Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Let Your Life Count

     In a little over a week I will eulogize a person who impacted my teaching and teaching philosophy more than  anyone in my career. As I waded through a sea of emotions while writing my final words to my friend, I kept coming back to the same idea: Max made his life matter Even in death, Max challenged me.
     Does my life matter? Do I teach in such a way that kids are engaged? Do kids know I care? As teachers, these questions may swirl in our  minds often. At least I think they should. When I'd voice my doubts about being an effective teacher to Max, he'd ask me if I tried my best,  if I put my all into it, and if I was prepared. I usually had. He said if my answer was affirmative, that was the best I could do.
     Most people go into teaching because they want to make a difference or because they like kids. Most people leave teaching because they don't feel valued, supported, or appreciated. Max made it his mission to try to retain quality teachers in schools  He was passionate about teachers' rights and worked relentlessly when he felt they were violated.
     Max left an indelible mark on policy and people connected with education. I know his question for me and all of us would be What mark have you made?
     I won't forget Max. He taught me to be self-reflective. To ask myself the tough questions and make sure I'm in this job for the right reasons. We all need a Max in our lives. Look around and find someone you trust and who will ask you the hard questions and be honest with you.
      Be like Max and make your life count. It'll make a world of difference.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Change Happens

     Robert Frost penned a poem called "Nothing Gold Can Stay," which shows that nothing stays the same--everything changes. I love teaching this poem and challenging students to think of something that  doesn't change. We've had great discussions with this. I think of this poem often when I face unwanted deviations from my straight and planned life. Every school year I anticipate getting into a routine and enjoying the comfort that routine offers. But the only thing constant about the routine is that it changes
      At the end of this school year our school administrative assistant is leaving. She's been here longer than me, and I've made this school my home for 18 years. Watching her go out  the door one final time is going to be bittersweet. Yes, I'm happy for her, but what about us, the ones left behind to figure out life without Lu?
      Another unanticipated change was the loss of our school counselor. She was great and a friend. I didn't even get to say good-bye when a family emergency forced her to move back to Louisiana. This time, change was a good thing. Our new school counselor is someone I respect and admire. She will be a huge benefit to the students at my school.
     My school is not ideal for someone who doesn't like change. Just today we had another graduate "walk the hall" signifying completion of high school. Change. There is nothing that doesn't change. Even the use of double negatives can change from a mistake to intentional if only to prove the opposite.
     So how do we accommodate change? By rolling with it. Accepting it. Knowing that everything changes and embracing the change and the challenge it brings. So when the new AA arrives, I will bake for her. When the new counselor arrives, I will help her transition, offering any help I can give; and when new students take the place of old ones, I will embrace them, pour into their lives and see the change that can happen in them.
     Change. It can make all the difference.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Connecting with Kids

          This is a blog post I wrote in 2014. I came across it as I was cleaning up my computer and thought it worth another posting.

          I work with students. Mostly juniors and seniors. Mostly students who have had problems learning in traditional high schools. Mostly students who have failed, in some way, academically. I LOVE my job. Seriously, I wouldn’t trade where I work or the kids in my classes for anything. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering about connections. What causes some teachers to connect so easily with kids while others have a difficult time doing so?

