Comforting Our Students Through Tragedy

I didn’t feel very good today and knew last night that calling in sick might occur.

This also happened to coincide with the latest school shooting — this time at a high school in Florida.

It really bothered me that I wasn’t there this morning.

This news will no doubt have reached the ears of my third graders by the time the bell rings tomorrow when I hope to return.

What do I say when the topic comes up?

My little third graders will look to me wondering what to make of all of it.

As my colleagues shared with me when I chose to move to the third grade: they’re old enough to understand, young enough to still care.

They were right except now is the time I wish they were too young to understand, too young to grasp that the world around them isn’t the kind of place they can trust. A world that contains pain and suffering.

What do I say?

Two stories come to mind.

The story of a guy in a cardigan and there’s the tale of two birds.

A Man, His Cardigan, and His TV Show

Both at the beginning of every show and then at the end, the show’s host puts and takes off a cardigan.

For those that don’t yet know, the show was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on PBS.

You would watch this if you were in Pre-School, maybe Kindergarten. I remember watching it after school and I remember being enthralled.

There were guests: the Postman, the Firefighter, there was a good bit of puppeteering.

There was one specific episode that has been mentioned and the host’s words ring true.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” – Fred McFeely Rogers

Here’s an excerpt that includes his perspective on his mother’s words.

Here’s the episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

Three Birds

On my way to a Scout  meeting a few weeks ago I looked up and saw two small birds chasing a rather large crow.

I thought about school, school children and what happens at school.

Sometimes its the playground bully. Children who either choose to not get along or bring negative experiences from home into school. Sometimes it’s driven by a misunderstanding that to adults seems trivial, but to our students can ruin their day.

It’s frustrating at times, but so important to address if we are going to do more than teach state standards of math or reading.

I’m reminded of those three birds.

Sometimes it’s the big ol’ crow that wants to steal the eggs or terrorize the neighborhood tree where the little birds gather.

That’s when you stick up for others… there’s safety in numbers.

Just like those two other birds chasing the big bird away from their tree, from their home.

We have to stick up for each other. We have to remember that the student who stays to them-self, probably wants anything but to be alone. We need to teach our students the importance of thinking of others, of caring for people beyond themselves.

Perhaps tomorrow I will start the morning by putting on a cardigan – and hope to bring familiarity and comfort to my third graders, just like Mr. Rogers did.

The Sun’s Lesson (in the Midst of My Winter Moment)

If you’re like me, you’re human.

These last couple of weeks have been trying. Maybe for you as well.

I’ve been trying to convince my students to give me their best effort. I’ve told stories. I’ve shared my own failures. I’ve turned those failures into lessons learned. I’ve tried to impart those lessons.

I hope that it’s made a difference.

Yet one county benchmark, a couple of tests, plus a quiz or two and I wonder if all that time talking about grit and perseverance has made any difference.

It’s disheartening when it seems my best efforts haven’t resulted in a positive gain.

I know, I know.

Our effect as teachers can’t always be measured.

It especially can’t be measured as it relates to the most important lessons — kindness, being mindful of others, sincerity, the importance of honesty, proving to anyone and everyone that no challenge is too difficult to overcome.

Sometimes we just need a little encouragement that our best efforts aren’t falling on deaf ears.

So today in the midst of preparing my report cards for what has been days, I looked up at the television and heard this fable and thought of us.

Just a small reminder of remembering how to respond to our students when that frustration might convince us to do the wrong thing.


The North Wind and The Sun

The North Wind and the Sun had a quarrel about which of them was the stronger. While they were disputing with much heat and bluster, a Traveler passed along the road wrapped in a cloak.

“Let us agree,” said the Sun, “that he is the stronger who can strip that Traveler of his cloak.”

“Very well,” growled the North Wind, and at once sent a cold, howling blast against the Traveler.

With the first gust of wind the ends of the cloak whipped about the Traveler’s body.

But he immediately wrapped it closely around him, and the harder the Wind blew, the tighter he held it to him. The North Wind tore angrily at the cloak, but all his efforts were in vain.

Then the Sun began to shine.

At first his beams were gentle, and in the pleasant warmth after the bitter cold of the North Wind, the Traveler unfastened his cloak and let it hang loosely from his shoulders.

