Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Magic Question for Teachers


A Student I Will Never Forget

I was preparing my third grade classroom for the first day of school when I noticed an unusual name on the student roster.  The name was Kim Hyangsil.  The first name, Kim, was common enough.  But I remember thinking the last name Hyangsil seemed like an unusual name and I wondered how to pronounce it correctly.  It was early on the first day of school that I discovered only one of my assumptions was correct.  The name did belong to a little girl.  But her first name wasn’t Kim.  It was Hyangsil.  Kim was her surname.  She was Korean and she didn’t speak or understand a single word of English.


Even gathering this meager amount of information was something of a feat when you consider that neither of us could speak one word that the other could understand.  Today, that might not be so unusual. Our schools are liberally sprinkled with students who do not speak English as their native tongue.  But this story took place in the midwest about two decades before classes that taught English as a second language became commonplace.  Korean children in our schools were more rare than kangaroos in a Mexican restaurant. When I questioned the school office personnel they seemed amazed and unaware of Hyangsil’s language barrier.  They called home to gather more information only to discover that Mom, too, spoke only Korean.

What in the World Was I Going to Do?

I think that is when I first discovered the magic question.  This one simple question has done more to make me a better teacher than any other single act I can recall. It will work in every classroom situation, no matter how diverse or how seemingly hopeless.  It shapes and guides my relationship with every single student in each and every class, no matter what their age, learning style, cultural background or attitude of the moment. This question, if asked sincerely and with an open mind, will always point a teacher in the right direction.  What is the question?

       What one thing can I do to help create some success in my classroom for this student today?

Too simple?  Re-read it please.  Some of life’s greatest wisdoms are simple.

Ask the question, be still, and then listen for the answer.  You’ll be amazed at how much expertise you have in areas in which you have received no training whatsoever.  Try any idea that occurs to you.  If it doesn’t work, adapt.  Try something a little differently the next day.  Let your student guide the way. Keep asking the question with sincerity every day.  The results will amaze you.


As soon as you utter the words, “I can’t do anything to help this student,” you and your student are both lost.  Never give up on a student. Many times I’ve thought, “I don’t know if I’m making progress.  I’ve never been trained to handle a situation like this.  I don’t know what I’m doing.”  But I never once uttered, “I can’t do this.”  Can’t is a cop out.  It is a refusal to try.  For a great teacher this is not an option.

Twice, after months of effort,  I’ve felt so guilty about not having enough expertise that I’ve called the parents in for a conference to tell them I was outside my teacher comfort zone.  I’ve asked the parents frankly if they have seen their child making progress while in my classroom.  I’m not certain if this was the right thing to do, but personally and professionally I just felt like I had to confess my uncertainty to the parents.  Maybe an administrator wouldn’t have liked this approach, but in my gut I knew I was doing what I had to do.  In both of those situations I was dealing with students with very different learning styles.  Both times the parents reassured me that their child was making progress.  They gave me examples to prove their observations.

But I’ve never once said, “I’ve not been trained to do this so I know I won’t be effective.  I give up.”  A great teacher must have a tremendous sense of efficacy.  Try something, observe the results, try something else, adapt.   Try again, and again and again.  Not all students have the capacity to progress at a typical pace, but that doesn’t mean your efforts are without results.

What Did I Do with Hyangsil?

I found picture cards of familiar objects.  Each night I made recordings of how to pronounce the objects in simple sentences.  “Wagon.  This is a wagon.  Tree.  This is a tree.”  I attached the recordings to head phones where she could practice vocabulary whenever she had a free moment.  I gave her partners within the classroom to help her with simple sight words (today called high frequency words) and sentences.  She was a bright little girl and she learned the English language very rapidly.  She was especially proficient in math and she made beautiful drawings.  I found classroom activities in which she could highlight those skills. It wasn’t long before the other students respected her for her unique talents.

