Monthly Archives: May 2014

Ankles and Elbows


JodiI’m embarrassed to admit this in a blog for teachers, but I once had to hire a tutor to help my daughter, Jodi, with geometry.  She was struggling with this subject in her sophomore year of high school.  I understood her frustration.  I only had to think back to my own first encounter with geometry.  Eventually I managed to squeak out a decent grade, but if the teacher had graded me on long-term comprehension, I would have earned an F.

I asked Jodi’s geometry teacher for suggestions and she gave me the name of a tutor.  After Jodi’s first one-on-one lesson with her new tutor I optimistically asked her how it went.  This is an exact quote of her response.

That woman had the thickest ankles and the driest elbows of anyone I have ever met.

I swear to you that is exactly what my daughter said to me.  She gave me a report on the status of the woman’s ankles and elbows. I was stunned into momentary silence.  Then I responded to her in the same tone and manner she had just used with me.

You know Jodi, I thank God every day that I teach young kids and not teens. Please God, don’t ever make me work with teens.  I didn’t ask you about her ankles or elbows. Did she help you understand anything about your geometry?

Her response?  She just looked at me.  Apparently I didn’t deserve a response.

Do you know what I learned from this?  Don’t ever make your fears public, because the heavens will hear you and set you up for a great joke.  Within a year and a half of this conversation I was hired to teach seniors.  Yep.  I started teaching seniors the same year that my daughter was a senior, thankfully not in the same building.  (The photo above is Jodi’s senior picture).

This new job “opportunity” came about pretty suddenly.  I told Jodi about my job change, but she didn’t listen very closely.  Listening to what her mom was actually saying wasn’t high on her priority list during that phase in her life.  I was terrified and frankly reluctant to take this position, but my youngest daughter needed better medical insurance to battle cancer and the new job provided that, so I signed a contract and took a leap of faith.  On my first day I said to Jodi

Well, today is my first day of teaching seniors.  Wish me luck.

She was completely stunned with this news.  Ah-ha.  I knew she didn’t listen to me.

WHAT?  You’re going to be teaching seniors?  Are you serious?

Her tone and body language told me I didn’t stand a chance of success.  And furthermore, I didn’t have anything of merit to teach a senior.

My response to her?

Well, look at it this way, Jodi.  My job should be easy.  Seniors already know everything.

I hate to admit it, but she was right about one thing.  It was a really shaky start.  In my 42 years of full-time teaching, I thought about quitting the profession only twice.  Once was in my second year of teaching when I ran into some serious health problems.  The second time was in my 24th year, when I began teaching seniors.  They came close to doing me in…maybe even killing me off.

But you know what?  I ended up loving teens.  I liked their humor.  I liked their optimism.  I loved their passion about what they believed in.  I learned to overlook their moods and found ways to joke them out of their occasional surliness.  I got used to telling the boys to pull up their pants and telling the girls to cover their cleavage.  My life is now full of former teen students who are now my friends.  When you teach a senior it takes them only one year to begin to appreciate you.  It is a fast turn around.  As soon as they leave for college, they immediately understand how much you really taught them.

I think I had another advantage.  I actually lived with a senior when I began teaching seniors. I absolutely knew how much they didn’t know about life.  I knew I had only one year to teach them all the important stuff.  I knew I had to teach them more than the academics of my field and I did.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t teach them academics.  I did.  But I knew I had one short year to teach them so much more.

Once I was in the middle of a very ticklish conference with a teen girl who was on a bad path.  The guidance counselor was with me.  When the mother of this girl arrived it explained quite a bit about the poor choices the kid was making.  The girl had no role model for success.  We did everything in our power to explain our point of view, but unfortunately we didn’t feel like we made much headway during this conference.  After the teen and her mom left the conference area, the guidance counselor looked at me and said something very wise.

The world will teach them what we cannot.

world will teach them

I never forgot that statement.  The truth of it rocks me.  The world is going to teach them things that we cannot.  And many of those lessons will hurt.  It made me try harder to teach them any life lessons I could while they were still in a somewhat safe environment, inside the classroom walls.