          Research states that students who connect with a caring adult (teacher/mentor) early on in their high school experience have a greater chance of matriculating with their cohort class. The reason most kids drop out of school, especially after freshman year (the riskiest year for at-risk students)? The students have no strong relationships with a caring adult.
          I teach the “dropouts.” Those students who have flailed in high school but never bad enough for intervention. Or if they did have an intervention, they grew frustrated and discouraged and quit. When asked, most students don’t have a high school teacher they connected with at their former school. They refer to their middle or elementary teachers as being someone to whom they responded, not anyone in high school.
          So what does it take to develop relationships with students? According to a study done by University of Minnesota researchers, students feel more connected to teachers and their school when the teacher shows empathy and is consistent. One of the researchers, Robert Blum, MD, PhD, stated that teachers who make students feel important, show empathy and consistency, allow students to manage themselves, and encourage them to make their own decisions will have a stronger relationship with students resulting in fewer discipline problems and more connected students.
          The research proves out what I see daily in my classroom. For readers who have never been a teacher, let me tell you, teaching involves much more than instruction. That is about two thirds of what I spend my time on. The rest is spent on kids, and developing that relationship and being a mentor and guide. I want students to feel safe in my room, to know I care, and to approach me, if needed, with things going on in their lives. But to do that, I need to have a relationship with them.
          So how can teachers develop this kind of relationship? I say every student is different. I’ve had some that never melted the iceberg which encased them. Others had Mt. Everest on their shoulder while others put up walls to keep from being hurt. In my years of working with students, all 24 of them, I’d say there’s an innate knowing of how to handle each student.
Yet despite how you approach them, all students want basically the same things. They want structure/boundaries. Even though it may not seem like it, I believe students feel safest when they know how far they can go. They like structure and the security it offers them. Students, at least my students, want to be treated like adults, shown respect and given responsibility for their own learning. This correlates to the study cited previously—allow students to manage themselves and make their own decisions.
I’d also agree with empathy and consistency. To build relationships with kids I think it’s important to be an active listener and to be fair/consistent with how you handle situations.
Another key to developing relationships with students is to not be stingy with the praise. Kids love to get feedback, especially positive feedback. Who doesn’t like to be told he/she has done something well? How much more for insecure teens who question their every move? Praise is important for all of us, including teens.
There are many more strategies to develop relationships with students. However you look at it, relationships are vital to seeing students be successful in the classroom. No matter what others may think, teachers know that making students feel they matter and are important, in verbal and nonverbal ways, are foundations to building strong relationships with students.
And that can make all the difference.

Monday, December 31, 2018


     It's almost the first of the New Year and I feel guilty already. Maybe you noticed the date of my last blog post. Maybe not. Let's suffice to say it's been a while. Even though I haven't been the most consistent writer, I've been busy in the classroom.  Experimenting with new ideas and listening. To my students, to my colleagues, and to myself. If there's one thing I've learned so far this year, it's the importance of being an active listener. If I want my students to communicate with me, my coworkers to share ideas with me, and my internal voice to guide me, I have to listen.
     One area I'm really trying to improve my listening skills is with my students. They smell insincerity a mile away. When I ask for feedback from them, I need to listen intently to what they say, consider what they say, and even implement what they say. That gives them validity and  gives them a stake in what happens in my room. As I pilot a new class I hope to become a reality for students, I seek feedback from kids who have taken the class or who are currently taking it. Having a segmented school year makes this process easier than in a traditional classroom. So when I ask for student input, I want my students to know I'm listening and will seriously consider their opinions.
      That's not the only change I'm working on this school year. Each year principals ask for professional goals. One of my objectives this year was to collaborate with a couple of teachers in my building and offer an integrated curriculum/unit that students could engage in, direct their learning and learn practical skills that would challenge them to learn in a new way. With an idea brewing, I approached our FACS teacher and our math teacher. Both were receptive and enthusiastic to the idea.Now I'm looking forward to actually working with the other teachers to develop this project.
     Finally, I want to learn to listen to myself, my gut. Take the time to consider what I'm hearing instead of acting impulsively. By slowing down and considering things and their value, I know I will become a stronger teacher. And for my students and colleagues, my slowing down could make all the difference.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Choice, Voice, and At-Risk Students

 "How do you think the world would change if we let kids read books they enjoyed in high school? Do you think they wouldn't get into college? No! They would become adults who read for enjoyment and learning."     Donalyn Miller