The Sun’s rays grew warmer and warmer. The man took off his cap and mopped his brow. At last he became so heated that he pulled off his cloak, and, to escape the blazing sunshine, threw himself down in the welcome shade of a tree by the roadside.


Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.

When it’s summer time. When it’s quiet. When the chaos has abated and the year has been buttoned up. It’s then that I can easily justify to myself how important it is to be that teacher who is relatable. I want to be the teacher who is even tempered. The person who is welcoming each and every day. The one who hears every story without concern for the instructional time that’s passing by.

But when it’s winter and it’s cold.

When those state assessments seem to be coming toward us quicker by each passing week.

When I’ve told what I’ve always thought are inspirational stories that will bring out the best in my students. It’s now that I look out and see bored students who are obviously far less interested in what I have to say. It’s now when I fall back to the basics and am feel too tired to be that enthusiastic cheerleader.

Let me remember that kind words have an effect that no harsh ones ever will. That children will always immediately scramble when they’re uncomfortable, but that moment will quickly pass.

Let me remember that that’s not who I am and not the teacher I want to be. I resolved that many years ago when I decided to return to the idea of being a teacher.

Let us remember that the children that arrive each day may definitely need structure, but it should be complimented by a heartfelt smile and kind gestures — Aesop says so too.


Interested in sharing this lesson with your class? Here’s the link to the Library of Congress document.

Teacher’s Lesson: Phone Calls Unanswered

“If you’re hearing this message and we didn’t pick up, we’re making some changes, and you’re one of them.”

What did I just hear?

That’s not the kind of message I expected when I called one of my student’s parents.

He wasn’t doing as well and I was doing what every good teacher should.

I was calling home for some help. I was calling home to share that I cared about their son.

I admit, not only did the message confuse me, it made me a little mad.

Why was I cut off? What did I do?

It was my third year of teaching. I had just transferred to the county in which I live to cut my daily commute from over two hours to about 40 minutes.

No more leaving the house at 6 am and more time at home with my family which now included a one year old.

It wasn’t the first time that parents wouldn’t call me back and it definitely hasn’t been the last. I know it happens at all schools, but I seem to be experiencing it more lately.

And it still annoys me.

I share this with you because I’ve had a hard time understanding when a parent doesn’t call back. I don’t understand when numbers don’t work. It frustrates me when I can’t leave a message.

It probably frustrates me as much as it has when my own children’s teachers don’t get back to us when we have questions.

I can’t relate. Maybe like my students when I try to relate a story or lesson.

I was telling my students just yesterday about the tv we had in our house. It had a handle. It was a black and white model similar to the one above. It wasn’t just small by today’s standards — it was tiny.

It was what we had in my house.

When I explained this phenomenon of the tiny tv that was normal to me when I was my students’ age their faces told me they couldn’t picture a tv that could be moved from one room to another. I told them I had, at most, 5 channels which ended around 11:30 with a band of color and an unappealing shrill of a beep.

Yeah, I suppose I was showing my age.

They couldn’t relate to me, and I’m sure that sometimes I can’t relate to what is or what happens in their home.

Here’s my point.

I’m sure that my students don’t know about my being raised on what used to be the local neighborhood landfill — my dad admits to me that even his friends thought he was crazy when he bought that land.

My students don’t know about my asking Santa for one thing at Christmas because that’s what we did, we asked for one thing.

My students don’t know that my skin color made me a minority in my neighborhood, even though I check off caucasian on government forms.

My students have no clue what it’s like seeing your cousin and best buddy get hit by a semi trailer. I do, and it’s taken a long time for that memory to fade.

They don’t know about the lessons taught to me by father — some tougher than others; and there is no way I can completely share how I felt when my parents divorced.

I share this with you because I’ve caught myself being frustrated again lately when I can’t reach a parent just like that moment many years ago.

This time however I’m trying to remember that I really don’t know what my students and their parents are enduring.

What I shouldn’t do is continue to react with frustration and instead, try to remember that every student I meet in my classroom is affected by the struggles that happen at home.

And these struggles aren’t just real for my students, but they affect their parents in ways I don’t know and of which I’m unaware. It can’t but affect  how available they are when I call home.

So this is a reminder for myself that I do not know what battle occurs on the other side of that phone call or email.

