short hop to studying historiography and education history. I learned the word “schoolmarm.” I took formal courses where I could, created projects where I couldn’t. My first Wikipedia project, tracking down the identity of every Board of Regents member was one such project. I learned a great deal about working in libraries and archives, tracking down and double-checking primary texts, and the history of education in New York State. I shared my history passion with anyone who’d listen and began to get questions (and offer unsolicited information) about the history of particular education topics from writers I was supporting. I started my podcast to share some of what I’d learned and began fact-checking education history in popular education books. (I talk more about my training and work around education history in this episode of the Ask Historian’s podcast.)
I currently live in Lancaster, NY with my husband, two gentle cats, and one cat who loves waking on the humans’ heads the moment the sun thinks about rising. I own entirely too many books (and am very grateful for the existence of Thriftbooks) and am always happy to connect!
I am a member of the Editorial Freelance Association, ACES: The Society For Editing, History of Education Society, and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). I’ve written on education history for Nursing Clio and my writing on Identity, Power, and Education addresses gender and race dynamics in the modern era. You can listen to me talk about education history, gender, change, and more on a variety of podcasts.
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