Maybe Jodi even had a point about focusing on ankles and elbows.  Both of those joints are pivotal points in our bodies.  That’s what the teen years are all about, pivotal points.  Our role as teachers is to help students make their best choices during those pivotal points in their lives, not just memorize facts from a textbook.  Some of those pivotal points come while they are with us.  But many will come after they are gone from our classrooms.  What can we do now to help them maneuver those pivotal moments later?

Just for the record, my teaching life took me in such a circuitous route that more than a decade later, I actually ended up teaching in the same building as the woman who had tutored my daughter.  Her name was Nancy.  She was a petite woman, of normal weight whose ankles appeared to be in perfect proportion to her body.  I didn’t do any close checking, but her elbows seemed fine to me also.  Believe me,  I never once told her what my daughter had said about her.  It was my gift to her as a fellow teacher.

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The Boomerang Kid


boomerangOne of the unexpected joys of my teaching career is that I have had the opportunity to teach students of all age levels.  I have taught preschool through high school seniors, and now even supervise college level students doing their intern teaching.

Mikey is a boy I taught in preschool when he was three and four years old.  He was the biggest boy in class even though some others were a year older than he.  He was also friendly, affectionate and funny.  You just had to love Mikey and everyone did.

Fast forward about twelve years.  I was teaching high school juniors and seniors in a Teacher Academy program when I noticed a name just like Mikey’s on my class list.  Could this possibly be the same boy?  No way.  I was in a different district than where I first met Mikey and I was teaching high school, not preschool.  But sure enough on the first day of school in he walked with a big grin on his face.  I didn’t recognize him at first.  But then he spoke.

“Hey, Mrs. Easley, remember me?  It’s Mikey from preschool!’

And just like a boomerang, Mikey was back in my life.  It was evident pretty quickly that Mikey had become Michael.  He was 6’4″ inches tall and weighed between 275 and 300 pounds depending on whether or not it was football or wrestling season.  But his basic personality had not changed at all.  He was friendly, easy-going and kinder than the average teen.

I remember one time I was lamenting about my students falling into a habit of arriving late to class.  In walked Michael a couple of minutes late.  I gave him my “teacher look” of disapproval.  He didn’t say anything.  He just came up to me later privately and apologized and told me every once in a while he might be a little late to class because he helped his friend Greg get from class to class in his wheel chair every day.  I felt like a heel.  For the two years Michael was in my class I watched him wheel Greg from class to class all day long.  He shared lunch with him in the cafeteria too.  This was not a task that was assigned to him.  He wasn’t doing it to accumulate volunteer hours.  Greg was his friend.  Period.

Michael was kind to everyone, no exceptions.  He was a behemoth on the football field and someone you wouldn’t want to meet on a wrestling mat or in a dark alley; but I always thought of him as my gentle giant.  About a month before high school graduation Michael pointed out to me that I was the first teacher he had ever had when he walked into preschool when he was three.  And then he mentioned that I would be the last teacher he would have in high school for the last bell of the last day as he finished his high school career.  It choked me up when he shared that observation with me.  I hadn’t thought of it, but he had. What a privileged teaching career I have had, to be able to influence this remarkable young man at both the beginning and closing of his school career.

But even that is not where the story ends. Mike went on to college to become an intervention specialist (special educator).  I can’t think of anyone more suited for such a career.  He won’t have to learn how to value all students; he always has.  A couple of weeks ago,  his name popped up on my email.  He has graduated from college now.  He is beginning his job search.  He asked me if I would do some practice job interviews with him.  So there we were last week, Mike and I, now a young man in his twenties meeting at the public library where I put him through a series of mock job interviews for a future teaching position.  We worked together again for a couple of hours.  At the end of that time we shared a hug and I told him to let me know when he had landed a teaching position or to call me with any tough interview questions and we would discuss possible responses.

