Category Archives: teaching

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

Thanksgiving Appreciation for Teachers

Thank you for who you are as a person. Thank you for your unending efforts to impart upon others the need to succeed. Thank you for feeling miserable when your students didn’t do well on that last test – it’s because you want them to succeed. Thank you for your care when others might not. Thank you for learning new approaches when old ones aren’t effective. Thank you for taking the time to listen to a student’s story when time is tight and your lesson demands you move forward. Thank you for deciding years ago that teaching is a noble profession and that you wanted to be a part of it. Thank you for recognizing that some students just need more encouragement. Thank you for recognizing that what was once new is now old, but someone will think it’s new again… and you will be tasked with revamping your teaching style yet again…. thank you for recognizing that you do indeed know what’s best for your students. Thank you for showing up when you didn’t feel well, but knew that your students wouldn’t get anywhere near the same experience if you weren’t there. Thank you for giving up your lunch that day to counsel in between bites of your sandwich that you never finished. Thank you for organizing your room before your students ever arrived, before your professional development began, before your first meeting that first week of school. Thank you for going to that meeting even though you really just wanted to be in your room grading papers. Thank you for making students laugh, even when you weren’t laughing inside. Thank you for arriving early and staying late because you wanted to do it the right way. Thank you for creating a better lesson even though you already had one written down and ready to go. Thank you for recognizing the student having a bad day and saying a kind word. Thank you for pushing students when they don’t think they can be successful. Thank you for taking the time to go back and fix that grade because you don’t feel like you covered the material well enough. Thank you for asking your students the type of questions that make them pause. Thank you for not being ok with mediocracy. Thank you for showing up in the morning and recognizing that today might just be the day that you finally get through to that student who just never seems interested. Thank you for wanting to impact your students in a way that makes a real difference. Thank you for all you do. Thank you for being an awesome teacher.

Finland Is Making Me Mad, Again

For teachers the summer is a time to take a break and recharge. Many resent us. Many though, are happy when their kids return to us.

I’ve always relished the time and spend the weeks off catching up on household responsibilities. My yard and projects around the house require my attention — something I don’t actually mind as it’s a welcome change of pace.

All of which means I try not to get too involved in what my profession is currently in the midst of — education policy, changes in state standards, the newest and greatest approach to teaching.

I know that this is ignorant. Perhaps poor form of me. I just need some time to be with my family and be able to plan some adventures together.

And then there’s Finland.

I’ve never been. Although it does sound intriguing. It’s beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen.

However its beauty is not what makes me mad.

It’s this constant comparison of their education program versus ours.

I remember “U.S. versus…” conversations in my teacher certification courses almost 15 years ago. The luster of how we stack up against other countries around the world seemingly hadn’t, and still hasn’t, worn off.

Here’s the latest that appeared on my Facebook feed just today. Produced / directed by a fellow who likes to push some buttons. He’s not a favorite of mine, I admit, but I watched it anyway because it’s summertime. And I have some time. And I feel like I need to think about education. And it’s about Finland again.

Do you see what I mean?

I want more time for my students to play.

I like the idea of students being more engaged in their own learning.

I like the idea of teachers being less stressed.

I don’t like state assessment testing either.

What is it with the U.S.?

And just when I’m annoyed enough to wallow in how we’ve got it all wrong, because well, it looks like the United States is yet again behind other nations (#29 the video notes) I happen to look down and see Finnish viewers’ comments.

Viewers noted that the video had it wrong. Homework was indeed a thing that had to be done in Finland. Others mentioned how inaccurate the video is in its entirety.

Hmmmm… more to the story? Yet I clearly remember that this issue must have been a common theme, even 15 years ago.

From my journalism courses in college, I know it’s difficult to present an impartial article — and that’s if one strives to do so. Additionally, there’s only so much space on paper, only so many words allowed by editors in charge of editorial space.

Here are some other Finnish school bits and perspectives I came across.

Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?

So what’s my verdict on whether we really are that far behind our Finnish colleagues?

It is interesting to read about the number of Fulbright applicants interested in Finland seeking solutions to our nation’s educational woes. Seeing how U.S. students compare to Finland’s in various aspects is revealing. Knowing that the Finnish system was once equal to the U.S. yet made a concerted effort to improve forty some years ago is encouraging.

If the comparison was easy to make, we would have surely implemented changes and determined what we “should” be doing in the United States.

There are just too many variables in play.

Regardless though, there’s a lot we should be doing different. A solution to what we’re doing in the classroom needs to be sought out and implemented.

Why a solution?

I believe logic demands that we acknowledge that students being tested at the young age of eight and endure considerable stress learning strategies to “beat the test” seems downright counterintuitive.

How will a child love learning if they’re worried more about getting the answers right than trying out different solutions based on what they already know?

Isn’t it ok to be wrong and not endure a poor grade because a risk was taken?

Isn’t education’s intent to teach students to understand how each learns differently than their peers? To encourage them to solve problems collaboratively? To understand how to both lead and follow?

Isn’t it obvious that sitting all day without end is painful to us all – regardless of age?

Shouldn’t we worry about students enjoying their education? Be interested in their happiness? Seek a happy life?

So solutions are in order.

I challenge you to share your thoughts in the comments answering: How do you think we stack up against Finland?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Coach’s Definition of Success

Life lessons are sometimes best told by others.

