Monthly Archives: September 2012

Questions from Parents


Questions Teachers Hate

Dauna age 8From the time I was eight years old, I knew I wanted to become a teacher.  There were, however,  hurdles along the way.  I was the first person from my family to go to college so my parents couldn’t help me much with advice. But an even bigger challenge loomed.  I didn’t have much money.  In fact I had only enough money to attend college for two years and a teaching degree required four years of study.   Even that money had to be borrowed from the credit union. I was terrified that I would have to drop out of college without finishing;  so I formulated a plan.  My plan was to get a four year degree in two years.  That was a pretty ambitious goal at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Miami has a reputation for academic excellence and colleges don’t make classes easy to schedule.  However, without any options and possessing quite a bit of personal drive, that is the path that I chose.

I had just turned twenty when I began teaching in my own classroom.  Some people believed I looked Dauna age 20younger than twenty.  You be the judge.  This is a photo taken of me the year I began teaching.  I had worked hard for my degree and I was as passionate and committed as a young teacher could possibly be.   I remember those days well.  I was so excited about my new role, I even recall missing my third graders when they went outside for a ten minute recess.  More mature teachers learn to look forward to those brief interludes.  But I adored wearing this new role that I had dreamed about for so long.

Parent Teacher Conferences

On conference days I was enthusiastic about sharing all that I knew with parents.  I couldn’t wait to tell them cute stories about their children and give them advice on how to help their children at home with school work.  But soon I started hearing those two dreaded questions.  I grew to hate these annoying questions.

How old are you?   (They would challenge me).

And even more insulting I believed:   Do you have children of your own?

How dare they ask me those questions?!

It felt rude and, frankly, condescending.

Why would they pose such undiplomatic questions?

Then Came the Birth of Understanding

birth of understanding

After seven years of teaching, I had a child of my own.  POW! (As Emeril would say).  The realization began to dawn.  My first-born was a swift and dynamic teacher.  What? Parents don’t have total control over their children?  Sometimes parents, no matter how honorable their intentions, have close to no control. The wisdom of my degrees and college professors began to be tested, disputed and sometimes even decimated by my own children.

My perspective did a complete about-face.  I slowly began to be embarrassed about all that unequivocal advice I had doled out to experienced parents.  This blog post is my written apology to all the parents I advised before I became a parent myself.  Forgive me.  My intentions were good, but I was viewing a three D movie without the benefit  of special glasses.

Make Parents Your Allies

listen to parentsThis is what I have learned-the hard way- from becoming a parent.  If you want to double or even triple your effectiveness with your students, enlist the help of their parents.  Listen to them.  Give them opportunities to share what they have already learned about their children.  It took me time and experience to learn ways to do this, but it tripled my effectiveness as a teacher.   Here are strategies that worked for me.

1. When I taught very young children, preschool, kindergarten or first grade, I tried to schedule a conference at the very beginning of the school year.  Some years those were home visits.  I called this the “You Tell Me” conference.  I asked questions about their children and I listened.  I wrote down their advice and consulted it frequently.  I found out what was on their minds before I began working with their child. They told me their concerns and strategies that worked with their children.  This information was invaluable.

One time a mom told me that her 3-year-old twins had escaped from more than one child care situtation…actually run out the door to the outside… even into the street.  I thought smugly that would never happen in my environment.  Know what?  It DID happen when their parents were in the room and in charge of their twins on my Orientation Day.  I had to have a staff member posted at the door every day for the remainder of the school year to make sure it didn’t happen again.  Oh how those twins maneuvered and tried to escape!  Houdini himself would have been impressed at their antics. Imagine what might have transpired had I not listened to their parents’ advice first?

2. At parent teacher conferences, get the parent to talk first.  Too often these time slots are short and the teacher rushes through the test scores, grades, behavior issues and upcoming events and assignments filling all of the time that was supposed to include two-way conversations.  Ask questions first.  “What is Courtney saying about my class?” is a good starting point.  “Do you have any concerns and questions for me?”  Start with the parent.  If the parent comes into the conference with a burning concern and the teacher talks through the entire allotted time, the “conference” is a failure.  Sometimes when I ask parents what is on their mind, they stare at me.  If I say, “Describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses,” they’ll begin to speak.

