Category Archives: teaching

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.

Denay Haist Answers 12 Questions

Over twelve years ago I found myself sitting across from Denay as we both started in a new school. With a background in special education and specifically with emotionally disturbed students, Denay introduced me to a world in which students wanted nothing more than to be included, while also grappling with their own challenges.  She would became a dear friend and would be my classroom neighbor and teammate for over a decade. Here are her answers to 12 questions that I hope will bring insight into another professional’s experience in the classroom.

Note: As you might guess from the picture above, Denay is not a fan of having her picture taken so this is a favorite from her school days that she shares on the first day of school.


1. Why did you want to become a teacher?

I became a teacher later in life when I wanted to find a more meaningful career. I felt I had something to offer young students, especially those with disabilities. I went back to school to get my Master Degree in Education.

2. How long have you been teaching and where?

I was a teacher of students with emotional disabilities for ten years at Wells Elementary and for the last eleven years I have been a fifth grade general education teacher at Beulah Elementary, both in Chesterfield County.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is meeting all the needs of students from those with disabilities, to those who are gifted, those who didn’t have any breakfast that morning, those that have lost a parent and those who have yet to find the value of education. There is never enough time and no matter how much you do, you never feel you have done enough.

4. What do you think makes you successful?

I genuinely care about the students. I also think I am creative with lessons as it keeps students engaged in the learning process. I constantly reevaluate how I present concepts to make it as interesting as possible. I use many visuals and hands on activities. My room is a visual overload. I am also a big believer in that you train people how to treat you and I put a lot of work in the beginning working on how we are going to treat each other in the classroom.

5. How do you start your first day, first week of school?

On the first day I always read and discuss the book The Giving Tree. It has many nuanced lessons about life. I also play a PowerPoint on my life, many photos of me as a kid, and the students love it so much that they want to see it the next day. I model organization all day to set the tone for the year. I also smile as much as possible.

6. Do you have any daily norms?

I try to connect to each student daily with questions about their life outside of school or give them a compliment about how hard they are working or how well they are behaving. We also read daily from a shared novel and the students generally love the novel we are reading. I also try to provide writing time every day and whole writing I try to play music from other cultures. Currently my students love music from Iceland.

7. How do you motivate?

I motivate by trying to celebrate every time I see someone working hard or being kind. Kids love to be positively recognized, it can really turn around an unmotivated student. I also set the academic and behavior board very high and do not lower that bar. Students quickly figure out that they can achieve goals they never thought they could and this becomes the source of the motivation.

8. What do you hope students remember about you?

It is so rewarding when they tell me fifth grade was their favorite school year. I hope they remember that I cared about them and that I helped them academically to be life long learners. I am still in touch with so many students and I love seeing the path some of them took. I love receiving letters from parents about his grateful they are that I was their child’s teacher.

9. Favorite subject / topic?

My favorite subject to teach is math. I teach accelerated math and it is my favorite hour of the day. My favorite subject to learn about is science. I am continuing to learn about astronomy, biology and chemistry. I love how You Tube makes available scientists and educators from all over the world to keep the educational process going long after school is over. I love breaking down complex subjects so that students can easily understand, it is definitely an art form.

10. How do you teach challenging students?

Every class has challenging students and part of teaching them is to accept the challenge. I feel lesson preparation, staying even keeled emotionally and having supportive team members helps. Sometimes it helps to figure out what is making that student challenging – fear, loneliness, a disability, sad home life, lack of confidence. You have to be realistic in that you can’t fix every student, but you can be a positive adult in their life. Almost every teacher I know has turned around some of their challenging students.

11. Best memory teaching?

The best moments are never anything big, it is always the small quiet moments when students are being kind to one another either by encouraging one another or helping each other learn. I love watching kids who are working towards a goal with their classmates. I remember a time one student comforted another student. I also love that feeling with I can say to myself, “Well that was a great lesson!”

12. What have you learned while being a teacher?

Teaching is not for everyone. You have to be your own cheerleader and motivator. The amount of work is overwhelming and often you are made to feel you never do enough. You have to be selfless, but you should also have boundaries. It is all a huge balancing act, but I can’t image doing anything else!


