Tag Archives: students

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

Never Say These Words

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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 Amazon.com

Take a Closer Look at Schools

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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.

TEACH...To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

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!! 

A Lesson for Teachers

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                        From Caterpillars to Butterflies

the teacher learns

 

Jennifer walked into my early childhood education class in her senior year planning to fail.  No, she didn’t announce this goal to me or to the class.  I guess you could say it was a secret goal, but she had her strategy all mapped out.  She even knew exactly when she was going to fail; November.  I had exactly two months to change the course of her destiny, but she didn’t even give me the benefit of telling me this.

The Countdown

graphShe was busy stacking all the evidence (data) to support her decision to fail.  It was powerful data, hard to ignore.  In her sophomore and junior years she had been absent over thirty days each year.  At this time in our state she was required to pass proficiency tests in four subject areas in order to prove she had the ability level of at least a ninth grader or she would not receive a high school diploma even if she had passed all her classes.  Though she had taken these tests twice a year since the ninth grade, she had continued to fail three of the four every time.  Neither of her parents had graduated from high school and they wanted her to graduate because they knew what if felt like to go through life without a high school diploma.  However, without any serious illness, they still allowed her to stay home more than thirty days per year.  In November Jennifer would be eighteen and she would no longer need her parents’ signature to drop out.  In November she would be out the door and I wasn’t even aware of the plan.  Even worse, the class I taught was in early childhood education.  Jennifer wanted to work in a child care setting with young children.  In our state you have to earn a high school diploma to do that.  Why had she signed up for my class if she had no chance to graduate?  The answer was simple.  She had to spend those two months somewhere.  But by November the charade would be over.

A Plan Thwarted

the U turn

Here’s how the U turn happened.  As soon as I found out Jennifer still needed to pass three of the four proficiency tests, I signed her up for tutoring sessions every day of the week.  No, she didn’t want to go.  She argued long and hard about the futility of it.  Hadn’t she already proven six times that it was impossible for her to pass those tests?  But I refused to allow her to skip those tutoring sessions. However hard she complained and dragged her feet, I still insisted she attend.  She went for tutoring during a portion of my class and during her lunch break, crabbing about it every step of the way.

I had another really lucky break.  In this particular school where I was teaching at the time, we had a significant number of at-risk kids.  With this type of enrollment one of the silly things that I noticed was that a substantial number of them failed to come on the first few days of school.  They would just pretend that they didn’t know when school started.  This behavior baffled me, because when I was growing up it seemed like everyone enjoyed the first few days of school.

But for whatever reason in this particular class everyone showed up for the first three days of school.  The first week was a short week of only three days.  I made a really big deal of having perfect attendance for a whole week.  I can’t remember the specific treat I brought in, but they really loved it.  Somehow this group of students latched on to that humble success and started seeing how long they could go with the whole class having perfect attendance. They really put pressure on one another not to break that chain.  It was a lucky break for me and Jennifer.  I don’t know if I could even recreate this set of circumstances.  I rewarded them every Friday with a treat and talked it up all around the school bragging about them to others when I knew my students could hear me.

Perfection!

blue ribbon

At the end of the first quarter at our awards program I asked our administrator to make a big deal out of their attendance.  He had the whole class stand up and told everyone in the packed room (full of their peers from other programs)  that this was what “perfect” looked like.  I’ll never forget that line.  The members of my class were far from perfect, but they had managed to accumulate perfect attendance for a full quarter.  They just beamed.  I’m certain Jennifer had never had the benefit of going to school regularly in her whole life.

In October Jennifer retook those three proficiency tests.  She wouldn’t find out the results until December.  She decided not to drop out until she had gotten those results.  So without my knowing about the plan to fail, I was given a one month’s reprieve.  Just before the holiday break, she found out she had passed two of the three tests!  Encouraged but still wary she quietly decided to stay until March when she would have just one more chance to pass that final test.   She continued to go for tutoring, but by now she could concentrate all her efforts on just one subject in which she was still deficient.

Let the Magic Begin

That extra time gave us the window for magic to take hold. Buoyed with her successes and reinforced with perfect attendance, Jennifer’s self esteem started to bloom.  She put together a project and competed in the regional competition and won.  She advanced to state competition and won.  In February my class began their final senior project.  Each student was required to put together a plan for an entire school.  Jennifer latched onto this project of planning a child care center with a commitment she had never shown in school before.  She named her child care facility From Caterpillars to Butterflies.  The project was outstanding in every way.  Step by step she poured all of her creativity into the project.  She drew a floor plan, wrote a philosophy, created a marketing strategy that included a logo and a slogan, developed an inventory and made a tri-fold display board about her school.   Her project was voted the best all around by hundreds of visitors who came to see our finished projects on display. Jennifer, the loser, became Jennifer the star.  Her peers looked to her for advice on their projects.

