Tag Archives: caring for students

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.

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.

 

You Are Not Alone

bird

A few weeks ago we heard some very sad news about a student at my son’s high school who had taken her life. It reminded me that the students we teach endure so much more than we realize.

That Monday I night I shared the following with Scouts.

Please feel free to use any of these thoughts if you think they would be useful in sharing with students that they are not alone as they progress through the trying school years.


You are not alone.

My freshman year in high school was not an easy one.

Ask my mom and she’ll tell you about countless mornings in which I cried as I got onto the bus. I expect that I was a handful just getting ready to get onto that bus.

The world of high school wasn’t just different than middle school – it reminded me that school was a mental game.

What was the point after all?

Constant early mornings, constant homework assignments, teachers I had to pay attention to, a lack of friends, no end in sight, on the bus, off the bus, waiting for the bus.

One week just led into another week of the same.

I spent weekdays looking forward to weekends. I spent holidays happy that I wasn’t in school.

Looking back I was unhappy, probably because I thought I was the only one down about the world around me.

You are not alone.

Perhaps you feel the way I did. Perhaps you feel all alone.

Maybe you aren’t connecting with those around you?

Perhaps you feel like an island far from everyone else. Maybe you feel like no one can relate to your problems.

For me it was not knowing what was ahead in a matter of just a few short years.

I thought that the life of high school was how it would always be. I thought the lack of friends would mean I would always be lacking friends. I felt that school would always feel the same way – unbearable and endless.

You are not alone.

Parents: Your parents have loved you since your first day in this life. They held you when you had yet to learn to walk, you were carried by them as you held on tight to their neck.

Relatives: Your relatives celebrated your birth. They know stories about you from when you had your first birthday party to your first steps to your first day in kindergarten.

Family Friends: Your parents’ long time friends have watched you grow up and have been hoping for you.

Siblings: If you have brothers or sisters, they would be lost without you. You might bicker and argue. You might wonder how in the world they are related to you. Remember though that they will be your brother or sister far into a future you can’t imagine.

Teachers: Your teachers are committed to your learning. They became teachers thinking about teaching students just like you. They also decided to teach students your age and sought a degree in which they could do exactly what you see everyday. Some of them good – no doubt, some of them not so good – that’s a reality too. Regardless though, you are their student.

Scouters: The adults in this room have committed to help you realize your goals. Each has a lifetime of stories that might surprise you in convincing you that we have been exactly where you are now.

Friends: Your friends need you like you need them. When your thoughts try to convince you that you’re alone, your friends are the ones who will remind you that we each struggle and celebrate the same things in this life.

You are not alone.

Your God has been standing alongside you.

Have you placed your faith in that fact?

Have you gone to that quiet place, wherever that might be, and really thought about this one?

If we say a Scout is reverent, then if you haven’t already, it’s time for you to acknowledge that there there is something far greater than you and me. That God stands alongside you. He holds you up when you need support and comfort.

You are not alone.

So often we think no one will understand and I’m here tonight to remind you that there are so many of us available and willing to remind you that when you think the challenges in your life are overwhelming, you are not alone.

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.

We’re Not Making Widgets: Teaching Is Tough

Rubber Ducky

They arrive at 9 a.m. and leave six and a half hours later. Instruction, conversation, art, worksheets, questions, quizzes, homework, assignment pads, tests… what did we accomplish?

Sometimes we teachers drive home at night thinking… “great day! Yes.”

Then there are those other days.

Every new teacher is certainly told about those every experienced teacher has had. There are days when it seems no matter what was attempted, the end of the day brought frustration. All the planning and forethought… all the enlightenment we hoped they’d experienced… all the effort — to no avail. Those are the days we go “well that didn’t work… now what?”

But as a career switcher, I know from first hand experience that other professions have their ups and downs too. No matter what the workplace may look like, sometimes one’s drive home is happy… sometimes depressing. I think it’s fair to say that the difficult days make teachers say… “why do this?”

So I had a student teacher a few years ago now. She did a great job. Finished up her undergraduate experience in my class. What an ending it was for her. Watching from my desk and sitting on my hands, as they say, trying not to interrupt…

I realized all over again – teaching is tough. Why are we expected to do so many things well?

We plan outside of work hours. We grade then too. Teachers are asked to become experts in areas that they teach. In elementary school that’s defined as language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. If every student doesn’t understand the concept, we’re asked to remediate until they do — regardless if the student even wants to understand. We need to both understand and identify learning disabilities. We are asked to differentiate instruction depending on an individual’s strengths. And of course we need to be sure that everything that occurs in class ties to district goals. And there’s lots more… but there’s one important lesson worth noting more than others.