Predictably, because the more effort you put into anything the more you reap from it, she and I became extremely close.  It was such a heartbreak when her family moved away only a semester later.  By that time though, we had a wonderful bond.  She and I were pen pals for probably ten years.  I lost track of her when she was living in California, but I still think of her with great fondness and wonder how she’s doing.  When the internet became more prevalent, I tried to find her again.  I found a young lady living in Korea with the same name, but she was far too young at this time to be the Hyangsil Kim I knew from years ago.

As with many of my most memorable students, Hyangsil taught me more than I taught her.  She taught me to never give up on any situation.  She gave me courage and confidence as a teacher.  But most of all she helped me learn to ask the magic question that guided me through the rest of my teaching career.

What is one thing I can do today to help create some success in this student’s life today?

Ask this question every day and then get busy.  It’s the best gift you can give your students and yourself.

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at

How to Help Students Succeed in Life


Beyond the Textbooks

Good teachers teach the subject matter and they do it well.  They know their academic area thoroughly.  Their lesson plans are well thought out and hopefully creative.  They are experts in their field.  There are studies that prove that the best way to improve test scores is to thoroughly educate our teachers – to provide them with a deeper understanding of their subject matter.  They then can pass this academic excellence along to their students.

I thoroughly agree with this strategy.  BUT…if you want to become something beyond a good teacher I think there is so much more than academic excellence required.  Great teachers don’t just teach academics, they teach people.  The student precedes the subject matter. Great teachers don’t just teach an academic field. They must teach many things beyond the text.  They teach concepts that help students live a life full of successes that they learn to create through experiences and activities that begin in the classroom.


The truth is I’ve written a whole book about this and it’s not easy to describe briefly.  Also,even as I write this I can hear many good teachers saying,

I don’t have time for anything other than the academics! 

I can’t cover all the material even now.

How can I add more?

And technically they are right.  We don’t have extra time for unimportant concepts.  But what I’m describing is important and effective teachers will realize it and integrate it into their lessons.   Great teachers will custom braid success strategies throughout all of their teaching. weaving them over and under the academics they cover, strengthening their students’ learning path into a cord with triple the strength of mere facts.

Think Differently

We have to be honest and admit that we don’t know the world our students will be facing.  Changes in our country within the past decade have resonated that message.  We must prepare our students for an economy we can’t even predict.  They will change not just jobs but careers.  We must teach them entrepreneurial skills, creativity, perseverance, problem solving, and how to set goals and adapt when the  ground under their feet begins shifting in a new direction.

Six Tips for Getting Started

  • Read orally to students no matter what their age.  We do this when they are young, but we give it up when they need it most.  By carefully selecting short oral readings you can engage their minds using words from the greatest inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders, thinkers, and doers.  You can expose them to the best advice given by the greatest minds in less than 5 minutes per day.  Carefully choose, then read a 2-3 minute selection.  Then have them orally reflect. Cap the reading and discussion with a challenge to apply it to their lives immediately.  Check back on the results.
  • Model initiative by talking about ways you are trying to improve your life.  Talk about personal goals and share your progress toward a goal.  List the steps toward your goal and check off progress as they watch.  Challenge them to do the same.  Have them identify a goal, write it down, list their steps and check off progress as a classroom challenge.  Support one another.  You must walk your talk on this one or it will have no impact.  As teachers we are FIRST role models.
  • But also share your failures with students.  I don’t mean to air dirty laundry that is inappropriate for students, but I DO mean to reveal a time in your life you have faced a failure.  This is uncomfortable for adults.  We want our students and children to think of us as a success.  They need to know we have faced failures and survived.  If they never hear that, when they face failures in their future (and they will) they will feel like losers.  They need to know we faced failures, what we learned from those failures and how we persevered.  How much did it hurt?  How did you recover?  Is there success after defeat?  What got you through it? Tell them.  This is a life skill they need.
  • When you reveal your vulnerabilities, as a side benefit, they will be more apt to approach you when they have an issue they need to discuss with someone.  When this happens, don’t over react.  No matter how large or shocking their problem, initially you must under react.  If you over react, they won’t approach you again.  They may never again approach anyone with a situation they need to discuss.  This is a time for problem solving with them.
  • Verbalize a student’s strengths at every opportunity.  Always look for talents and verbalize them whenever you notice them. Young people often undervalue their skills.  If they are good at something, they may think everyone does that well.  It’s no big deal in their mind.  They often FIRST see their future careers and successes through the eyes of someone else whose opinions they value.  My grandson had to write a sample college essay in high school listing and describing his strengths.  Once he described his athletic skills he stopped.  More slowly he knew he had a sense of humor and admitted some leadership skills.  But what he didn’t know was his greatest strength.  He has a wonderful talent for making other people feel valued.  When I told him this he said, “What do you mean?”  I give him a dozen examples.  It was a revelation for him.  Why had I not pointed that out to  him yet?  Shame on me.  He didn’t even know he had this unique and valuable skill. He will never forget this conversation.  I’m sure of it.
  • Choose activities and readings that make students aware of their self talk.  The truth is we say more hurtful words to ourselves than any bully has ever directed at us.  But usually students are unaware that they do this to themselves until you make them aware of it.  I have my students carry a small notebook and record the internal messages they give themselves for a week.  I share mine too!  I think it is important to participate in the activities you assign your students. We have to take it further.  We have to turn it around and replace it with positive self talk.  I attended a small high school with a graduating class of only 81 students.  Mike was a student in that class.  He was not the valedictorian nor the salutatorian in a class of only 81.  And yet he has made a huge success of his life (more about that in my book).  Do you know what his self talk is?  He was embarrassed to admit this and he says he NEVER says it out loud, but he continually says to himself internally, “Somebody has to be first.  Why not me?”

