An Open Letter To My Future Students

Letter to Students

You don’t know me. Yet.

I am your future teacher.

As soon as you were put on my classroom roll, I cared about you.

Does that sound weird to you?

Well that’s just us teachers. We’re an interesting bunch. Most of us became teachers because how we feel about kids and wanting to help. We remember. It wasn’t always easy being the son or daughter and having to pull ourselves together to sit in a classroom and endure.

I thought I would write this letter to you to let you know the type of teacher I am and my hopes for this year. Maybe you’ll think this is odd or maybe you’ll like it. Maybe when you come on the first day of school this letter will make you feel a little better – I hope it will.

I don’t know much about you beyond your picture. You were smiling for the camera. I’m sure the people at home loved it. I wonder if they have that picture pinned to the refrigerator like I’ve done with my kids’ pictures. Expect to hear stories about them throughout the year and when I get home I will probably share stories about you with them.

Now that I’ve had my class roll about a week I’ve copied your name more than a few times for all kinds of reports or labels you don’t know about yet. I can spell your name pretty well by now, I just might mispronounce it on the first day. You can count on me doing my best to get it right pretty quickly. No one likes their name mispronounced. I didn’t – imagine all the ways Kaminski can be said out loud the wrong way. It’s a whole bunch.

I don’t know if you’re awesome at reading or if math frustrates you like it did me when I was in elementary school. I wasn’t always awesome at school. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. Either way is ok with me. I just want you to be better at the important stuff by the time you finish our year together.

I don’t know much about your teacher last year even if you were at my school. I didn’t spend all those days with you last year, so I don’t know how it went. I haven’t hunted down your teacher to learn all about you because I want to us to get to know each other first.

Maybe you love school and all the things you might learn or maybe you hate every bit of it – I hope you don’t hate school. When I became a teacher I told myself I wanted to be the kind of teacher that students would want to see in the morning.

School can be a tough place, but shouldn’t be. Our classroom can be the kind of place where we all help each other. If we’re having a tough day and need a friend, we should be that person. If we’re having a great day, we should celebrate.

So I’m asking you to care.

Care about doing your best. Care about your friends and even those people you don’t know yet. Care about our classroom and making it the best place it can be. We’re going to spend a lot of time together and I want you to feel safe. Safe to ask questions and not always get the answers right. I want you to feel good about our class and how you’re treated.

About the humor thing. If I tell a joke that you think is corny or say something in a funny voice, it’s because I’m after a smile. I’ll try to wait a while before I start all that, although that’s hard for me. I like to hear students laugh. Sometimes students misunderstand and think that when I’m trying to funny, I’m not serious about your learning – totally untrue. That’s why I’ll go easy on the jokes at first. You need some time to get used to how we do things and who I am.

If I tell you a story it’s because I want you to learn something important. Sometimes stories are a lot more fun than just being told if something is right or wrong.

If I get serious with you it’s because I care.

You’ll probably hear me tell the class about this guy Randy Pausch who wrote the book The Last Lecture. He came up with a list of life rules and one of them is about when he was playing football as a kid. His coach was really tough on him one day. One of the assistant coaches came up to him after practice and said he noticed how tough practice was – how the coach had been riding him. Then that coach told him something that sounded crazy. He told that tired football player how lucky he was because if his coach didn’t care, he wouldn’t have ever been tough on him. He just would’ve walked away and not spent the time trying to make him a better player.

Maybe you’ll understand I care about you when I get disappointed. I have high hopes for you. Maybe you won’t understand.  I don’t think I would have gotten it when I was your age. I would have just thought the teacher was mean. I’m not mean.

By the way, when I was your age, I was really shy and quiet. I never wanted the teacher to call on me because I didn’t want to get the answers wrong in front of everyone. You should know it’s ok to guess and not get everything right. It’s really important that you try your best.

You aren’t my first class. You are my 14th.

For the last 13 years I have taught a lot of students who each year have come into my class about 180 times – that’s a lot of hellos.

Now let’s do just a little math, just a little I promise. That’s about 325 students since I started teaching. Well, there’s more than that because I taught some kids who came to my class just for math or social studies. So it’s probably closer to about 400 now.

