Tag Archives: elementary school teaching

Comforting Our Students Through Tragedy

I didn’t feel very good today and knew last night that calling in sick might occur.

This also happened to coincide with the latest school shooting — this time at a high school in Florida.

It really bothered me that I wasn’t there this morning.

This news will no doubt have reached the ears of my third graders by the time the bell rings tomorrow when I hope to return.

What do I say when the topic comes up?

My little third graders will look to me wondering what to make of all of it.

As my colleagues shared with me when I chose to move to the third grade: they’re old enough to understand, young enough to still care.

They were right except now is the time I wish they were too young to understand, too young to grasp that the world around them isn’t the kind of place they can trust. A world that contains pain and suffering.

What do I say?

Two stories come to mind.

The story of a guy in a cardigan and there’s the tale of two birds.

A Man, His Cardigan, and His TV Show

Both at the beginning of every show and then at the end, the show’s host puts and takes off a cardigan.

For those that don’t yet know, the show was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on PBS.

You would watch this if you were in Pre-School, maybe Kindergarten. I remember watching it after school and I remember being enthralled.

There were guests: the Postman, the Firefighter, there was a good bit of puppeteering.

There was one specific episode that has been mentioned and the host’s words ring true.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” – Fred McFeely Rogers

Here’s an excerpt that includes his perspective on his mother’s words.

Here’s the episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

Three Birds

On my way to a Scout  meeting a few weeks ago I looked up and saw two small birds chasing a rather large crow.

I thought about school, school children and what happens at school.

Sometimes its the playground bully. Children who either choose to not get along or bring negative experiences from home into school. Sometimes it’s driven by a misunderstanding that to adults seems trivial, but to our students can ruin their day.

It’s frustrating at times, but so important to address if we are going to do more than teach state standards of math or reading.

I’m reminded of those three birds.

Sometimes it’s the big ol’ crow that wants to steal the eggs or terrorize the neighborhood tree where the little birds gather.

That’s when you stick up for others… there’s safety in numbers.

Just like those two other birds chasing the big bird away from their tree, from their home.

We have to stick up for each other. We have to remember that the student who stays to them-self, probably wants anything but to be alone. We need to teach our students the importance of thinking of others, of caring for people beyond themselves.

Perhaps tomorrow I will start the morning by putting on a cardigan – and hope to bring familiarity and comfort to my third graders, just like Mr. Rogers did.

The Sun’s Lesson (in the Midst of My Winter Moment)

If you’re like me, you’re human.

These last couple of weeks have been trying. Maybe for you as well.

I’ve been trying to convince my students to give me their best effort. I’ve told stories. I’ve shared my own failures. I’ve turned those failures into lessons learned. I’ve tried to impart those lessons.

I hope that it’s made a difference.

Yet one county benchmark, a couple of tests, plus a quiz or two and I wonder if all that time talking about grit and perseverance has made any difference.

It’s disheartening when it seems my best efforts haven’t resulted in a positive gain.

I know, I know.

Our effect as teachers can’t always be measured.

It especially can’t be measured as it relates to the most important lessons — kindness, being mindful of others, sincerity, the importance of honesty, proving to anyone and everyone that no challenge is too difficult to overcome.

Sometimes we just need a little encouragement that our best efforts aren’t falling on deaf ears.

So today in the midst of preparing my report cards for what has been days, I looked up at the television and heard this fable and thought of us.

Just a small reminder of remembering how to respond to our students when that frustration might convince us to do the wrong thing.


The North Wind and The Sun

The North Wind and the Sun had a quarrel about which of them was the stronger. While they were disputing with much heat and bluster, a Traveler passed along the road wrapped in a cloak.

“Let us agree,” said the Sun, “that he is the stronger who can strip that Traveler of his cloak.”

“Very well,” growled the North Wind, and at once sent a cold, howling blast against the Traveler.

With the first gust of wind the ends of the cloak whipped about the Traveler’s body.

But he immediately wrapped it closely around him, and the harder the Wind blew, the tighter he held it to him. The North Wind tore angrily at the cloak, but all his efforts were in vain.

Then the Sun began to shine.

At first his beams were gentle, and in the pleasant warmth after the bitter cold of the North Wind, the Traveler unfastened his cloak and let it hang loosely from his shoulders.