Michael and I have been passing in and out of each other’s lives now for two decades.  He doesn’t just make other students feel valued, he makes his teacher feel valued too.  How gratifying it is to have a young man still believe that I have something of worth to teach him.  I hope this wonderful relationship continues for decades more. When you’ve been hugged by Mikey these days, you KNOW you’ve been hugged.  He can lift you right up off the floor, both physically and emotionally.

At the risk of repeating myself, I ask this question again.  Where, but in the profession of teaching, can you influence lives so positively and for such a length of time?  The rewards I reap from this career go on and on.  So does my gratitude for all the students who have touched my life in such a wonderful way.

What a teacher writes

on the blackboard of life

can never be erased.

blackboard of life

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Do You Want Fries with That?


classroom funIt was the month of May and I had a classroom full of seniors.  I was still trying to push forward with a lesson plan, but most of my students were dreaming about the big moment when they would toss their hats into the air.  In the midst of an assignment Kyle asked to be excused to use the restroom.  Without giving it much thought I gave him my standard response, “Be back in three minutes.”

Just for the record I have to admit that in our large high school building it is impossible to reach the location of the restroom, complete your task there and return to the classroom in three minutes.  But I always warned students to be back in three minutes to try to keep the trip from expanding into 8 or even 10 minutes away from class time.

french friesBut on this particular day Kyle returned within the three-minute time limit.  He entered the classroom door behind me while I was still teaching away.  By reading the amazed looks on my students faces, I rather quickly became aware that something unusual was happening behind my back.  I turned to see what was going on.  There was Kyle walking into my classroom eating a hamburger still in a wrapper from a local restaurant.  For a few seconds I was speechless.  Kyle broke the silence as he munched on his burger.  He reached his hand out to me with a package of fries in it.

Here Mrs. E.  I brought you some fries.  They’re hot.  You better eat them now while they’re still hot.

He put them down on my desk in front of me as my students laughed tentatively and watched warily for my reaction.  I was stunned and wondering how he had accomplished this stunt in less than three minutes.

Really, Ms. E.  I made it back in three minutes.  See?  Look at the clock.  (He pointed).  I promise they’re hot.  Go ahead and take a bite;  the fries are for you.

I made a quick internal decision.  I paused several seconds…for comic effect actually…and then picked up a fry and put it in my mouth.

Ummm, they are hot.”

The class totally collapsed in laughter.  After a few minutes of mirth I continued my teaching, pausing every couple of minutes to eat another fry.  Each time I did this the giggles started again.

I never asked Kyle how he had accomplished this stunt.  It was a point of honor with me.  I like my students to think that I know what they are doing every moment, even when I’m not around.  Teacher telepathy.  It’s a part of my teacher arsenal.  I did quite a bit of internal conjecturing though.

A couple of weeks later I was invited to Kyle’s graduation party.  I had a chance to talk to Kyle’s mother while he was greeting other guests.  His mom was active in our school’s PTA.  I asked her if she had brought the hamburger and fries to school while she was in the building for a volunteer task.  She said,

He did WHAT?

It was clear from the look on her face that she was hearing this story for the first time.

Another student clued me in.  Kyle’s friend with an early dismissal pass from school had texted Kyle from the drive through line.  Kyle put in his order and then synchronized his friend’s delivery time at the back door of the school building with his own request to use the restroom.  Mission accomplished.

Given another teacher Kyle would probably have gobbled his goody in the hallway.  But this young man always enjoyed sharing a good joke with an audience.  He took a chance on my reaction.

The test data purists would probably criticize my reaction by arguing that classroom learning time was wasted.  But in May with a room full of seniors I believe I chose the appropriate response.  True, my students will never remember what I was teaching that day.  But would they have remembered that particular lesson anyway?  But this I guarantee.  If they live to be 100, they will always remember the day Kyle came walking into my classroom in the middle of the class eating a hamburger and had the audacity to give the teacher some hot fries. They will also remember me eating those fries.

That day we made a lifetime memory.  You’ve gotta’ enjoy the fun… spontaneously.  Humor always comes from an unexpected twist.