That’s a lot of talking and teaching. That’s a lot of time together every year.

So you can trust the fact that I’m ready for you to arrive.

I’ve had some practice.

Remember when I told you about being better at the important stuff by the time you leave my class? When I say that I don’t mean math or reading or science or social studies or writing. I’d be a bad teacher if I told you I didn’t care about those things. I do want you to get better at those subjects so you’ll be ready for the next grade.

What I mean though is that I hope you’ll be a better person after we’ve spent a year together. I hope you’ll look around more, notice more, care more and share more. I hope you’ll learn more about yourself and really understand that you have gifts. They make you both awesome and different than anybody else.

Last thing, because this is getting kinda long and this isn’t reading class so we should finish up. You should know that I think about you when I go home and probably the next day when I go back to school again.

Teachers do that, you know. They don’t leave school and forget about what happened that day. If you had a bad day I will wonder why and what I can do to help. I’ll even wonder if I did something that made your day less than awesome. If you had a great day, I’ll be cheering even if you can’t hear me. Can you tell I want you to have a great year?

So, see you on the first day of school.

Remember to relax and be ready to start a great year together. I look forward to getting to know you.

6 Reminders As You Prepare Your Classroom

Pre Classroom

It’s time. There’s no denying it any longer.

Class rosters have been assembled and you may have even been given your teacher copy.

I went online a few days ago and saw pictures of my 2016-2017 students. Taken from last year’s school pictures they were all smiles.

It’s teacher work week.

What to do, where to start? For over a decade I’ve found myself anxious about the first week. As teachers we want students’ first day to be perfect.

Here are this year’s seven things to focus on with the time you have remaining before the first day’s school bell rings.

1. Get to know your students.

Seek out their files, close the door, and do some reading. I often spend too much time on whether my classroom walls express the right feeling and not enough on beginning to understand the students that will be walking into my room.

I always want the walls to say “I’m glad you’re here” and I want my desks arranged just so. I clean off my desks and chairs of their summertime dusting. Like a fool I am so enthralled by the looks of my room that I forgo learning about my soon-to-be students’ personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

So take some time to set aside the worry about your bulletin boards and learn about your students.

And as you finish reading how they have done in the past and you’ve taken some notes – erase, erase, erase. Erase what you’ll remember about what others have written because you really ought to give your students a chance to redo. Redo what didn’t go well in the past. Redo the year with a new teacher.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean you should ignore the past, just be willing to say believe it’s a brand new year with great possibilities ahead.

2. Think about what went well last year, and remember.

Do you remember what went well?

Too often we think about all the tension we experienced trying to get students to understand or when  we were disappointed in ourselves in how the went.

You know though, that good things happened right? That every day you put a smile on a students face and you made them feel better about themselves.

  • I remember the success I had with students.
  • I remember them screaming to me from their buses as they left that last day.
  • I remember their excitement as visitors came into my classroom.
  • I am happy to report that it seems that I have survived my first year of teaching the 3rd grade – a transition from the 5th.
  • I am happy that my schoolmares didn’t come true and my students’ scores on their state assessments were overall pretty good.
  • I love the memory of a previous student coming to me on that Back to School day and her mom telling me how her daughter had spend all summer planning out her future as a result of a math bill paying lesson in which we discussed cars, college and houses. They were both all smiles greeting me at my door – makes me smile sitting here one whole year later.

3. Now think about what didn’t go so well last year, and correct.

For me this is easier to do.

  • I remember the times that my lessons didn’t go as well as I scripted them.
  • When I felt overwhelmed by the amount of instruction it seemed I hadn’t gotten to yet while looking at the calendar and seeing how few days remained.
  • The amount of paperwork that kept coming at me from our aides who were doing an excellent job of providing copies of worksheets, yet I felt overwhelmed by when it was supposed to be taught and given – it was my first year teaching third.
  • Where all that paperwork went as I tried to organize it in preparation for that week or that following week’s lessons.
  • Feeling rushed to teach a lesson instead of listening to a story a student wanted to share – this one really bothers me.
  • The times students go home telling half the story and there’s an entire other half of the story that wasn’t told which makes the student’s story far less concerning.
  • When I’m critical of my own teaching and forget when things went exceptionally well.

