The Most Important Lesson

Each year I make the same deal with my students.

If they tell me it’s their birthday, and they make the request, I will make the hat.

This is no ordinary hat.

This is a custom, made to fit, and designed for just one student hat.

In fact, when some of my former students will visit me, often on Back to School Night, and I ask them if they still have their hat, they tell it’s still sitting on their bedroom dresser. For many of them this is many years after it was first made.

Why do they hold on to something made out of simple construction paper?

Perhaps it’s because no hat is alike.

Some hats dangle in all directions. Some are excessively tall while others are short and even slide down to sit on their nose – complete with eye holes. Some practically drag the sidewalk behind them. They’re decorated with names, stories and perhaps even ponies – if that’s what the birthday student loves. There are math equations, science terms and history lessons, but only if each somehow connected with the student. I’ll write questions on the hat in hopes that others will ask them about the dog they love or their little sister that makes them crazy.

Each time I begin one of these hats, I worry about the amount of time the production requires. In between science and reading, math problems and historical accounts. In between lunch and recess, resource and the bus loop… I staple, resize, crimp, fold, and cut.

Students watch me from their seats as they look up from completing a quiz or from behind their worksheets.

It takes more time than I care to admit. There’s constant cutting and even a resizing in the midst of the build. This all takes some time. Time away from what some would, no question, argue is a distraction from what’s expected to happen in the classroom.

So why does their smile stretch across their face when I sit that hat upon their head when I’ve finished?

While I think yes, it is because each is individually made just for them, I also believe it’s because of what I obsess over – the time it takes to make each one.

In an era of testing, meeting lesson objectives, remediation, and student anxiety; in a time when students are forced to acclimate to test taking strategies — all they want to do is share a story about what happened at the ball field or during last night’s sleepover with friends. They want us to make an effort to hear their story.

So seeing them proudly wear their hat as they follow me down the bus loop and get on the bus, is a memory for both student and teacher to remember.

When students know that you care enough about them to spend the time to make them happy – that’s a realization not quickly forgotten and quite possibly the most important lesson we can impart.

Escaping Classroom Failure

I try to be that teacher.

The one you wish you had. The one that you might have had long ago and wish you had again.

Funny, impactful, caring, sincere, kind, patient, and understanding. I’ve had a few I still remember all these years later. They were helpful, insightful, introspective, and said the right thing at the exact right time.

I admit it. I admit it to you now with humility.

I am not that teacher every moment of every day.

I fall short. I fall short a lot.

I share this because not being the teacher I wanted (and want) to be  really annoys me. Perhaps writing about it will bring some solutions. Maybe my sharing will ease my annoyance with myself.  I think about my failures as I stagger down my trailer’s stairs at the end of the day. I reflect on them as I drive home. They introduce doubt.

And then I try to remember about who sits in my classroom each day and I remind myself that each of my students is not a widget to be sold or a cog that’s part of a bigger machine.

Each of my students is a little human with all sorts of history of which they themselves don’t realize. Their parents in turn have a life of which I know very close to nothing. Combined, all of it leads to a myriad of experiences with which students enter the classroom each morning.

So maybe who I am and how I do it is exactly what some of them need. If they’re little people who come wrapped in so many different packages, then being different than the next teacher, then doing it differently than my colleagues who I know are excellent – is ok.

Yet the doubt still creeps in.

What happens after they get on the bus at four in the afternoon and when they come back the next school day at nine in the morning?

I don’t know.

I can tell you about what happens during the school day and I try my best, my very best, to be understanding that each is a human being in the process of changing into a not so little person anymore.

Some days, I proudly confess, I am successful. Happily successful.

I reach my students and not only teach them, but I connect with them. That’s when I know that teaching is what I’m meant to do. When I pick up on a student’s displeasure or confusion and help bring a dose of confidence or reassurance – all is right in the world. When I change my teaching mid-lesson and the end result far outshines what I was planning to do initially – I am happy.

Then there are the other days when the awesomeness doesn’t happen, regardless of what I try. Jokes fall flat. Encouragement doesn’t encourage. My happiness does not sprout more of the same. Plainly said, students can be a tough crowd and sometimes aren’t at all receptive to the best of intentions.

Here’s where I think being stubborn is a good thing. It’s on these days that I do some of the following.

Option One: Mercilessly Plow Ahead

I gather steam and haphazardly continue what my lesson plans require of me without second guessing any of my antics. The jokes will continue regardless of how badly they are received. In fact, I may just amp up the zany in hopes of breaking through the tired-don’t-care-please-don’t-make-me personalities sitting in my room.

This is exhausting. This is a gamble. When it works, it’s like finally reaching the top of a long climb and seeing the vista. It’s completely worth it.

Option Two: The Sound of Silence

Fall back to my quiet place. Sometimes quiet really is the best medicine. In fact the sound of silence is a great remedy to recenter both teacher and student.

