Tag Archives: students

What is Important?

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School Rules

What is important?Today more than ever, our schools are filled with rules.  Like it or not rules are necessary to keep students safe.   We can’t tolerate guns or drugs in school buildings or their surroundings.  We want bullies to know they are not in charge of our students.  We have rules against discrimination and rules that demand modifications for students with learning challenges.  In some schools you can’t wear hats, hoods or head-gear or even carry large book bags in the hallways.  In other schools you have to walk up one stairway and down another in order to help students get to class on time.  Most school rules are important.  Some we just tolerate.  And let’s be honest, some we ignore until they are taken off the rule list completely.

Life Rules Matter

what is importantBeyond the school rules, though, I believe it is most important to teach our students LIFE rules.  This is not so easy, but vital for their future success.  I like to start with the rule of 10-10-10.  When I see students getting frustrated or overwhelmed I like to refer to it in the classroom.  The 10-10-10 rule is simple.  Look into the future, stop and think:

  • Is what I’m doing or worrying about right now going to matter ten days from now?  Well is it?
  • Is what I’m doing or worrying about right now going to matter in ten months?
  • Is what I’m doing right now going to matter ten years from now?

Some teens stress out over something that isn’t even going to matter in ten minutes“Look at this text message!  What do you think he means by that?!”  In ten minutes the bell will ring and you can ask him.

These three questions really help our students understand how to evaluate the ways they spend their time.  They are also questions that need to guide our own lives.  Isn’t that why we chose teaching after all?  We chose a profession that would impact our student’ lives for more than ten years.  (If we do it well).

When I take a break from my writing to pick up a grandchild from gymnastics or attend a baseball game to watch my grandson play ball, I’m doing something that will matter even ten years from now.  I want my grandchildren to know they matter to me.  I must do that now.  In ten years, four of my grandchildren will be living away from home.  This is the time I must build a permanent relationship with them.  I am very aware of that.  THIS is when they look forward to seeing me.  I want them to remember that I was an important person in their lives  I want them to know that they are important people in MY life.

However, when I’m writing I don’t answer the phone for a number I don’t recognize.  I’ll finish my task and then listen to my messages.

Both of those responses honor the 10-10-10 rule.  Recently while shopping I saw a little plaque that read:

I always have time to talk about how busy I am

  Ouch.  Aren’t we all a little guilty of that?

Using these three questions can make us and our students just a little bit more aware of how much time we spend on useless drivel.  Teachers spend hours and hours doing things that will not matter one whit in ten days.  So much minutia is thrust upon us.  We have to learn to just say no to time wasters if we want to accomplish our bigger dream of helping our students become all that they can be.

Likewise students are completely inundated with electronics.

What is important?

Technology has turned our teens and far younger children into electronic junkies.  They stop any important project…driving, making eye contact with a parent or friend, or especially listening to a teacher, to respond to an endless barrage of text messages.  Screening these interruptions and prioritizing what is really important is a skill that must be taught.  What is our ultimate goal?  Focus on what will still be important in ten years.  Are our students working toward long-term goals or becoming a slave to trivial interruptions?

Making them aware of the ten-ten-ten rule will help them sort it out for themselves.  Maybe they won’t even “get it” right now.  But ten years from now, when they are trying to reprioritize their lives, they may understand the wisdom we were trying to share.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available autographed or in large quantities from the author:  dauna@cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

The Power of Optimism

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Ask the Students

ask the studentsOptimism is a quality that flavors everything all day long.  We can expect the best in our lives and therefore give the universe an opportuntity to attract good things our way.  Or we can worry and grumble about the bad things that always seem to invade our space.  It is a choice we make every day.

Every year I ask students to identify great teachers from their lives.  Then we write letters to them.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that they describe the teacher’s personal qualities more often than they talk about the academic material that they learned.

Again and again I hear these comments…

She’s fun.

He likes to make jokes when he teaches.

He is so enthusiastic.

She doesn’t treat us like we are kids.

She is interested when we have problems.

We want to spend time with people who make us feel good.  Our students do too.  They are attracted to adults, parent, grandparents and teachers who are optimistic.