How about you? Is it easier to remember when it didn’t go as planned?

4. Remember what made you happy last year.

  • I loved it when my students made me laugh by telling me a story. I’m reminded of when I asked them to go home and do something nice, just because. The reactions from parents and siblings that they shared in class was wonderful.
  • Cheese and Crackers – when I ask students to come to the front of the classroom, so we can get to know one another better. I ask them a few warm up questions like favorite questions or how many pets they own, and then students ask the student questions. Why it’s called Cheese and Crackers? I have no idea how that came about.
  • When students trade in tickets they have earned for good behavior and they want to spend time with me eating lunch together with another friend. It’s always insightful and it’s almost always fun to hear their stories.
  • One of my parent volunteers offered a bit of a water balloon contest driven by their success on the state assessments. I naturally included myself in the “bet”. Passing the test garnered one balloon, pass advanced gave them two and a perfect score earned them ten water balloons.  At about twenty yards they were so excited about the prospect of nailing me with a water balloon they almost always missed me. I laughed. They laughed and screamed. I remained largely dry.

5. Do some lesson planning early on.

Every year I’m exhausted before my students ever set foot into my classroom. I’ve spent each day of teacher work week attempting to make things just so to find my lessons incomplete going into Labor Day Weekend.

This year my plans will be done before that week begins.

Current status? I’ve gone in a week early and already feeling better about changes I’m making to how my class looks and how I will change what didn’t go well last year.

6. Take a breath.

If this is your first year, your adventure is about to begin and you’ve done all you can to get ready. I still remember sitting in my first classroom at Pole Green Elementary and looking around at what would become the space in which I would teach. I was in awe that I would be in charge and I was overwhelmed that it was me that would be in charge.

If you are returning, then this is all something you’ve done many times in the past. Remember? Take the good memories and hold on to them tightly as the calm of summer begins to unravel. Remember the challenges and do something about trying to keep them from repeating.

As multiple principals have shared with me in the past, the #1 goal the first day is to get all your students back home safely that first day. Certainly an easy task with all the other objectives you have.

It’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy yourself a little and make your students’ day one in which they will remember well and be excited about returning to the next time they see you.


What about your reminders about preparing for the first days of school? I would love to hear them to add them to my own.

13 Thoughts After 13 Years Of Teaching

Thirteen Thoughts on Thirteen Years of Teaching

Thirteen years have passed at the front of the classroom and I’m about to begin my fourteenth. Fourteen! That’s big WHOA for me.

Here are 13 thoughts I’d like to pass along to you. Whether a teacher, parent, aspiring teacher, all three, or none of the above.

No particular order, just important enough, I think, to know before you cross the classroom door threshold for the first time or you have yet again found yourself in front of the little people.

Here they are…

1. Unless you’re a teacher, a parent of a teacher, dating or married to a teacher… you’re just not going to understand what a teacher endures.

You might have heard a few things about the profession here and there, but you’re not going to get it.

I expect that all professions have their moments. I know doctors, nurses, engineers, call center representatives, salespeople. All important jobs, sure. It is my believe however that teachers, different than other professions, serve in a multiple of roles over the course of a day – it’s daunting.

It’s still daunting to me.

We console, prod, commiserate, care, reminisce, counsel, redirect, nurse, celebrate and encourage. We do all this with children – not adults. Additionally we have the added challenge of being expected to succeed regardless of whatever “roadblocks” we ourselves or our students encounter.

I will be bold enough to say we even do some parenting. We live in a time, I believe, when parents expect great things from schools – maybe even unfair expectations. We also live in a time when parents sometimes aren’t interested in defining right from wrong at home. That lesson has fallen to teachers as well.

I’ve encountered parents who are mystified that they need to practice lessons at home when their child doesn’t grasp it after numerous times at school. They’re expected to help their child academically, and they’re confused about why (see #7 below).

Therefore, if you’re interested in the profession, seek out an educator who will give you the real “skinny” on what happens in the classroom.