Our parents tried their best and perhaps later in life we learn to appreciate their intentions. Sometimes we don’t.

At the start of the academic year I outline classroom rules. Then I begin to share stories that best answer the question why we do what we do.

Why they’re sitting in our classroom. Why we’re at the front teaching those that are sitting.

Some years ago my colleague made a concerted effort to begin including videos that would positively impact his students. It was, naturally, a great idea that I too adopted. Students loved the break in the routine of academics, while I secretly plotted how I might make a difference in a way they weren’t expecting.

I included some of them in a past post about videos you should show your class.

One of those videos that I didn’t share was about a college basketball coach who just happened to have won more NCAA championships than any other coach before and since.

Yesterday while thinking about how to impart the lesson of doing things well to my students, I thought about the lesson this coach taught about teaching his freshmen players how to put on their socks and shoes during their first Bruins practice.

It’s a lesson about doing the simple things right. Doing right what you can control, so that the things which you can’t control have a better chance of being one’s success as well.

I looked up Coach Wooden knowing there must be more to learn and I am grateful to have found the following TED video that highlights the lessons he taught as a teacher, and not necessary what made his team a success.

Within the video are lessons that might inspire you, my fellow teachers, to continue in what I believe is our noble profession.

There are days in which it seems the classroom clock is moving much too fast as our year end assessments approach. This man has seemingly thought long and hard about what determined success in his English classroom.

Perhaps your definition and his are the same.

I hope you enjoyed it.

I’m curious what lessons he shared were impressed upon you. Which lessons resonated with you.

Please feel free to comment.

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.

How To Scream At Sasquatch

I ratcheted my shoes and then punched the right code on the keypad.

A few seconds later I was left trapped between the dark and the garage door I had just closed.

The only light I now had came from the lamp sitting on my bicycle handlebars. It’s a good light, and it took some time to find it, but in the dark it remained a narrow beacon that only lit what it was pointed at.

It was another typical early morning bicycle ride, except for the sound coming from the woods behind my house – a squirrel, sure a squirrel I reassured myself.

Let me now try to convince you that sounds are amplified in the dark.

What sounds like a bear walking toward one’s tent at 1 a.m. is usually just the wind tumbling a leaf in the woods. What convinces you is a madman with knife in hand lumbering toward you at 3 am are raindrops falling from the leaves above and hitting different surfaces in a very alarmingly rhythmic way.

It was a squirrel, sure a squirrel.

What came next happened quickly.

The noise of jumping or running or leaping or racing or catapulting was obvious and it was now coming toward me.

It was intentional.

And it was fast.

I was sure of it because what was quiet a moment ago was definitely getting louder by the quarter second.

I mentioned to you it was dark right?

What happened next is far more interesting than what I’ve mentioned to you so far because this is when I did what I have never done in my 46 previous years of life.

Before I really grasped what I was doing,  as whatever it was came closer, I had raised my bicycle in the air in front of me (in the direction of what sounded like a Sasquatch attack) and let out a god-awful noise / grunt / holler / scream.

This was not a planned scream of terror – but a very natural scream of terror.

No doubt it was spurned on by the tingling of hairs and what I will admit to you, without bravado, was fear.

Thinking back, my very manly scream was obviously a challenge to whatever was coming at me – I would not so easily be taken or eaten.

Out of the dark my now swinging handlebar light, which if you remember was above my head, captured for a moment a deer running toward me and then past me. It then took an impressive hard left in front of my neighbor’s yard and was as quickly gone as it had come into my early morning life.

I put my bike back down, wondered if anyone had seen my very manly act and genuine scream, and laughed to myself. I think I even talked to myself for a few seconds. No doubt trying to regain some composure and summoning up the courage to get on the bicycle to head down the dark street.

Although this happened some months ago now, it reminds me of how we react to others or to situations in our lives.

Do we…

  • Question before we answer?
  • Argue before listening?
  • Expect others to do what we would do?
  • Wait before saying hello?
  • Interrupt others while they share?
  • Assume things about others?
  • Allow ourselves to be overshadowed by others?
  • Overshadow everyone else?

And why worry or even think about any of this?

I believe that…

  • We deserve to listen to others.
  • We deserve to ask good questions.
  • We deserve to be heard.
  • They deserve to tell you their story before we even begin to judge them. And when we judge, we assume that they have little to nothing worthy of imparting to us.
  • Others deserve to be who they are, regardless if that pleases us.
  • Those we come in contact with deserve the time to share an idea.
  • Others deserve to be heard too.
  • And others deserve to be welcomed.

What is your autopilot setting? How do you react to others?

For me, I am certainly quick to interject. In the classroom rush to get to the end of my lesson, I too quickly overshadow what might be an excellent story a student wants to share with their class. In my desire to squash unruly behavior, I certainly think the worst before waiting to see what good will come from an action.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the classroom. Perhaps, though, it’s how I have learned to react from past experiences. These reactions being both successful as well as continued bad habits that impede my success at the front of the room.

And most importantly, is this reaction how we want to continue to be seen and treat those around you?

I think it’s a valuable lesson for not just our students, but for us to reflect upon as well.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you have imparted to your students the lesson of reacting to others around them. Please take a moment and share in the comments section.