     Choice in what students read? Heretical to some teachers. Others embrace the idea of choice and squeeze hard, giving their students the rein to go in whatever direction they will. I believe in student voice and choice and try to operate in that realm consistently. Especially in reading books. All I have to do to convince myself is think back to my English class in high school where I was forced to read Silas Marner. I swore, if I ever became a teacher, I would never make my students read such archaic works that were as boring as all get out. For anyone who made it through that book without nodding off, you're a better person than I.
     When I give students a choice and a voice, I'm doing a lot more than letting them pick out a book. I'm letting them know they matter. I'm letting them know I trust them to make  a solid choice. And I'm letting them know they have a say in their education. What do I get in return? More engaged students whom I have to tear away from reading rather than nag into compliance. Give me the former any time!
     My students thrive in this choice-rich environment. They feel as though they are taken seriously and that their opinions matter. Even if they initially don't want to read a book, most of the time they get into the book and get excited about it. I overheard a student yesterday tell a student new to my class that reading the book wasn't so bad because students got to choose what to read. And if it stunk, I'd let him pick another. The student went on to tell the newbie that even if he didn't like to read, he'd like this.Trust him.
     The voice of peers matters. I feel pretty good about engaging kids in reading as long as I give them a voice. What have I learned through all of this? Be versatile in your teaching. Be flexible. Be willing to take a chance on your kids and the choices they make. It could make all the difference.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Technology Limits?

     I love technology. More than most and less than some, I'm always looking for new ideas on how to incorporate it into the classroom. But I admit defeat when trying to manage some technology and how students use it. So what has flummoxed me in the past? What piece of technology has me gnashing my teeth? The cell phone. This tiny instrument has caused me and many teachers I know nothing but angst. Between parents texting their kids just because to work supervisors texting to see if teens can leave school so they can cover someone else's shift (yes, this happens weekly at my school), the cell phone and I are developing a love/hate relationship.
     In the past kids have used their phones to listen to music (remember, my school is an alternative one), occasionally look things up and this year, they'll be using them to check out books from my library. Useful ways to use a cell phone as an instrument. However, they also use phones to Snapchat, Instagram, text each other, text parents and other family members and so on.
     What's the solution? As much as I hate to admit defeat, I am. So to bring things more under control this year, I'm going to institute a cell phone policy. It's not all worked out yet as I've turned to some people for help in figuring this out. Obviously, I'm not engaging my kids all the time. So there's that to work on. But I think it goes beyond that. I truly believe some people are addicted to their cell phones which makes it hard for them to disengage from the device.
     The students probably aren't going to like it. I'm not going to like it. But it is what it is. I'd be interested to know what others do to stem this growing tidal wave of use. Cell phones are great tools, but they can also be
negative . I don't have the answers....do you? Share it with me...it could make all the difference.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Lessons Learned from a 7th Grader

      My grumpy me got schooled by a seventh grader recently. For me, it's been a long summer. It wasn't the "vacation" I had envisioned and the lack of action had me feeling pretty ornery. To accomplish something around my house, I hired a seventh grade girl, I'll call her April. So April arrived, Grumpy Me was alive and well, and I told her what needed to be done. I almost used the word "instructed" just now--I "instructed" April what to do. But I didn't, instruct her I mean.And here is where she schooled me.
     April probably thought I was the worst person around. And she would've been right. I realized as she toiled away that she was doing what she thought I wanted her to do. I assumed she knew what she was doing even though I had never told her anything, really. It reminded me of the classroom. How many times do we fail to give explicit instructions, or actually teach the kids anything, and then expect them to know what we want them to do? They'll be like April, tentatively approaching the work without any real direction trying to bring a sense of order to the task at hand.
       The question is do we just assign tasks or do we actually teach what we want our students to do? Do we hand them a work sheet and tell them to do it, or do we engage them in the lesson and make it meaningful for them?
      I hired April again a few days later to help in my classroom. I made sure Grumpy Me was locked up tight. Not only did the day go better for me, but I know it went better for April. I treated her the way I would want to be treated had I been her. We talked and laughed and had a good time. We got the project done in my room because I did a bit of instructing first to lay out the plan. And things went smoothly.
      So what were the lessons learned?
  1. Remember to always instruct, even when things seem obvious. Never assume kids can read our minds.
  2. Grumpy Me needs to be locked away...for good.
  3. Students want to do what you want or how you want things done.
  4. Don't assume. Just teach. 
  5. Relationships matter. When I spent time talking to April and showed a genuine interest in her, she responded accordingly. Invest some time in finding out who students are...it is a game-changer.
     April worked hard and did a terrific job. Me, however? Yeah, I'm still a work in progress, but I'm glad I'm learning new lessons. That can make all the difference.