The Money Jar

The money jar

One of the differences I noticed between elementary aged children and teens is the lack of optimism that seems to prevail in the adolescent species.  Sometimes it seems like being optimistic isn’t cool.  When young children walk into your classroom, they are excited to see you and be in school.  They ask right away, “What do we get to do today?”

However, when teens walk in and I say, “Hi Tyler!  How are you this morning?”  One hundred percent of the time they say, “Tired,” or  “I don’t feel good.”  It can be downright depressing if you let it get to you.  I finally told my teens they had to give me a quarter for my reward jar every time they told me they were tired.  Did it stop them?  No.  But it made them think.  Now when I ask them how they are, they say things like, “I’d tell you, but it would cost me money.”

When I worked with teens on a daily basis, I had to listen to upbeat music on the way to school.  I used motivational or inspirational CDs in the car.  Do whatever it takes to remain optimistic for our students.  They need it from us.

On a Personal Note

 optimismEvery activity I write about is part of my personal teaching life.  Every story I tell is true.  On a rare occasion I talk about an experience with one of my children or grandchildren and explain lessons that they have taught me and ways they have changed me as a teacher.

Other than that I don’t mention my personal life very often.  Today I’m going to break that silence  just a little.  In December my husband suffered a heart attack and a stroke. I was absent on my Christmas Eve post because we spent 12 days in the hospital including all of the holidays.  This past Friday he had his second stroke.  We came home from the hospital yesterday afternoon.   Yes, it is a bit stressful and emotional.  But there is always a choice in how we react.  I’m focusing on the progress he is making every day as his language gradually returns to him.  I’m feeling grateful that this stroke revealed a new heart issue that we didn’t know he had.  I’m believing his situation is temporary.  If I adopt a gloom and doom attitude, will it make anything better?  No.  It will rob us of the small joys we have everyday.

It is how we live our lives everyday that impacts our students (and children) the most.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Autographed copies and large quantities available:  dauna@cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

Conversations About our Schools

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conversations about our schoolsTrue Stories from My Past Week

Story # 1

I was visiting an elementary school this past week observing a college senior who is student teaching this semester.  As I left her classroom I was walking through the school hallway alone.  A kindergarten boy came running down the hallway on his way to the bathroom.  He was close to me before he noticed me.

He stopped running when he saw me, looked me up and down and said, “What school did YOU go to last year?”

I laughed all the way home about his comment.

moving teachersMoving Teachers

Story #2

On Saturday I visited a school district 45 minutes away to watch my granddaughter perform in a competition.  There was a lady I had never met before sitting behind me.  She began talking about her past week as a kindergarten teacher. Once I realized she was a kindergarten teacher, I turned around to tell her my story about the little boy in the hallway.  She listened and laughed.  When she realized I was also in the teaching profession she then said, “Let me tell you about my week at school.

“On Thursday of this week the administrators called a previously unannounced teachers’ meeting.  We found out at that meeting almost all of the third through sixth grade teachers will be leaving our urban school.  They are getting rid of all but two teachers in those grades because the students’ test scores came back too low.  The only reason we kindergarten through second grade teachers still have jobs is because our students don’t yet take the standardized tests.”

I was stunned.  “Are they firing all those teachers?” I asked.

She continued her tale, “No, they are moving them to another school in our district.  The other school is in a completely different neighborhood with an entirely different clientele.  Guess what?  Not so surprisingly their tests scores are higher.  Therefore the administrators (or somebody) believes those teachers are more effective.  They are bringing those ‘effective’ teachers to our school to boost our students’ test scores.  They are moving what they consider our ineffective teachers to the other school to learn from the ‘effective’ teachers still there.”

We smiled at each other and shook our heads.

I thought to myself, “Who is making these decisions?  Did they visit in both those schools?  What are educators even thinking? Or are educators even involved in any of these decisions?”  Like the kindergarten boy I met in the hallway I wondered, “What school did THEY go to last year?”