I’m passionate about this topic and hate to stop here. 

But I know if this post gets any longer, no one will want to read it at all.  My book describes 100+ such strategies. I think the greatest gifts we give our students are the ones that go beyond the text books. I’m a career teacher and I’m sure of it.  I belive great teachers TEACH…To Change Lives.


TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at

Teacher for a Lifetime


Not A Runner

I’m not a runner, so using running analogies in my writing is a dangerous proposition for me.  But a few parallels between teaching and running strike me.  The National Education Association has been collecting data on teachers for years.  What they reveal is that 50% of teachers quit within their first five years of the profession.  And they never teach again.  That means half of the people who enter the profession spend less time IN the profession than they did preparing for the profession.

Those are staggering and disappointing numbers, but I’d have to also confess, that they don’t surprise me.  I threw so much of myself into my job that I became sick in only my second year of teaching.  I had never been sick before.  My illness baffled and scared me. The doctors couldn’t explain it to satisfy me.  I was desperate to get better and considered quitting the profession at that time.  But I hung in there and realized that teaching, if you wanted to make it a career, was more like a marathon than a sprint.  You simply can’t finish a marathon if you try to maintain a sprinter’s pace.  No, I’m not in favor of half-way teaching.  I’m a teacher who threw herself whole heartedly into the profession.  BUT if you don’t find your own pace, your comfort zone that will somehow sustain you to hang in to make it to the end of the marathon, you will never survive in this career.

After more than two decades of teaching, I moved from the elementary grades into high school.  High school?!  If you had told me at any time during my first half of my career that I would eventually teach high school, I would have laughed in your face and then run out of the school building…in a sprint.   In my 24th year of teaching I taught high school for the first time.

I didn’t just move from elementary to high school, I also moved into an entirely new student demographic at the same time. Most of my students were tough and oppositional, living in at-risk situations.  Many of my students didn’t know their fathers and some even had mothers in prison or unemployed parents on drugs. I have no idea what kept me from quitting that year.  Professionally it was the hardest year of my life.  I almost quit in the first week of school. I only made it until 11:00 am on the second day before I was crying.  I spent the rest of the year questioning my judgement for staying.  That first group of teens chewed me up and spit me out on the pavement. Then they walked over me and left me for dead.  And they enjoyed it.