My advice?  Enjoy the fun when it comes.  Those are the moments that will stay with you AND your students forever.  For the test data collectors?   I also believe students learn best from a teacher with a sense of humor.  When we are relaxed we are receptive to new concepts.  Tension closes the brain down.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

TEACH...To Change Lives

 TEACH…To Change Lives

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Teaching the Important Things


Teaching the Important Things

Last week I went to lunch with Josh, one of my former high school students.   There he is grinning on the left.  He is just about ready to graduate from college and has begun the job search.  He joked about his major:  English and American Studies.  He also has a minor in film.  He has begun to circulate his resume, but so far has received no invitations for an interview.

I asked Josh about his dream job.

Right now I’d like to do something with my writing.  I would especially love to write about films or music.  But who will ever believe  that I could do that?  How do you impress anyone and get them to take a chance on you, when you are fresh out of college?

I’m fortunate.  I positively know Josh can do all of these things. I began reading Josh’s writing when he was only seventeen.  It was clear even when he was in high school that he had a major talent for writing.  He was always interested in plays, characters, settings, and how to impact those scenes with just the right music and dialogue.  He is a director (or novelist) in his soul.  I’ve also watched him act in productions and lead a group of a thousand teens as a Master of Ceremonies on the stage at a national conference.  It is so gratifying as a teacher to sit with a young person and absolutely know in your gut that he will be a success.  I am probably even more excited than he is to watch this all unfold.

This weekend I also attended the college graduation party of another former high school student, Nicki.  She is now a respiratory therapist.  She has her job already lined up.  Remember I taught these students in a Teacher Academy program.  I spent two years with them teaching them everything I knew about the teaching profession.   And yet some of my former students have steered into completely different paths; lawyer, forensic accounting, an engineer who wants to design prosthetics,  signer for deaf children and adults and a great variety of other careers.  While the vast majority of the students I taught have gone into the teaching profession, many have chosen completely different paths.

Choosing Your Own Path

Does that make me feel like a failure?  Not at all.  Why?  Because fortunately I didn’t just teach my students about teaching.

  • I taught them about pushing outside their comfort zone and refusing to give up on a dream (any dream) because of fear.
  • We talked about facing failures and how to not allow those failures to defeat you but how to turn them into a success.
  • They practiced how to give an effective speech.
  • In my classroom they learned that most people in American today don’t just change jobs, they change careers several times in their lives.
  • They learned to listen for negative self talk and replace it with positive messages to themselves.
  • How to use the power of persistence to accomplish anything you want to achieve.
  • We practiced writing a resume and being interviewed.
  • As a group we learned how to survive when someone you love turns their back on you.  (Believe me that is an important skill needed in a classroom full of teens.  If you don’t think so, look at teen suicide rates).
  • They learned how to create a persuasion presentation.
  • We talked about the importance of living their lives with balance and how to notice when your own life is out of balance.
  • They learned how to express themselves through the written word.  Boy did they learn that!
  •  There was hardly a day in my classroom when I didn’t orally read a small piece about how someone who is now successful overcame obstacles in their lives.

In short, we talked about every aspect of life…even when they thought they didn’t need it or want to discuss it.

You know what scares me?  Given our country’s current preoccupation with test scores, scripted education and the push to cover pages 74- 79 today, how many teachers will never get around to the important stuff?  If I had chosen to teach only about teaching, I would have probably realized something like a 20% failure rate.  But instead I feel like every time a kid I’ve taught finds their passion and has the courage to pursue it, I can count that as a “win.”

Most of my former students will be amazing teachers.  The rest of them will be equally incredible at whatever they choose to pursue.  I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of all their lives.

Josh, who isn’t becoming a teacher, has already promised to mention me in his acceptance speech for the first big award that comes his way.  I know this is going to happen.  If you know anyone who is hiring a writer or is working on a film, I suggest you hire Josh immediately.  That way you can also look back and say as I will, “I just knew from the very beginning, he was going to be a success.”

How to reach Josh Chamberlain?

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available autographed or in large quantities from the author:

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