Value Added

Story #3

school

On Sunday I was in another school watching yet another grandchild participate in a function.  Next to me sat a wonderful, committed first year teacher.  I have known this young lady for years and am very aware of her standard of excellence.  I told her the story the kindergarten teacher shared with me.  She was disappointed, but not surprised.

She described a similar circumstance she had encountered.  School districts have become so reactionary to test scores that it seems like learning takes a back seat to the almighty score.  Everyone is talking about value added.

Note from me:  When schools talk about ‘value added’ these days they only mean how did you raise test Dauna Easleyscores?  They don’t mean how well do you communicate with parents, differentiate instruction, tutor or counsel students.  Value added means only, “What did you do to raise test scores on the standardized tests?”  I’m sad about that.  A valuable teacher is so much more than one number on a page.  Ask any student what constitutes a valuable teacher.  They will describe one accurately. But students’ opinions don’t factor into the equation either.  Only standardized test scores matter anymore.

This young teacher pointed out that her subject (foreign language) isn’t covered on the state standardized test.  But the teachers still have to prove ‘value added’.  Essentially all they have to do is make up a pre-test, then teach the skill and administer their own post test.  If the scores go up, they can prove value has been added.  She is professional enough and committed enough to recognize the irony in this scenario and she is only a first year teacher.

Isn’t this just a little like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop?

value added

It makes me sad to see educators running in circles like this.  The cry for higher test scores from politicians and the media….higher test scores,  no matter what the method… is causing otherwise intelligent people to make some pretty desperate decisions.  When we don’t know what to do, we just get forced into doing something whether it is worthwhile or not.

I want to ask the politicians, government officials and reporters who are complaining about our schools…in the words of a kindergarten boy…

What schools did you go to last year?

What teachers did you interview? Did you ask them how to raise test scores?

What did students suggest about how to identify effective teachers and raise test scores?

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Autographed books and large quatities available from the author: dauna @cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

Lessons for Teachers

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The teacher learnsLessons from the Greatest Teacher Of My Life

Ironically we met in a hospital and not in a school.  She wasn’t even the one who inspired me to become a teacher.  When we met, I had already been a teacher myself for fifteen years.  But that just made it easier for me to recognize what a master teacher she was.  I made myself a promise.  I would watch her carefully, ask questions, and learn everything I could.

The greatest teacher of my life is my daughter, Kelsey.  Born with cerebral palsy, she later developed brain cancer when she was five years old.  Vivid and remarkable are the lessons she taught me. I am a better teacher forever because of her patience with me.

learn to tie shoesA Challenge

When Kelsey was four, she wanted to learn to tie her shoes.  A best friend had accomplished this important childhood feat.  Even though I had worked with preschoolers for many years, I was stumped.  Because of cerebral palsy Kelsey was left with very little use of the fingers and thumb on her left hand.  I was unable to tie a shoe with one hand.  How could I teach her?  Medical insurance refused to cover occupational or physical therapy.  It seems the term “pre-existing condition” excuses them, forever, from a child’s needs.  We struggled for three and a half years with this one maddeningly simple task.  But she mastered it.  On the first day of summer vacation when she was seven and a half years old, as I watched and encouraged her she taught herself to tie her shoes with one hand.  She beamed from ear to ear.  I cried.

Lesson Learned

I noticed something important after she conquered her shoe laces.  No one ever asked her how old she was when she mastered the skill.  Lesson learned by this teacher?  In the long run learning pace is of little importance.  Accomplishing meaningful goals within our own timetable is what matters most.

Then Came the Cancer

Kelsey during cancer treatment

Throughout her cancer treatment, Kelsey gained some control over her circumstances through play.  Whenever we were in the hospital, she wanted to play “restaurant”.  She was always the waitress and I was cast as the customer.  Hours on end we played this game of her choice.  She lost herself in this dramatic- play-acting; it was if we weren’t in the hospital at all.

When we were home where she felt safe, she always wanted to play “hospital.”  In this game she was the doctor – in charge for a change.  Family members and friends had to be the patients. She developed a game called “radiation” that had an uncanny realism to it.  Her play often included medical terms her peers and many adults didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter.  She had found a healthy way to cope with the scary things that were happening to her in the hospital.  She did much better than cope.  She was happy.  What had I learned?  She taught me firsthand and emphatically about the important therapeutic value of play.