Becoming a Butterfly

She found out in early May that she had passed her final proficiency test she had taken in March.  She would be graduating with all of her peers, despite her total intention to fail when she first walked into my room.  How do I know all this?  In May she told me all about her original plan.  During our end of the year program with parents, employers and advisory council members in the audience, I gave Jennifer a small butterfly decoration.  I told everyone how I had watched Jennifer change from a caterpillar into a butterfly during that school year. (Just like the process she had named her child care facility).  She and her family were very touched.

On graduation night, during the graduation ceremony someone tapped me on my shoulder.  I ignored the tap.  I thought it was going to be one of my students asking to leave the ceremony to go to the restroom and I didn’t want to honor that request.  But the tap was repeated and over my shoulder was passed a flower arrangement from Jennifer’s mother and a card from Jennifer.  Inside the card Jennifer had included a butterfly necklace for me to wear.  She had also written me a poem.  I never saw Jennifer after the graduation ceremony.  I suppose the family had graduation celebration plans they had to rush off to implement, or perhaps Jennifer was too emotional for even a good-by hug. But the necklace and the poem brought tears to my eyes.  Though the poem is very simplistic its words touched my deeply.  I have recited its words to teacher audiences many times when I speak.

spreading wingsThe best teacher for me would be

The wonderful Mrs. Easley.

She listened as I talked

She even pushed me as I walked.

She pushed me to my limit

I didn’t even know I had it.

I was going nowhere and fast

I thought I’d never last.

I kept remembering failures of my past.

She turned my life around.

Now I might be college bound.

How do I repay something like this?

I keep remembering her words…

The lectures I’m going to miss.

Now because of her I believe

That “teacher” means much more to me.

A Question and a Challenge

How could a young woman who was two months away from dropping out of school write words I would be happy to have on my headstone when I die?

She listened as I talked

She even pushed me as I walked.

What teacher wouldn’t be honored to have a student write those words about her?

But there are two other lines in that poem that should scare every teacher in America.

She pushed me to my limit

I didn’t even know I had it.

How and why would a young lady in America make it all the way to her senior year in high school without even really knowing that she “had it?”  Jennifer had the ability all along.  Isn’t that our main job as teachers?  We have to reveal for students that they “have it” within them to succeed.

We must push them to their limit until they realize that they have it.

I learned that from a poem written by an 18-year-old girl who was two months away from walking away from an education.  Those are her words.  We must listen.

TEACH...To Change Lives

Jennifer’s story and many others…

plus classroom activity ideas to build success in life for our students…

 are in my newest book for teachers.

TEACH…To Change Lives.

Available at Amazon.com

The Empty Truck

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the empty truckAre You Kidding Me?

All the prospective teachers in my classroom were angry.  You could feel the tension hanging in the air within the classroom walls.  I  was teaching in a Teacher Academy program for high school juniors and seniors.  I had just shown my group of high school aged future teachers an article that compared teacher salaries to the yearly income of a wide variety of other professions.  But this activity backfired.  The reality didn’t just inform them, it infuriated them.

Heated comments fueled by adolescent hormones were flying around the room.  “Why should we work this hard to learn about a profession that pays so poorly”?  “What makes accountants and salesmen more valuable than teachers?”  “How come basketball players and sports figures are worth so much more than teachers who educate our country’s children?”  They looked at me with indignation.  They seemed to blame me as though I had written the economic reality of my own profession.

In that moment I sensed I was poorly prepared to answer them.  I chose the escape route of a chicken.  If you don’t know the answer, pose a question.      chicken

“Maybe it’s a good time to revisit the question I asked you on the first day of school,” I challenged them.  “Why do you want to teach?”

I paused and waited for their answers.  But they weren’t falling for it.  They didn’t feel like sharing those touchy-feely stories again.  If society didn’t value teachers were they preparing for the wrong career?  Their body language said it all.  They leaned back in their chairs and crossed their arms over their chests.  They were daring me to defend a profession that was seemingly undervalued by our American culture.

I paused even longer, and not just because I know that an effective teacher gives students time to formulate answers.  I waited because I knew I had to say exactly the right thing to this group at this moment.  I couldn’t come up with the right words.  I started to sweat.

Finally seventeen-year-old Chelsea began to speak.  “My real dad is jealous of my step dad,” she began.