I continued to teach in that challenging environment for 12 years.  Do you know what I learned?  When I made a positive difference in a student’s life in that environment, I was usually the only person turning that kid’s life around.  I learned that those kids challenged me until they trusted me.  Life had dealt them some serious blows and they weren’t going to let anyone hurt them again.  Once they finally trusted and accepted me then they became my greatest allies.  It was in that school that I accomplished some of my most meaningful teaching.  It was, in a strange way, kind of intoxicating.  I was making a difference.  Isn’t that why most of us enter this profession?  To make a difference?

It was also during this era that I began speaking and writing about teaching.  I wanted to encourage and inspire other teachers.  Day in and day out I saw a lot of teachers who looked defeated.  I wanted them to feel supported and realize the positive difference they were making.   Speaking and writing helped build my self esteem back up a little while the students continued to pummel me like a tether ball dangling from a pole in a prison yard.   Yes, making a positive difference in a tough environment feels good, but it also had its down side.  I began to feel pessimistic about the future of our country.  If the students I was teaching were the future of our world, what was our world going to become?

Fortunately for me my teaching career took another unexpected detour.  Someone heard me speak and offered me a job in a more traditional academic high school teaching in a Teacher Academy program.  The students who enrolled in that program already knew they wanted to teach.  For the most part they were wonderful role models, great students, caring and encouraging to others and even their teacher.  The last seven years of my full-time teaching career were blissful.  I maintain long-term professional friendships with many students and I watch them finish college and enter their own classrooms.  Once again I feel quite optimistic about the future of our schools and our country.

Today I continue to write and speak about teaching while I supervise college level student teachers part time.  I love this role.  In this capacity I am able to be in and out of schools interacting with top quality mentor teachers, while calming the fears and encouraging beginning teachers.  After twice considering walking away from the profession, it turns out I am a teacher for life.

Tips for Running a Teaching Marathon

  •  Find your own pace.  When you discover your energy flagging, turn your attention to the other parts of your life.  Are you socializing enough?  Are you having any fun in the rest of your life? Have you given up an activity you enjoy? If teaching consumes your whole life, you won’t be able to stick with it long-term.
  • Find a coworker with a positive attitude and good sense of humor.  You can encourage one another and laugh about the occasional lunacies of the profession.
  • Focus on the students.  Try not to focus on the frustrations of the profession.  There will always be a new program, new curriculum, a new computer system, data collection, testing pressure, politicians who complain  about schools during campaigns,  or a change in policy or administration.  None of that is as important as building a rapport with students and helping them learn and grow into positive adults.  Laugh about the rest and focus on the kids.
  • Don’t eat lunch with the crab apples.  Every school (or business) has crab apples.  Spend your time with the positive staff members.  Avoid staffers who complain about the quality of the students, the community or the administration.  Seek out professionals who genuinely care about the students and have the ability to keep the rest of the job in perspective.
  • Never quit after a frustrating year.  There’s an old saying, “Never cut a dead tree in the winter time.”  Wait until spring.  It may just appear dead and will flourish in the spring.  In teaching, each school year  is a clean slate.  I’ve had some of my best teaching years just following some of my most challenging.  Those sweet years can rejuvenate you.
    In my life I play many roles.  I’m a daughter of aging parents, wife, friend, mom, grammy, speaker and writer.  But in addition to all those roles, I know that in my soul I am a lifetime teacher.  I hope somehow you will be able to obtain the satisfaction from teaching that I have.  The world needs committed teachers more than any other profession.  If you agree, you are probably one of us.  I teach to change lives.

             TEACH…To Change Lives

             Available at

Never Say These Words


What Does A Great Teacher Do?

Never Say these words

A teacher builds bridges between dreams and accomplishments.

                                                                                                                   –Dauna Easley

But Never Say the Following Words

shhhhhThere’s a three word phrase that seems harmless but is, in fact, poison to our profession and is also detrimental to our students’ ears. Too often we use the phrase, “I’m just a teacher.”  No celebrity thinks of themselves as ‘just a star.’  No professional athlete puts the word ‘just’ in front of their athleticism.  And yet day in and day out we directly touch and mold more young lives than celebrities or athletes.  When our students struggle we are there to help.  When they face what they feel are insurmountable problems, we listen.  We care and we counsel. What is more important: shaping lives or creating a game score?  What is more important, encouraging a young human through a  personal challenge or the gross profits of a movie?