The Enthusiastic Ballerina

ballerinaWhen Kelsey was six she wanted to take ballet lessons. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this frightened me.  At the time she was in chemotherapy. Her muscles were weak from the chemo drugs.  She had very poor balance following her brain surgery and her weight had slipped to 34 pounds. There was an awkwardness to her left leg and arm due to her cerebral palsy.  She was bald and wore a patch over her left eye.  I was afraid she would fall and get hurt.  And, let’s be honest, I was afraid the other girls would make fun of her.

Fortunately I didn’t know how to tell my daughter about my fears, and she persisted with her request until I enrolled her in ballet class.  I had forgotten what she knew instinctively.  The process is always more important than the product.  She danced with joy.  The sheer fun of dancing was her goal. Did she fall?  Of course.  Was she awkward?  You bet.  Did it matter?  Not a bit.  Every child and adult who watched Kelsey dance gained something special from it.  Her dancing career lasted four years.  She only quit when she decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons instead.  This time I had learned my lesson.  I signed her up without hesitating.

lesson from basketballLessons from Basketball

In fifth grade Kelsey excitedly brought home a registration form for intramural basketball.  She wanted to play.  I knew it would be a major challenge for her.  Our daughter could only run very slowly and with great difficulty.  She was also very short as her pituitary gland had been severely damaged by the cranial radiation she had received to survive cancer.  For many, many years she received a daily injection of growth hormone to grow at all.  She only had the use of one hand to play ball.  Caution bells went off inside my head again, but I had learned to ignore them.  The excitement in her eyes emphatically canceled out all those drawbacks.

We signed her up.  After the first practice the coach/gym teacher, George Losh, said he was afraid for her to play in a regular game.  He was afraid she would get hurt.  I’m certain lawsuits danced in his head.  But every child who participates in sports risks physical harm.  If her risk was greater, her need to belong was greater too.  We encouraged him to let her play.  George Losh’s physical education classes were always child-centered and structured so that every child could feel some measure of success.  For two years Kelsey played basketball harder than any girl in the league.  No, she never made a basket during a game.  Some huge successes are subtle.  In two years we never once saw a teammate treat her as anything other than as asset to the team.  After weeks of trying, when Kelsey made her first basket during practice, every girl in the entire gymnasium stopped to applaud.  Watching this young lady struggle and triumph increased the humanity of all who knew her.  On game days when we stopped in the grocery store, Kelsey quickly shed her winter coat into the grocery cart.  It took me a few times to figure out that she was so proud of her team shirt, she didn’t want it to go unnoticed under her coat.  She was thrilled to be part of a team.

Most Important Lesson of All

hurts

What is the single most important lesson Kelsey taught me?

Being excluded hurts.  Be certain of this.  The older my daughter grew, the more excluded she was… both by her peers and unfortunately by some teachers too.  Whatever educational jargon or current political term you choose to use, the results are still the same.  Being excluded hurts.

Possessing a physical disability or struggling with a different learning style did not rob my daughter of her sensitivity.  Being excluded hurts!  It hurts the children being excluded.  It robs them of the role models-their typically developing peers-they so greatly need.  It shortchange the children with ‘normal’ growth patterns too.  Inclusive environments reduce fears, build understanding, and teach compassion, patience, and tolerance in a way ‘special’ schools and ‘special’ classrooms never will.  Inclusive environments reflect life and the society in which we live.  How can we separate our children now and expect them to adjust successfully to one another at some magical, mythical time in the future?

Becoming a Great Teacher

Good teachers become great teachers when they become students themselves.  Children have much to teach us if we will only watch and listen carefully.  Kelsey’s dream of becoming a teacher did not end when her cancer returned and she died at age sixteen.  Kelsey was an incredible teacher all of her life. I cannot tell you how many times one of her teachers would come to me at the end of the year and say, “She taught me so much more than I taught her.”  I came to expect it, because I had learned that it was true.