Every head in the room swung to look at her like she was nuts.  Why in the world was she talking about her two dads at a time like this?  But she read their body language and continued, “Wait, just a minute, hear me out.  My real dad is jealous of my  step dad.  I know this is true because he told me so.  My real dad said he is jealous for two reasons.  First, my step dad gets to live with me.  My real dad claims he’s jealous because my step dad gets to spend more time with me.”

two dads

“The second reason he says he’s jealous is because my step dad is an engineer who designs toys.  He first designs a toy.  If that toy design is selected by the big toy company he works for, he gets to watch the whole toy development process.  He watches them produce the toy, choose packaging for it, and market the toy through ads and television commercials.  He even gets to see his finished toy on the toy store shelf and watch kids take it home to play.  My real dad thinks that would be such a cool way to make a living.

You see, my real dad drives a delivery truck.  One day when we were having one of those kind of serious father/daughter talks, he told me that in his job at the end of a really good day all he has to show for it is an empty truck. He told me that he doesn’t care what profession I choose, but he wants me to choose carefully so that at the end of the day I will have something more than an empty truck.”

Teach to Change Lives

She paused to let that sink in and then she continued, “That’s why I want to teach.  Because as a teacher, at the end of a day of helping students learn, I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that will be so much more than an empty truck.”

teacher

I had a lump in my throat when she stopped speaking. I thought about the courage of her father.  How tough it must have been to so eloquently admit his jealousy for her stepfather.  He was so focused on his daughter choosing a career with meaning that he put his own self-esteem on hold to share an analogy she will never forget.  She internalized his message so completely that she could pull it out and share it with others at just the right moment.  It changed the whole climate of my classroom in an instant.  My students sensed the complete truth in that story.  I didn’t have to add a word.

Isn’t that, after all, why all of us teach?  At the end of a day, a school year or even a career we will have so much more than an empty classroom.  In this profession we build relationships that can honestly span a lifetime and touch generations to come. When we prepare a student to enter a profession with meaning because we have first helped him believe in himself, we help define not just his life, but the way he raises his family as well.  As a career teacher, I admit not every day is easy.  On those tough days I like to think about Chelsea’s story of the empty truck.  I make myself stop, close my eyes, and actually visualize that truck.  Then I take a deep breath and just keep on truckin’.

TEACH...To Change Lives

Today Chelsea is a teacher and has her own students in Hamilton, Ohio.   I have written my second book for teachers titled TEACH…To Change Lives and Chelsea’s story is only one of the stories in it.  It is now available at Amazon.com.

Moments Matter

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Making the Most of Moments

I’ve heard it said that we don’t remember days, we remember moments.  As I think back over my own life I believe that’s true.  The good news is moments take less time than elaborate events and time is a commodity most of us have in short supply.  Most moments that mean much to us simply evolve spontaneously.  But as we build a life of value, embracing the moments when they happen means a great deal.

I remember one significant moment in my life that didn’t even involve a single word. My youngest daughter, Kelsey endured two long battles with cancer.  During her second battle in her teen years while I drove her to the hospital for treatments, I knew she was uptight about all that would transpire, though she never would verbalize her fears.

I fell into the habit of putting my hand on her knee as we drove to the hospital.  One time as we drove there I was lost in my own silent thoughts of dread and I didn’t put my hand on her knee.  After a while she quietly picked up my hand and placed it on her knee.  No words at all.  But we were then connected.  She was telling me she was scared but didn’t want to talk about it. She was telling me that she needed me present with her. It was a moment I will never forget.

Another lighter moment happened in my classroom as I was preparing my teen students to go on a trip out-of-town for an educational conference.  I spoke to them seriously about our upcoming stay in a hotel.  No one was ever to be in the hotel hallway alone.

“Even if you are just going for a bucket of ice, you must have a partner with you,”  I warned.  “Never talk to strangers or enter the room of someone you’ve just met no matter how nice they seem.” I continued sternly.  The atmosphere was very sober as I wanted it to be.

At precisely that moment there was a knock on my classroom door.  A man wearing the uniform of the technology department whom I had never seen before, was looking for the room which 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, walked a few feet down the hall, opened the unmarked door and escorted him inside to point out the door he was trying to find.  I was back in my classroom in seconds.

One of my female students with a gleam in her eye said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Easley.  Didn’t we just see you leave your friends and go into a room with a strange man who you didn’t even know?”  I tried to stay serious but the whole classroom dissolved into laughter.  What followed was an out-and-out giggle fit that went on and on.  Every time I tried to get the class back on track someone would start laughing again, usually me.

It was a spontaneous moment that none of us will ever forget.  I’m sure long after I’m dead and buried if those students get together to talk about old times, one of them will say, “Do you remember the time Mrs. Easley left the class and went off with a strange man?”  And they’ll laugh again.

What makes me proud?  I was “present” in those moments.  I connected with Kelsey’s message when she needed me.  And I collapsed in laughter when that was the only response needed.  I embraced the moments.  That’s why those moments will live forever.

This is an excerpt taken from my upcoming book:    Teach     To Change Lives