I don’t like the quiet in a classroom. I enjoy hearing their laughing too much. I love our conversations. I appreciate a good story – whether theirs or when I get to tell my own. Quiet is tough on me, but I continue to learn that some of my students work best when their teacher doesn’t interrupt them with a story about that morning’s crazy realization or what happened at my own home the night before.

Either approach isn’t foolproof, but deviating from what expected often works.

Option Three: The Honest Truth

What I think works best is what I find myself doing when I’m at a loss for how to proceed.

And it’s what I did yesterday – I was just plain ol’ honest with them.

I’m a believer that every teacher has to draw a line in the sand and share some real honesty. Whether their writing hasn’t been up to par, it’s obvious that they aren’t following directions regardless of prompting, they aren’t using time to catch up, or their efforts have been lackluster.

Yesterday I stopped all charades and worried less about balancing positive with criticism. With my filter set on a lower setting than usual, I let my worries and concerns known.

How I end the sugar coatin’ changes depending on what I think will work.

Sometimes it’s a letter I write and let them read as the morning begins. Other times I remind each student what I am impressed by and what each needs to improve upon. Occasionally I will sit in front of them all and share with them the thoughts that woke me well before my alarm began – this morning it was 2 am.

That last one. The one about being super honest while I tell them what thoughts spin in the teacher’s head – that’s what I did yesterday.

Effective? Today they were much more civil with one another. Their efforts improved. The writing looked to be done with more attention to detail and more missing work arrived on my desk. Not all of my students, but most of them. But most of my students heard what I had to say, so today I left feeling like I earned that paycheck again.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Resolving to Reach the Unreachable and Ignored

Until I took a trip to Campeche, Mexico in my junior summer of high school, I was that kid who thought little of himself.

It would take six weeks in a foreign country, living with a family I didn’t know, understanding not a word of Spanish and surrounded by a very attractive group of girls to convince me that I might actually have something within me that others find interesting.

Why that group of girls chose to pick me up in that tiny VW Beetle and take me with them to the discotheque I have no earthly idea. I will of course admit to you, it left quite the impression.

Before that trip, and the events of which still confounds my mother to this day, I was the quiet one.

In school, I would hide behind the student in front of me.

I kept my hand down and cast my eyes downward when the teacher asked for a response.

If there was ever a chance to voice discontent or share an unpopular opinion, it definitely wouldn’t be coming from me.

I did not cause trouble and did not cause my teachers any grief. Because of this demeanor, it was rare that I held the attention of my teachers. I did not appear on their radar as unruly or as someone that needed to be confronted. In fact, thinking back, I can’t think of many teachers who made an effort to get to know me.

Except for Mr. David Saunders. My sixth grade teacher made it a point to ask me for help with German, a class he was taking. I felt special being called upon by my teacher for academic help. He made science an adventure as he included me in his plans to confound my fellow students with remote control contraptions for which only I had the remote. He left a great impression on how to bring out the best in this student.

And now that I’m that teacher calling on students, I know that the same kind of student sits in my classroom.

In what has become an annual tradition, New Year’s Eve survivors now either hold tightly to their resolutions or have in these last few days resolved to admit that they were shared in a moment of weakness.

I therefore refuse to do the same and attempt to continue what I sometimes do fairly well.

Sometimes, but not nearly enough.

I will do a better job of being that teacher who calls on the person sitting on their hands.

I will more often ask the shy one to step forward and share with the class how they successfully solved a problem.

I will attempt to have an honest conversation with the student who wants no part of sharing why he or she is so defiant.

I will keep trying to force a smile upon my quietest students with a joke or self-deprecating humor. I will summon from my list of nicknames till one fits so well they begin to use it on the top of their papers.

I will do a better job at focusing on those who would rather not be focused upon.

In doing so I will remember that sometimes we all need some time alone with a good book or a brain break by doing something creative.

We all need a break, teachers included, from what can become a monotonous classroom. It is then that I will introduce a game, a stretch break, a song or perhaps evoke the timeless thrill of story time – or even show and tell.

I will remember the students who aren’t always at the top of their class, nor in danger of failing their state assessments.

I resolve to reach the unreachable and ignored.

This of course does not happen anywhere near as much as it should. After thirteen years, you would think I’ve got a successful plan that hits on all cylinders.

Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Caught in the zeal to get to the end of my lesson plans I’m too often relieved that there weren’t too many questions. I assume that means the students learned enough to be able to continue to the next lesson.

Yes, I know.

Assumptions aren’t a good practice to rely upon.

As this new year begins, as I enter the dark classroom in the morning and turn on the computer that sit on my desk, as I write down the morning message that my students will read when they arrive, I will do a better job paying attention when I haven’t in the past.

I will reach out and do more than teach – I will connect with those who are hiding and hoping that they can quietly sit and remain anonymous.

I won’t allow them to be unreachable or ignored. I won’t let them be who I so faithfully tried to be.

This is not a resolution that will fall by the wayside as other priorities find their way to the top of my to do list.

This is simply a promise to my students.


What resolutions or promises have you made to your students this year? What is your hope for your classroom and why? I would love to hear them, and would appreciate your sharing them in the comments section.