What are your answers to these questions? I would love to hear them. Please comment here on the blog so others might hear about your experience. Thank  you for sharing with others teaching in classrooms.

 

Overcoming Teacher Frustration

If you don’t get frustrated, then you don’t care.

I keep saying it like a mantra, it makes me feel a little better.

It’s the first week of December and I’m frustrated.

As the holiday music blares from the car radio and we feel compelled to sing about the wonderful time of the year, we’re also now into the not-so-wonderful part of the school year.

Assessment time. The first quarter has passed and people want numbers that will indicate our success at the front of the room.

In my county, we use benchmarks created by someone I don’t know in a far away office. This person has created a series of questions that will determine whether my students have grasped what I have taught them these last few months.

All of this is really important to some really important people I suppose.

Of course you could just ask me and I could tell you who has grasped the learning – no lengthy, confusing test is needed I assure you. I’ve been at the front of my classroom, after all, since early September.

Regardless, computer schedules have been determined, class schedules have been rearranged, and then the hold-our-breath begins as the scores roll in.

It’s then that percentages appear, heads are scratched, eyes are rubbed, and groans are heard throughout the building.

Each of us then finds our colleagues we trust enough with which to have a candid conversation. We lament, we commiserate, we voice our displeasure, we let our colleagues know how our students could have done so much better.

We carry on the way we do, because, well, we care about our students’ success.

Even if those computers keep shutting down and booting off our students. Even if my third graders, who have enough of a hard time concentrating, now have to sign in to their assigned Chromebook like it’s Fort Knox. Even if they can’t remember where their pencil just dove off to when they turned their head.

These same 8 year olds have to remember multiple procedures to begin an assessment that often aren’t even developmentally appropriate.

I care about my class’s scores, I care about my team’s scores, and I care about how our school is doing. The problem is that I only have control over one of those populations.

Well, control is a relative concept.

I’ve done my best to motivate my students.

I’ve logically explained why strategies work. I’ve highlighted to my students the future and why doing one’s best is in their best interest.

I’ve even talked about real estate values once or twice and how they’re tied to a school’s scores – I know, I know, that was probably over their head, but I couldn’t help myself.

I repeatedly tell my students, because again I can’t help myself, that each of them has the ability to overcome any challenge. I share that I care about them as soon as they were put on my class role. I tell them that I believe in them.

So what to do when you’ve taught all the right strategies that worked in the past, yet the students fail to do as you’ve asked?

What to do when students rush even after you’ve told them to double check – at least a hundred or two times?

Where to turn when it seems that all that time sharing life lessons seems to have fallen on deaf ears?

Here are some solutions worth considering.

1) Beat your head into your classroom wall until the result is that you’ve passed out and awaken later to only vaguely determine the square footage of the ceiling tiles – holding true to your desire to bring creative approaches to teaching state standards. Arise and continue.

2) Go home and refuse to return until all assessments have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Wait for all computers to be adequately equipped to work properly when called upon. This waiting will of course continue into the very foreseeable future and your students will progress into the next grade without your influence.

3) Climb onto the roof of your building and take it upon yourself to strengthen the bandwidth of your building’s internet signal by erecting the largest set of rabbit ears conceivable. You will of course be labeled a hero (like Don Quixote attacking the windmill) although the monstrous antenna will certainly not be seen as an architectural adornment.

4) Lastly, and I think the most prudent solution is this: hold fast to who you are and your care for your students.

Certainly not all will take to our instruction regardless of our desire for our students’ best efforts.

Our students may not yet understand that we care for them as individuals. Our students may not yet trust that what we teach and desire for them to do is in their best efforts.

Hold fast to your efforts to continue down the path that you know will lead to success.

Let’s not let an assessment that unnerves students of all ages to change the course that we know will be effective.

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is not selling widgets. Teaching is a craft that takes more than a quarter of a year.

Learning is determined by untold variables and cannot be assessed by one benchmark alone.

Hold fast my colleagues. I will do the same.