3. In upper elementary grades all the way through high school we teachers host evenings we call curriculum nights or grade level meetings.  The parents come to school and travel to all their child’s classrooms following their schedule for the day.  Teachers repeat the requirements of their class, distribute a syllabus,  and often list consequences for late assignments, failure to bring materials and other infractions.  Teachers hate when parents try to ask how Johnny is doing on a night like this when other parents are standing around listening to what should be confidential conversations.

Here’s what I learned to do.  I had parents pick up index cards as they entered the room.  On those cards I asked them to write answers to 3 questions I had already written on the screen in front of the class.  Those 3 questions were

  • What is your child (or teen) saying about my class?
  • Do you have any concern about your child that you would like to share with me?
  • What can I do that will most help your teen this year?

When I finished my quick presentation about my class, I’d ask anyone if they wanted to share one of the comments on their cards.  Almost always I would get a humorous comment or a comment about how my class was their child’s favorite class.  But the parents with concerns now had an avenue to share those concerns with me without doing so in front of others.  Parents left those cards with me.  I read them immediately (always that night) and called parents who had concerns the very next day.  Almost always they were astonished to hear from me.  But what a message it conveyed. “I care about the parents’ opinions and concerns.  I respect the parents’ input.  We are a team working in the best interest of their child. I recognize the value and insight a parent can contribute to the learning process.”

Teachers don’t do their best teaching in a vacuum.

Great teachers use all the resources available to them.

Parents should be at the top of that list.

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Take a Closer Look at Schools


Taking a Closer Look at Schools

Do You See What I See?

My grandson was pitching for batting practice this week.  He was hit in the eye with a line drive ball which broke five bones around his eye.  His eye was blood-shot,  swollen almost shut and he has temporarily (we hope) lost all depth perception.  In the emergency room, he couldn’t even get a straw into his mouth to take a drink without putting his hand on the straw first to guide it to his mouth.  He has to wear protective glasses at all times to keep everyone and everything from inadvertently jarring his eye until these fractures heal.

During this same week I was visiting schools to meet newly placed student teachers.  These are college seniors who are doing their final practice teaching before hopefully finding teaching positions in their own classrooms next year.  The professional teachers who are sharing their classrooms with these novices are called mentor teachers.  It took me eight days to visit 20 students in thirteen schools located in four different school districts.

How Are These Two Events Connected?

taking a closer look at schools

I see a significant parallel.  And I don’t think it was just because I was emotionally experiencing both of these events simultaneously.

It seems that everything you hear through the media about schools and our educational system these days is bad news.

And yet when I walk in schools’ hallways I see wonderful things happening.  It appears to this career teacher that the reporters and politicians who are being constantly quoted about the bad state of our American educational system, have no depth perception.  They are seeing out of only one eye.  Or are they even in our schools’ hallways.

I used both eyes and both ears as I walked the schools’ hallways and talked with the staff.

This is what I saw and heard about teaching.

I saw teachers sitting with students before school hours having breakfast together.  This free breakfast was served to everyone, every day to ensure that all students were getting a nutritional start to their day of learning without singling out anyone.

When I asked student teachers to describe their mentor teachers, they used these words:

committed, caring, kind, patient, hard-working, she comes in early and stays late, he answers all my questions and explains everything he is doing for me, helpful, fair, consistent, he has a wonderful rapport with his students, well-organized, enthusiastic, even the students who claim they don’t like English still like this teacher who is teaching English.  S/he is exactly the kind of teacher I want to become.

One student teacher was describing the principal in the building where she is assigned.  “She had all the student teachers over to her house for a meal.  She wanted to get to know us individually.  The teachers in the building tell me she offers to babysit their own children.  She is always asking the question, ‘What can I do to help you?'”

I saw classrooms decorated and organized with so much care, that the rooms made you want to spend days there learning.   I know how much (or more accurately) how little money a teacher is given to set up a classroom.  These teachers reach deep into their own pockets to make a comfortable environment conducive to learning. Their classrooms were charming, and exciting places to learn.

I saw so much evidence of beginning-of-the-school-year activities planned specifically to build a positive classroom community.  Anti-bullying themes were apparent everywhere.  One teacher photographed her students’ feet (shoes, socks and all) on the first day of school and placed these foot photos on their lockers.  Each student then wrote a paragraph about what they would do this year to put their best foot forward.

Secondary students were gathered in a circle discussing ways we can make isolated peers feel included.

