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.