Kelsey modeled for me how to handle rejection without becoming angry.  She showed me how to simply ignore seemingly insurmountable challenges and just focus on living life to the fullest.  She taught me how to more greatly appreciate the simple joys of family and traditions.  She modeled how to maintain a sense of humor and grace even in the face of death.  She has left the most incredible legacy for all who knew and loved her…and all my future students too.  She will forever be the greatest teacher of my life.  May her story touch your teaching life, too.

Kelsey Noel Easley

1982-1999

Kelsey's lessons

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Autographed or in large quantities from the author dauna@cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

Dear Teacher,

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A Letter from a Student

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_9732125_3d-illustration-of-mailbox-with-many-letters-over-blue-sky-background.html'>madmaxer / 123RF Stock Photo</a>When I taught young children I used to receive short love notes from them all the time.  They’d tell me that they loved me and insert a picture they had drawn just for me.  Little kids would bring me an apple or a flower from their garden.  I felt valued and appreciated.

I didn’t believe that would happen when I moved into the high school to teach.  But I was wrong.  I have 3 ring notebooks full of notes and letters teens wrote to me.  There were, of course, some differences.  Teens usually dropped a note on my desk quickly when no one else was in the room and then they’d make an exit through the classroom door as fast as they could.  Once they believed I truly cared about them, they would pour their hearts out to me. They would write about a crisis in their lives. Or sometimes they’d write to tell me about something I had said or read to them during class and admit how it touched them or encouraged them.

I’m going to share (with the writer’s permission) one of those letters with you. This letter was written by Sarah.  Sarah had become a single mom at age sixteen.  She was 17 when she wrote this and had been in my classroom for only about 3 months.  She was intelligent and caring, but she didn’t trust people very much. She dressed with a flair that usually resulted in her peers categorizing her as someone outside their circle. She might wear a black leather studded collar or bracelet along with a pink tutu on the same day.  She had gorgeous strawberry blonde hair that women would pay hundreds of dollars to have created at a salon, but Sarah was apt to have a purple or pink stripe running through hers.

I share this letter humbly, not to boast about my relationship with students, but to help teachers understand what it is that our students really need.  Read between the lines and listen to what Sarah desperately wanted.

Dear Mrs. Easley,

“I would truly like to thank you.  You are a great inspiration to me and a great role model as well. You have done everything in your life that I would hope to do in mine. You have become an amazing teacher, one who truly touches the lives of many she comes in contact with.  You have opened your own school and most importantly you are a dedicated mother to your own children even after they are gone.

Through life I have learned many lessons.  I have learned that there are people who will enjoy hurting you, who will enjoy beating you down, who enjoy seeing you cry. But I have also learned you can’t let them stop you.  You are your own person, you can do what you wish, you can be who you want and no one can stop you. Your classroom lets me be the person I want to be. You do not judge me. You see my intelligence, not my clothing, you see me. I have never had a teacher say they admire me before, when you did, I felt strong. I have never felt strong.

I’m sorry for the struggles you have had to face. Losing a child is hard. I hope I never have to learn how that feels first hand. But Kelsey would be proud of you.  You have become so much to children of all ages. I know I am proud of you. I do not have a mother to fall back on. I don’t have parents that support me, I have ones that push. You encourage me; you know what I am capable of and expect me to show it and know myself.

I love to be myself, but sometimes it’s hard to do. You have let me know that you should never be afraid to be yourself. I hope I can instill that in my daughter.  She has helped me to grow so much.  How much she has helped me makes me realize why you are such a good teacher; you had your children to help you learn.

I truly hope that one day I can be like you.  Just this short time with you has opened my eyes. At first I was not sure about teaching; now I know it is what I have to do. You are an inspiration to your students, Mrs. Easley whether they realize this now or not. You have instilled lessons in us that at this time may seem pointless but later will show such immense value. Thanks to your class.  Thanks to your stories, I really know I can make a difference, like the one you have made with me.

I cannot entirely describe my gratitude through a letter so attached is a poem, one that I have written just for you, describing the feelings I hold toward you now.

Thank you,

Sarah

A mother never wanted me

A family threw me away

I was lost in apathy

Not wanting to survive each day.