I had one-on-one interviews with all the student teachers and asked them why they wanted to teach and what they wanted to teach.  More than one had tears in their eyes as they explained their passion for the profession.  Their enthusiasm was uplifting.  It made me feel optimistic all over again about this profession I love so much. One of my student teachers appears to be in his forties.  He left the insurance industry to become a teacher because of the way he recognized that teachers can change the lives of young people.

About three weeks ago I had dinner with a couple of former students who are now in the teaching profession.  One of them is in a district where her salary has been frozen for five years because the school tax levy was not passed by voters.  In addition to her rent and car payment she pays  $700.00 a month toward her college loan for her education.  She had applied at surrounding school districts trying to increase her pay and relieve some of her financial stress.  One of those districts called her for a job interview ten days before the beginning of this school year.  She thought it would be unfair to leave her current school district and students so close to the beginning of the school year, so she didn’t go after the job.  And yet in the media we only read about the seeming selfishness of teachers who strike for wages.  Does the teacher I just described sound selfish to you?  Will we read about her?  Only here.

Yesterday I was surfing the internet reading stories about teaching.  One article had a link to the Huffington Post.  I had never been there before.  What did I see?   Dozens of negative articles about teachers.  There was only ONE positive one.  And that article was written by a celebrity, Tony Danza.  Thank you Tony!  But once again, it was driven home to me that only negative or celebrity-written articles about teaching seem worthy of publication.

I’d start a personal campaign to get every parent and teacher I know to write a positive story about teaching and flood the media with them; but I know they wouldn’t get printed.  In the media there is a popular expression they use to determine what gets heard.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”  In other words bad stories, ugly stories attract viewers and readers.

All I can do is stage my own personal campaign on my blog site here or write a book about the positive side of teaching… which I have.  If you are new to my site, scroll back through the past couple of months and check out many true and inspiring stories about teaching.  Also read, TEACH…To Change Lives.

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One Final Word About Our Schools

If the parents and grandparents of our country could have walked the halls of our schools with me this past ten days, they would have felt so good  and been so impressed with the commitment the teachers show to your children.  I heard it and saw it and felt it everywhere I went.   Take a deep breath and feel good about our schools.  This doesn’t seem to be popular right now, but it is the truth.

My grandson goes back to the eye specialist tomorrow.  It will be his third visit this week.  We know he has five fractures (one of them pretty serious) and a depth perception problem and we are watching it closely.  As for the media…I have only one piece of advice.

Taking a Closer Look at Schools

You Need Glasses!! 

TEACH…To Change Lives


Life Changers

TEACH...To Change LivesThey sneak up on you.  Life changers come from out of nowhere.  You wake up in the morning expecting a typical day, but you meet someone new, or something unexpected happens on that day, and it changes the course of your life.  Sometimes you figure it out on the very day it happens.  You say to yourself

Wow.  I’m going to remember this day forever.

But some life changers only reveal themselves over a long period of time.  It may take decades before you know the full impact they have on you.  Life changers can feel wonderful or horrible.  The things they have in common are that they are out of our control and they change us profoundly.  They are different from significant days that you plan like a wedding or a reunion. They appear suddenly and alter our lives in unexpected ways.

One of the things I love about teaching is that we get to experience so many life changers.  Sometimes it’s a person, often a student, other times it’s an event or simply a tiny moment. Sometimes we teachers become the life changers and we may even be unaware of it. But in this wonderful profession life changers are possible every single day.

My life changerOne of My Life Changers

This is my youngest daughter, Kelsey Easley. Her life was a life changer for me. This story isn’t mostly about Kelsey but it begins with her.  When Kelsey was born I had already been a teacher for fifteen years. I believe I was a good teacher, creative and hard-working.  But watching my daughter’s life and her experiences changed my teaching profoundly.

Kelsey was diagnosed with brain cancer at age five. She battled cancer off and on for eleven years until the disease took her life at age sixteen.  When Kelsey had to receive radiation to her brain at age five, it saved her life but it also changed her life.  Radiation kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells.  As a result Kelsey’s intelligence plummeted.  She went from being the top reader in her kindergarten class, to the lowest reader by the end of the first grade with the same peers.  Now she didn’t just have a deadly disease to battle, she also was forced to enter the population we politely label special needs.