You know… they don’t teach you how to motivate in teacher preparation courses.

They do mention that how your students do on the state assessments is how you’re evaluated.

Where teacher programs fail is that those assessments don’t have a check off box for that child to check off.

There’s no “I didn’t give it my all” or “I really don’t like math so I don’t care about my score” or “there are so many crazy things going on at home, I really couldn’t concentrate on school”.

Yes I know. Construction is tough. Accounting is tough. Firefighting is tough. Nursing is certainly tough too. I suppose everyone will argue that they’ve decided on a difficult profession.

But I’m molding human beings here. I’m not selling widgets. Determining success can’t always be quantitative. Saving lives as a doctor or rescue worker certainly is important work — rewarding too I’m sure. But for close to a year I not only meet the expectations set forth by the state, I try to also meet those of my parents, colleagues, administrators and… my students. It can be quite the tricky balancing act.

And there is no better feeling than when students return after continuing on to the next grade and they tell you how the zany things you did in class actually made a difference. How my origami lesson that frustrated them so much really showed them importance of details and perseverance. Or how a difficult subject was made easier because of something I said or did.

I don’t think a state assessment score really equates that I’ve been a successful teacher. Sure, seeing those pass advanced scores in print feels good. But after over a decade of doing this teaching thing, I think that’s just the beginning. What about the rest of the student?

Have I successfully encouraged them to go beyond what they thought possible?

Teaching is like overseeing 24 little nations (the current number in my class). Sometimes they get along, sometimes they argue and want nothing to do with one another. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged. And each day is different.

I hope that when students leave my class after a year. They will remember me as someone who cared enough to be honest. Who was able to challenge them and they in turn met the challenge. Most of all, I hope I taught them that success is not determined by the degree of genius within. It is in fact determined by persistence and a desire to accomplish what they desire.

I call it a life lesson. Something that I think we definitely ought to be teaching. Can we please assess that too? Now how do they put that on a multiple choice form?

Offer A Smile to Start Your Lesson

Smiling is Light

Each morning I wait by my classroom door. I wait with a smile.

I hope that will make a difference.

You really can’t over emphasize the importance of that simple gesture.

I don’t ask my students if they have their homework or anything else that has to do with school. I don’t remind them about classroom rules as they sit down.

And I do have to remind myself at times to have the kind of human interaction I would want to have if I were walking into my third grade class. The first thing really shouldn’t be about writing in a journal or turning in last night’s homework – it should just be about a little kindness.

Often many of my students say good morning to me before I have a chance to say it first. We do in fact spend some time at the beginning of the year talking about the importance of kindness. And yes, reminders on this one have to happen occasionally.

But then it happens… a good morning shared by not just that one student whose day is almost always a challenge, but like dominoes the others behind him chime in too. A steady stream of greeting as they unpack their backpacks.

There’s a lot of joy in hearing that from a third grader. No matter how my morning routine has evolved over the last couple of hours, hearing them share some enthusiasm at the beginning of the day encourages me.

It erases my worries about the state tests that are coming closer by the day or the necessity of finishing the reading assessments.

I admit to you though, if my students don’t immediately get started on that morning work after they come into my classroom… it annoys me. However I remind myself that if it was me, I would choose to talk with a friend too.

I’m not a factory worker making widgets that have to meet some consistent standard. I don’t slap an Inspected by #47 sticker on their foreheads as they leave every day. That would be odd.

I just ask them how they are. How their weekend went. What the best part of last night was or how their little sister is doing.

If I can get a smile or laugh out of them, that’s even better.

Kids are honest. I think the younger they are, the more honesty you get in return. If they know that you care about how their night really went, you’re also going to get some interesting responses which in turn requires you to spend some time really listening to their stories.

The replies have reminded me that our job isn’t to teach objectives. Our job is to teach little people. Little humans. Children that have struggles and successes.

My students worry and are stressed. They know when things aren’t good at home and why that is. If their parents worry about money, so do they. If people at home let on that times are tough, they embrace that despair too.

Like little sponges, they’re taking it all in. It surprises me how resilient they really are as they endure what happens around them – whether at home, in the grocery store, or on the way to school.

Knowing this, I try to encourage conversation that’s upbeat. That doesn’t dwell on what isn’t, but what can be.

And I start that conversation by a simple hello and smile standing at my classroom door.

I’m curious and would love to hear what do you do in your classroom to start off the day?