I will do a better job that when I reach out to my parents and they’re unable to call me back, and when I react, I will do so with more of an understanding heart.

 

My Wish For You This Holiday Season

A week ago, I called a close friend to touch base and hear how he’d been doing.

When he asked me how I’d been doing, I was honest.

I am frustrated.

Frustrated that my students won’t heed my advice on how to be successful, frustrated that I can’t teach how I think I need to, frustrated by tests that I think are developmentally beyond my third graders.

He reminded me of this. I am reminding you of the same and a few more this holiday season.

So, here’s five reminders I hope you’ll remember as you take time away from the classroom.

#1: In the movie, Heartbreak Ridge, Army Medic Desmond Doss asks God to grant him safety so that he can rescue one more soldier left behind enemy lines.

“Just one more,” he says out loud. “Just one more.”

Doss returns again and again onto the battleground seeking a fallen soldier to drag out by his coat or carry upon his shoulders to safety.

It’s what we teachers hope for. Just one more, Lord, please let us reach one more and allow our efforts to change a life.

When my friend reminded me of the film, I knew right away he was dead right.

As I tried to focus on my class, I had forgotten about the individual student and the impact I had been making. An impact of which I needed to be reminded.

Know that you have been reaching your students, even if you don’t see it every moment.


#2: I had a student visit during the midst of our Holiday Party.

She is now a senior and waiting to hear back about her college applications. From what she shared, it sounds like she’s well on her way toward a successful education in hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Orthopedic surgeon? Wow.

I have to admit that when I asked her what she remembered from her 5th grade experience, she couldn’t recall much. However, when I prompted her… the memories came back.

She remembered friends she had made, lessons taught, antics at the front of the room.

Know that you’re making a difference beyond what you might imagine.


#3: I’ve been frantically trying to do all things exactly right these last few months.

Actually, punishing myself is a better way to put it.

Trying to prove to a new administration that I am a valuable.

Wanting them to see that I am someone who is interested in changing his teaching to what others want to see in action. It’s been exhausting and more than a little stressful.

And then I saw this simple sentence on a post which took me by surprise because it struck a chord within me.

Be ok with the fact that you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.

Please remember that your best efforts really will be exactly what your students need.


#4: Be at peace.

You’re done.

The frantic last week of shepherding students through their end of the year exams is over. You’ve finalized the teaching that had to be finished before the new year begins.

Take time to sit back and close your eyes.

Don’t think about school.

Be present at home.

Be at peace knowing that you’ve done good work.


#5: Get some rest and do something for yourself.

Many of my colleagues have posted on social media that they’ve gone to doctors, fallen ill as the last week of school ended, or are slowly recovering from surgery — this is the time they chose to finally get that operation.

Who does that? Who schedules their operation during their vacation?

Teachers do.

My colleagues, please take some time to rest and remember to spoil yourself.

You can only take care of your students if you take care of yourself first.

So grab another cup of coffee and drink it before it gets cold. You don’t need to rush out the door. You don’t need to think about school the moment you wake up in the morning.

Enjoy your time.

Happy Holidays my friend.

It Made A Difference For That One

If you’re like me, you love the beach.

Quite of few of us really love the beach and can’t get enough.

Maybe it’s the waves crashing over and over. Or maybe it’s the endless view across the big blue.

We get a chance to walk as far as we would like and see the footsteps we leave when we eventually turn around and head back. We get to sit and get lost in thought. Or we walk head down and look for shells that catch our attention.

I have a few of those shells in my classroom. For students who have never ventured to the shore, they’re something of an oddity — especially the one conch shell I’ve found in its entirety.

Watching my students turn those shells over in their hands, I sometimes wonder if I make a difference in their life.

Do you wonder the same?

Oceans and whether students leave my classroom better than when they arrive reminds me of this often repeated short story below.

If you haven’t heard of the little star that made it back into the ocean, I’m happy to be able to share it with you.

If you’ve heard it more than once, I hope it’s a great reminder that you are indeed making a difference.

One student at time.

Please don’t stop trying. You are making a difference for each student lucky enough to be sitting in your classroom.


While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.

He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley

Encouraging smiles, reflection and laughter hoping to inspire teachers to do it again tomorrow.