School became the home I wanted

Books my seclusion

Writing as my outlet

Loving the illusion

I may not fully thrive at this

But nor do I fail

I only use it to find myself

And with that I do prevail.

A classroom like this

Makes me feel unharmed

A place where I feel welcomed

Where I need not feel alarmed.

People welcome me everyday

Faces painted up with smiles

Giving me encouragement

Helping me through painful miles.

They do not know all my struggles,

But they have let me know

That they are here for me

To help me all the way I have to go.

You have helped me the most

Showing me encouragement and light,

Giving me a warming smile

To let me know what’s right.

Learning from your experiences

As I have learned from mine

Mothers and teachers alike

We are two of a kind.

I feel like I connect with you

We express ourselves the same

To others school is work

To me it is a game.

Nothing compared to the outside world

It is easy within these walls

You either succeed or you fail

Outside few hear your calls.

You have made me realize

I should learn as I go

Teaching me of both school and reality

I now know what I need to know.

Thank you…

Teens take writing notes to their teacher to a whole new powerful level. If you let them know that they matter to you, they will, sooner or later, make you aware of how much they appreciate your commitment to them. I didn’t read Sarah’s note without tears. Can you imagine how many times I’ve read it?  On those tough days, it became a beacon to me. It touched me so much, that when I wrote my book TEACH…To Change Lives I included her letter in my book (after receiving her permission, of course).  Using Sarah’s words helps me encourage teachers.  It reminds them of the important role they play in their students’ lives.  You see I honestly do believe that we teach to change lives.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

(or in quantities from the author at dauna@cinci.rr.com)

Teachers Create the Classroom

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                        The Teacher Makes the Choice

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_7438300_illustration-of-a-lighthouse-illuminating-the-night.html'>lisann / 123RF Stock Photo</a>One of my all time favorite quotes for teachers was written by Dr. Haim Ginott and comes from his book Between Teacher and Child.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s like miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

Oh, how I wish I had written that myself.  I am so grateful that someone did.  The book, Between Teacher and Child is around forty years old and yet contains advice that is timeless.

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_8535805_a-wooden-ruler-with-the-words-do-you-measure-up-symbolizing-personal-appraisal-and-assessment.html'>iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A Great Measuring Stick

It IS our personal approach that creates the climate in the classroom.  Do we provide a welcoming presence.  Are we pleasant and approachable?  Can students trust our moods?  Or are we the grinch that only smiles twice a year.  We honestly do have the power to make a student’s life joyous or miserable.  We teachers have had teachers too.  We all can remember a teacher who was a tool of torture.  We’ve all had a teacher who honestly was an instrument of inspiration.

A word of caution here:  A teacher cannot truly be an instrument of inspiration if they are a tool of torture to only one or two students.  Students are always watching.  I believe they judge teachers on the way they treat the most challenging child in the class.

I’ve been sitting in high school teacher cafeterias and listened to something a teacher said to a student that made me wonder who was the adult in the classroom.  Trying to “one up” a student who has just made an inappropriate comment in class is a losing proposition for any teacher.  Professionalism goes out the window.  Sometimes it is tough to listen, absorb, and under-react but retaliating an inappropriate comment with a sarcastic one, only escalates the negative.  It may feel like a win in the short term, but it is a long term loss.

I chose a lighthouse to illustrate this point for a reason.  Lighthouses demonstrate their real worth during inclement times.  So do teachers.  It’s easy to be a good teacher when everything is going smoothly. But great teachers reveal themselves during the tough times.

A teenager stands up and yells profanities at you in class, then stomps out slamming the door on their way out of the room.  (Yes, this has happened in my classroom).  What do you do?  The choice is yours.  Do you escalate the situation or attempt to de-escalate it?  Before you make your choice, take a deep breath and then pause.  Every student will be watching your reaction. You are the beacon in this moment.  Will you dehumanize the student?  A teen is a child with longer legs, raging hormones and often tumultuous emotions.  You are the adult.   What you do next defines you as a teacher.

TEACh

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

Teacher for a Lifetime

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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 Amazon.com