Setting the Record Straight

I must admit there is another profession equally as guilty of underestimating their value and importance.  That is the nursing profession.  Nurses are the front lines as are we teachers.  Teachers and nurses are the privates who do the work.  Having a daughter who battled a terminal illness I can tell you that every time her treatment improved and became more humane, it came in the form of a suggestion from a nurse.  Why?  Like teachers they were there on the front lines.  They cared, they listened and they sought solutions.

Words Matter

never say these wordsWe need to bite our tongues every time we hear ourselves say, “I’m just a teacher.”  We need to object when others use those words either orally or through their actions.  We are not just anything.  The only thing ‘just’ about us is the fairness we demonstrate when we value and advocate for all our students.  We just refuse to give up when we notice a child struggling with learning problems, social rejection, or family  issues

Our current students are the future of our country.  Statistics confirm that more of them will model their lives around the works and words of a positive teacher than any political figure, celebrity or sports figure.  We should be just plain tired of being thought of as just a teacher.  We’d tackle anyone who called one of our students ‘just’ a kid.  The parents of my students trust me with their most valuable possession.  Their child matters more to them than their house, their automobile, their investment portfolio or their job. I’m pleased to say that I doubt any of the parents of my former students will ever speak of me as just as teacher.

Nor Will I

My name is Dauna Easley.  I am proud to be a teacher.

TEACH…To Change Lives

Availble at

Teaching…What They Don’t Teach You in College


Surprises for New Teachers

Teaching Duties 101Kelly, a young teacher whom I have trained, emailed me recently and said, “You’re never going to believe this, Mrs. E. Our whole district has switched to a new reading program that is 100% online.  And guess what? We are a full week into the school year and not one computer in the whole school is working.”

I believed it.  Why?  Because in some form or another while teaching I’ve lived it over and over again.

Another young teacher said recently, “I’m supposed to be ready for students the minute they walk into my classroom, but I spend half an hour before school standing hall duty!  How can I be preparing for teaching while I’m in the hall watching for fights that might break out?”

Another teacher was spending too much of her first year salary at Kinkos running off papers for her students because she spent all of her planning time fulfilling her assigned duties or waiting at the end of a long line at the copy machine.

Teacher Duties 101

teaching secretsDo  you know what would be an excellent college course for future teachers?  Duties 101.  I’d love to have the opportunity to teach that class.  Here is the truth taken from someone who has taught preschool through high school seniors.

Though it may seem like overkill to write elaborate three page, creative lesson plans while you are in college, you might as well enjoy the process.  Because once you are really teaching in your own classroom, you will never again have time for three page lesson plans.  Why?  Because you will be “on duty.”  I’m not talking patriotic duty here.  No bands will play.  No flags will furl.  We are talking low-down-and-dirty teacher duties that they never describe to you in college.  The variety is endless.