That experience put me (Kelsey’s mom) on the other side of the IEP conference table…the side of the table where no parent ever chooses to be. I learned a lot of lessons on the parent side of the table, most of them painful.  I saw teachers and specialists in a whole new and often unflattering way.  Too often I saw condescension or inflexibility. It changed me.

I also learned how naturally accepting and inclusive young children are.  They’ll love you bald.  It makes no difference.  But acceptance changes at about junior high age.  What Kelsey needed the most in junior high and high school were friends and there were very few. I watched her hurt and no one deserved it less.

How This Changed Me

life changers

It would be impossible to describe all the ways parenting Kelsey changed me; but for right now I’ll share one story.  When I began teaching a Teacher Academy program at the high school level, I decided to begin a Friendship Club between my class full of academically talented future teachers and the students with special needs in our high school.  Kelsey had taught me that friends were what the special population needed most.  Instinct and my own experiences taught me that my future teachers would learn even more. My students knew all about Kelsey.  She had passed away by then but I shared many stories about her.

We planned monthly activities pairing our aspiring teachers and their new friends from the special education department.  The outcomes were wonderful.  True friendships emerged.  Simply a new friend to greet in the high school hallways was an improvement for the special population.  Many of our new friends wandered into our classroom routinely before school and during breaks.  My future teachers learned to plan appropriate activities that encouraged conversations and natural friendships. They also learned patience, tolerance, how to modify activities to feature all talents, a new respect for challenges our less fortunate friends encountered and a gratitude for our own gifts.

You’d think a win/win idea like this one would be greeted with positive reactions from all, but it had its challenges.  Most of the special population didn’t drive and were quite dependent on school transportation specially equipped for their needs.  This meant our functions had to happen within school hours.  Some teachers were opposed to having students miss class, though we tried mightily to schedule these events during lunch hours.  Locations were hard to schedule too.  But the challenges were worth the effort.  Relationships formed and barriers were removed.

Will You Help?

One day an unexpected email (a life changer) challenged all of us to examine just how sincere our intentions were. The email came from Steven’s mom.  Steven was one of our new friends who was almost completely nonverbal.  Steven’s mom wanted her son to have the opportunity to attend the prom. Would any of my students be willing to have Steven be part of their prom night?  I read the question from the email aloud to my future teachers and waited.  It was very quiet.  No teens made eye contact with me. Here was Kelsey’s mom standing in front of them asking an uncomfortable question.  PROM?  A pretty sacred night for a teen.

After a somewhat lengthy pause Chelsea finally spoke up.

I’ll take Steven to the prom. I didn’t have anyone special I wanted to go with, and I couldn’t rationalize spending the money, but this gives me a good reason to go.   

Her friends complimented her and told her they’d support her in her decision.

The Friendship Date

Prom night was a little more challenging than Chelsea had expected.  Steven didn’t like the noise level in the room where the dancing was taking place.  He mostly enjoyed standing at the front doors in the lobby watching the limos come and go as teens arrived.  Chelsea, on that night, didn’t realize that she was right in the middle of a life changer.  But she was.

Steven’s mom called Chelsea the next day and told Chelsea how much Steven had seemed to enjoy the evening.  A friendship grew as Chelsea began to make sporadic visits to Steven’s house to hang out.  She followed his lead into things that he enjoyed, basketball, wood working and equipment that digs.  He learned to make an attempt at saying her name.  He pronounced Chelsea’s name “Chs.”

Before long Chelsea went off to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher. But, as a true friend does, she took the time to visit Steven whenever she came home for breaks.  When Chelsea was a junior in college she walked back into my high school Teacher Academy classroom to share some news with me.  She grinned a little as she said these life changing words.

Guess what Mrs. E?  I’ve changed my college major.  I’ve decided to become a special educator.  

I, of course, was pleased but not even the tiniest bit surprised.   Today Chelsea is in her second year of serving in the classroom as an intervention specialist in a school not far from here.  It’s close enough that she can still be a friend to Steven; and that is exactly as it should be.  Steven and Chelsea were life changers for each other.  It was a particular joy for this teacher to watch this transformation take place.

I can feel Kelsey grinning down on all three of us.

Chelsea and Steven, Still Friends Today

still friends

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Humor in the Classroom


Funny Stories from My Classroom

It’s Labor Day which means school has begun for just about everyone.  I’ve taught almost all age levels, preschool through high school seniors…and now college student interns, learning to teach.  I have the true and funny stories to prove it.