I often meet prospective teachers and invite them into my classroom. The best teacher preparation programs get students into the classroom early on in their coursework – imperative to ensure you’re ready for, and still interested in, the challenge of teaching little people.

2. It’s about motivation as much as it is about content knowledge.

Motivation isn’t something I ever remember being reiterated to me while I was in school. I don’t remember a class conversation and there definitely wasn’t a course. We spoke about reading, about math, about classroom management, about technology, and definitely about learning disabilities. What we did not cover is what to do when a student says they just don’t want to. Instruction didn’t cover what to do when a group of students decides they’re going to run the classroom or take over recess.

When to convince, when to prod, when to take a step back and when to step forward are skills worth knowing if you want to be effective.

Consider classroom management skills the life vests you grab when the ship is taking on water. You don’t want to drown surrounded by students looking right at you.

This skill set is going to take time and filling your toolbox, if you will, will happen through experiences as an educator. In the meantime, seek out colleagues who you see making strides in their interaction with their students and “borrow” what works for them. You can’t, of course, be someone you’re not and pretend to be them – but learning from others is a good start toward developing your own style.

3. It’s also about classroom management as much as it is about motivation and knowing your content.

I know I said motivation was more important than content in #2, but if your students are so motivated that they’re standing on your desks (like in my summertime nightmares you can read here) they’re not really going to learn what you’ve planned for them are they? They will learn other things of course, but not anything that’s on a state assessment.

So you’re in charge. You have to be. How you do that will be easier over time. I suggest, like I do when I direct substitutes in my plans, to take the stern approach. Doing so from the beginning will help you sort through content and everything else that will be thrown at you, until you figure out what works for you.

My mentor my first year shared that she had seen teachers fail when they were either too stern or too lackadaisical. Being too much one way or the other was a recipe that resulted in students eventually not caring.

So you’re going to walk a tightrope on this. You’ll find that balance (pun intended) with experience.

Want a little more in how to run your classroom? Here are my Top 7 Classroom Management Strategies.

4. There are three rules I use to make my life easier when it comes to what appropriate behavior looks like in my classroom.

1) Does it keep me from teaching?

2) Does it keep the student from learning? or

3) Does it keep other students from learning?

When I started I spent a lot of printer ink money making my own huge posters that outlined my classroom rules. I was under the impression that if they were posted, I could point to each one and recite when necessary. I took my lead from The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of making that first day and first week of school an example of what’s expected every day and week for the remainder of the year.

I was therefore convinced that posting these on my classroom wall and discussing them the first week of school would certainly result in none of my students telling me they didn’t know the rules.

Wrong.

I’ve since figured out that students know exactly what the rules are and don’t need a colorful, ink laden poster. They’ve been sitting in a classroom for years and are well aware of what they shouldn’t do.

Now what I do is review the three rules I listed above, however I don’t feel the need to point to a poster and recite them repeatedly – I find that it just wastes the time of those following the rules. It’s better to just have a one-on-one conference with the student privately and later.

If you’re up to it, a great classroom management book I would recommend is Teaching with Love and Logic. It was handed to me early on in my career and I constantly return to it when challenged by a student’s behavior.

5. A teacher can always make their lesson better, but when do you stop?

No lesson planning is ever complete. A teacher can spend hours making their lesson better, great, or the best that anyone has ever seen. I guarantee you there’s another approach out there that just might be better. You can beat yourself up making things great while you work late into the night – you’ll also be exhausted the next day though and your delivery will suffer.

At some point you just have to call it a day and teach what you’ve planned. Keep it in your files and make it better next year. Your students won’t benefit even the slightest if their teacher is incoherent because they are exhausted.

6. It’s ok when it doesn’t all go your way. You’re human. Give yourself a break.

Some days are just like that. Stop beating yourself up. Just like your students, you’re human and you definitely won’t be at 117% every day.

Think you can? Try it. I guarantee that you’ll be calling in sick before too long and it’s going to take quite a long time for you to recover.

Teaching is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

7. Students are little people.

They are not little widgets. They are going to be excited one day and uninterested the next – maybe even from hour to hour. Subject to subject. It’s normal. You, as their teacher, haven’t done anything wrong. The students sitting in your classroom are human.