  • In elementary school there is the adventurous playground duty.  I once had a hairpiece knocked clear off my head standing playground duty!  It was my own fault.  I walked too close to the tether ball game.  Amazingly we had NO playground equipment in the first school where I taught.  Something about liability.  Hundreds of kids would pour out onto the black top for recess with nothing to do but play our one tether ball game and chase each other.  What was our job?  To keep them from chasing each other, of course. “No running on the black top!” was our constant mantra.  Our tether ball game became as vicious and competitive as ice hockey, just ask my chignon (hair piece) that flew 20 yards.  I’m lucky it was only my fake hair. Just a few inches more and I would have had to say good-bye to some of my IQ points.
  • What’s worse?  Indoor recess.  Sounds tame but don’t let it fool you.  Ask any experienced teacher.  You’ll know who they are because they are wearing hearing aids and they sport a nervous twitch.
  • Then there is the ever-to-be-avoided cafeteria duty.   In elementary school this involves using your fingers to open 213 cardboard milk cartons and poking a pointed straw through 303 drink containers in an hour.  Correct dress code for cafeteria duty?  Hand-me-down duds that ketchup and food fight stains won’t bother, skid proof shoes that keep you from falling on your tush while sliding on spills, and ear plugs to protect your hearing from the animated lunch room ‘conversations’.  Your only protection will be the whistle around your neck.  We give teachers whistles when they really need fire hoses.  It builds their resourcefulness.
  • Bus duty is another thriller.  In my first life as an elementary teacher I thought this was the bottom of the barrel.  I was wrong (more on that later).  Elementary bus duty involved hundreds of kids swinging book bags larger than their bodies, darting this way and that between cars and buses as they scream comments to their friends.  Our local voters turned down 4 school tax levies in a row.  I feel so sorry for the kindergarten teachers who give up not only their lunch time but their before and after school planning time to carry umbrellas as they herd scores of five-year-olds through the rain  to their cars four times each day.
  • Teenagers take duties to a whole new depth.  There is restroom duty.  I fondly call this one ‘smoker’s duty.’  What happens?  A previously healthy teacher stands in a restroom full of adolescent hormones breathing more smoke than someone at a happy hour held in a tobacco barn.  Smoke flows from over and under every stall door.  Each and every time you approach a smoker they question your right to accuse them of anything.  Their attorney dad is already on their cell phone before they exit the stall.
  • Once I was assigned morning hall duty in a high school.   On this sacred duty a teacher spends every  minute of their class preparation time, not preparing.  I stood at an unlocked door asking students to show me their ID badges.  One hundred percent of the time they told me their ID badges were in their lockers.  At that time I was to direct them to the cafeteria door where there were other teachers stationed “on duty’ to supervise them.  One hundred percent of the time they claimed they were on their way to the cafeteria.  But my assignment issued from school administrators as a hall duty monitor is to NOT allow them in that doorway.  During those before school hours teens called me everything but a teacher.  By the time school would begin for the day I had the self-esteem of a roach.  I wonder why that door couldn’t have been locked?


  • Bottom of the barrel?  I swear I’ve done the research and this one is it.  High school parking lot duty!  Picture this.  During the last class of the day you have a six-foot-four 300 pound varsity football player mad at you because he doesn’t like the midterm grade he earned in your class.  Five minutes later the bell rings and you have to run outside in the sleet to stand in the center of the main driveway though which all students exit.  The same dude drives his two thousand-pound car right up to you.  He honks his horn for you to move.  You jump a foot high but stand your ground. You are, after all, ‘on duty’. You tell him lamely that you are not permitted to allow any students’ cars to leave until the buses pull out.  He revs his motor and inches his automobile right up against your thigh.  You can read his lips through his windshield.  You know in detail every expletive he is screaming at you, and you’re tying to remember if he wore his weapon-disguising trench coat to school that day.  Moments like these make me dream about the days when I taught preschool.
  • In preschool the only duties that are distasteful are wiping snot and hearing the proud little voice ring out from the potty area.   “Teeeeacher, I pooped.  Come and wipe my butt.”  The polite ones even say, “please.”  High school parking lot duty makes me remember preschool poop-wiping fondly.

I swear I’m not making any of this up.  Not… one… word.  But in writing it out, I’ve just come to a revelation about why we don’t teach these important details in college.  We don’t want to drive great people away from an already challenging profession.  We have to keep future teachers in the dark until we reel them in and they fall in love with the profession.  And the right ones will.

We have only one defense strategy, but it is powerful.  We have to laugh.  We somehow have to focus on the difference we can make in students’ lives and just laugh about the rest of the madness.   Find a fellow teacher with a positive attitude who is committed to students and laugh together.  If we let the insanity of the duties consume us, we will forget the real reasons we were drawn to this meaningful profession.   We are in the classroom to change lives.  Not one other profession in the world has the day-to-day power we have to improve lives.  Laugh at the nonsense and focus all of your efforts  on making a positive change in the lives of  your students.  Take it from a very experienced teacher looking back on a long career.  You will be forever grateful that you did.

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at