The Obvious Question

It was close to Thanksgiving.  I had been sharing a book of turkey riddles with my preschool class.  The following day we visited a supermarket for a tour and to talk about foods our families might serve for Thanksgiving. In each department there was a spokesperson who talked to the young children briefly about their area of the store.  The lady in the produce section let the preschoolers spray water on the fruits and vegetables.  Big hit with the kids!  In the bakery department they had the chance to sample a cookie.  Yum.  But the head of the meat department clearly had no experience with preschoolers.  His talk included technical terms about meat inspections, USDA requirements, meat temperatures, and how meats were classified.  The class grew very restless, but the speaker seemed unaware. At last it appeared that he was going to release us to the next department.  We were all anxious to move on.  But before we left his area he asked one last thing. ”

Do any of you boys and girls have a question about meat?

Chris raised his hand.  I was stunned.  What could this four-year-old possible want to ask about meat that our tour guide hadn’t already over-explained?

Yes, son?

All the teachers turned to listen.  Chris’ question was thankfully simple.

Why did the turkey cross the road?

The teachers broke into laughter.  The guy from the meat department was finally speechless.

funny classroom stories

Keep Searching

I was teaching an important lesson about diversity to my high school seniors who were future early childhood educators.  We were discussing the importance of choosing preschool toys and materials that are sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of the children we serve.  I warned them to reject items that weren’t gender sensitive in today’s world, such as books and puzzles that always depicted a doctor as male and a nurse as female.

I cautioned my students to make certain all ethnic backgrounds were included in the main characters of stories and materials.  “Also look carefully to be certain that toys and materials include children with special needs,” I said.

Their comments showed they were enthusiastic about this topic. I ended the class with an assignment.  The students were given a ‘make-believe budget” of $500.00 and told to search through catalogs and find items sensitive to a diverse population.  Only politically correct toys would do.

Way in the back of the room, Jennifer started right away.  But she was turning pages just as quickly as she could.  I silently wondered how she could even evaluate the toys at that rate; so I said,

Jennifer, you look like a woman on a mission.  Can you see the items flipping the pages that quickly? 

Her reply?

Don’t anybody bother me, I’m looking for fat Barbies.

classroom humorDelicious Recipe

It was right at the end of a long school day in my third grade classroom.  I was putting my students through our closing chores as they prepared to go home.  I gave my directions without giving it much thought.

Be sure to put your chairs up on top of your desks and pick up any debris.

Eight-year-old Bobby seemed puzzled when he asked,

What’s debris?

                                         My reply was also pretty impromptu.

                                                     Debris is left over stuff.

You could see understanding appear in Bobby’s eyes as he said,

Oh yeah, my mom fixes debris for supper sometimes.

funny calssroom storiesFollow the Rules!

I was preparing a group of teens to travel out-of-town for an educational conference.  I spoke to them seriously about our stay in a hotel.

                         No one is ever to be in the hotel hallway alone. 

                   Even if you’re just going for a bucket of ice, take a partner.

Never talk to strangers or enter the room of someone you’ve just met, no matter how nice they seem.

The atmosphere of my classroom was very sober…just the way I wanted it to be.  It is a big responsibility taking teens out-of-town for several days to stay in a hotel.  I never took this part of the job lightly.

At precisely that moment there was a knock on my classroom door.  A man from the technology department whom I had never met before, was looking for the room that housed the media brain of our building.  That particular door is somewhat hidden.  You must pass through another room that has no posted room number in order to find it.  I tried to describe the process to him, but he was still confused.  I stepped outside my classroom door, walked a few feet down the hall, opened the unmarked door and escorted him inside, to point to the door he was trying to find.  I was back to my classroom in seconds.

My classroom was completely quiet, still sober from our previous conversation.   Then one of my girls with a twinkle in her eye spoke up bravely and said,

Excuse me, Mrs. Easley, but didn’t we just see you leave your friends and go into a room alone with a strange man who you didn’t even know?

For a second I didn’t smile.  I tried to stay stern.  But it was a hopeless cause.  We dissolved into giggles, then laughter, then finally guffaws.  Tears streamed down our faces. My safety lecture is one they (and I) will never forget.


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