Some students are going to understand your learning objective the first time, some of them won’t. Some of our students won’t grasp your carefully laid out lesson plan until next year –  a whole year after they have left your classroom.

That’a tough one to realize.

That’s frustrating, but that, unfortunately, is  not uncommon.

As you might expect, I often find myself at the copy machine making class sets of copies. I do this not because I like copies upon copies of work for my students to do, but because students need to practice what I’ve learned.

As I’m standing in line behind other teachers who may be teaching students younger than mine, I sometimes standards being taught that my present students haven’t grasped.

This is not because they’re not good teachers.

It’s because our state mandated learning objectives are so numerous and our county timeline is so fast. Students who might struggle, i.e.: aren’t awesome at everything, often don’t have the time to grasp what they don’t know and why.

Our students aren’t great at everything, nor should they be.

Regardless, it still bugs me to no end that I haven’t been able to correctly convey the material in a way that the student will understand it. It’s then that I remember and have to realize, mostly unsuccessfully to be frank, that my student is not a machine. He may not get it yet.

Our students aren’t robots and neither are their teachers.

8. For those of you just starting out, this teachin’ thing ain’t easy.

Just so you are aware: Year 1 is overwhelming. Year 2 is better because now you know what’s coming. Year 3 is when you feel finally start feeling comfortable.

I clearly remember one afternoon during my first year when my principal looked into my classroom to check on how I was doing.

“Do you feel like you’ve been hit by a semi?” he asked.

Yes, yes it did.

He also did a great job of providing a forum for us newbies to gather occasionally and reflect on how we were doing. Our mentor described the first year in chart form which I found online and posted below.

First-Year Teaching.gif

So it’s ok to have some ups and downs. That’s normal. From anticipation early on to the same feeling as the year ends and some time away for the Summer is granted.

9. State mandated standards tested throughout a student’s life are important, they are not, please remember, the most important thing.

Too often teachers are drawn into the zaniness that is testing. Their results determine whether teachers are successfully imparting knowledge and whether principals are leading effectively – all wrong.

I expect no one teaching pursued the profession and jumped through all the hoops so we could impart test taking strategies and worry about scores.

No test proves learning that is given on one specific day when a child, is feeling overwhelmed, having a bad day, didn’t get enough rest the day prior, or failed to eat breakfast because there was no food in the house.

There’s a whole lot more going on in children’s lives that doesn’t include testing, preparation for that testing, or worrying about testing.

Additionally, no test shows whether a child has left our classroom a better person that when they arrived at the beginning of the year.

Isn’t that the point why we became teachers?

10. Once you have a year or two completed, rely on your previous lesson plans.

Don’t recreate the wheel. DO improve the wheel. Take one lesson a week and recreate it making the best it can possible be.

11. Today’s classroom is not the classroom you sat in when you were in school.

I believe most people are quick to critique the profession because everyone of us has been a student well before being a teacher, parent or voter – therefore people have strong opinions on how things should be.

If only it was that easy.

Too many variables exist at too many different times during the day. Use one approach and it might be ineffective before you have time to consider its effectiveness – being a teacher is not without variability.

12. You’re the teacher, but you aren’t always the one who should do the teaching.

We have all sat and listened to one person go on… and on… and we have all shut them out if they didn’t provide either amazing insight or we were spellbound by visuals or props.

No matter how awesome we think we are or we think our lesson is, it’s still us doing all the leading and talking.

Allow students to teach one another. Whether working in groups or from the front of the classroom, let students help each other better understand your learning objectives.

Check out Kagan Cooperative Learning if you haven’t had the chance. Putting your students into groups in which they help one another using various strategies is inspiring to see.

13. Have fun.

Remember the teacher you had that you hated to see at the front of the room? Do you remember them as having fun? Probably not.

If you’re not having fun in the classroom, when is it ever a better time to start?

Fun makes the history lesson come alive, helps math problems worth solving and who doesn’t like a funny story?

Another thing, it definitely makes my day go by faster.

Here’s a post I dedicated to the importance of having fun.

What pointers would you give to other teachers who are either new or returning to the classroom?