The Sun’s rays grew warmer and warmer. The man took off his cap and mopped his brow. At last he became so heated that he pulled off his cloak, and, to escape the blazing sunshine, threw himself down in the welcome shade of a tree by the roadside.


Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.

When it’s summer time. When it’s quiet. When the chaos has abated and the year has been buttoned up. It’s then that I can easily justify to myself how important it is to be that teacher who is relatable. I want to be the teacher who is even tempered. The person who is welcoming each and every day. The one who hears every story without concern for the instructional time that’s passing by.

But when it’s winter and it’s cold.

When those state assessments seem to be coming toward us quicker by each passing week.

When I’ve told what I’ve always thought are inspirational stories that will bring out the best in my students. It’s now that I look out and see bored students who are obviously far less interested in what I have to say. It’s now when I fall back to the basics and am feel too tired to be that enthusiastic cheerleader.

Let me remember that kind words have an effect that no harsh ones ever will. That children will always immediately scramble when they’re uncomfortable, but that moment will quickly pass.

Let me remember that that’s not who I am and not the teacher I want to be. I resolved that many years ago when I decided to return to the idea of being a teacher.

Let us remember that the children that arrive each day may definitely need structure, but it should be complimented by a heartfelt smile and kind gestures — Aesop says so too.


Interested in sharing this lesson with your class? Here’s the link to the Library of Congress document.

Teacher’s Lesson: Phone Calls Unanswered

“If you’re hearing this message and we didn’t pick up, we’re making some changes, and you’re one of them.”

What did I just hear?

That’s not the kind of message I expected when I called one of my student’s parents.

He wasn’t doing as well and I was doing what every good teacher should.

I was calling home for some help. I was calling home to share that I cared about their son.

I admit, not only did the message confuse me, it made me a little mad.

Why was I cut off? What did I do?

It was my third year of teaching. I had just transferred to the county in which I live to cut my daily commute from over two hours to about 40 minutes.

No more leaving the house at 6 am and more time at home with my family which now included a one year old.

It wasn’t the first time that parents wouldn’t call me back and it definitely hasn’t been the last. I know it happens at all schools, but I seem to be experiencing it more lately.

And it still annoys me.

I share this with you because I’ve had a hard time understanding when a parent doesn’t call back. I don’t understand when numbers don’t work. It frustrates me when I can’t leave a message.

It probably frustrates me as much as it has when my own children’s teachers don’t get back to us when we have questions.

I can’t relate. Maybe like my students when I try to relate a story or lesson.

I was telling my students just yesterday about the tv we had in our house. It had a handle. It was a black and white model similar to the one above. It wasn’t just small by today’s standards — it was tiny.

It was what we had in my house.

When I explained this phenomenon of the tiny tv that was normal to me when I was my students’ age their faces told me they couldn’t picture a tv that could be moved from one room to another. I told them I had, at most, 5 channels which ended around 11:30 with a band of color and an unappealing shrill of a beep.

Yeah, I suppose I was showing my age.

They couldn’t relate to me, and I’m sure that sometimes I can’t relate to what is or what happens in their home.

Here’s my point.

I’m sure that my students don’t know about my being raised on what used to be the local neighborhood landfill — my dad admits to me that even his friends thought he was crazy when he bought that land.

My students don’t know about my asking Santa for one thing at Christmas because that’s what we did, we asked for one thing.

My students don’t know that my skin color made me a minority in my neighborhood, even though I check off caucasian on government forms.

My students have no clue what it’s like seeing your cousin and best buddy get hit by a semi trailer. I do, and it’s taken a long time for that memory to fade.

They don’t know about the lessons taught to me by father — some tougher than others; and there is no way I can completely share how I felt when my parents divorced.

I share this with you because I’ve caught myself being frustrated again lately when I can’t reach a parent just like that moment many years ago.

This time however I’m trying to remember that I really don’t know what my students and their parents are enduring.

What I shouldn’t do is continue to react with frustration and instead, try to remember that every student I meet in my classroom is affected by the struggles that happen at home.

And these struggles aren’t just real for my students, but they affect their parents in ways I don’t know and of which I’m unaware. It can’t but affect  how available they are when I call home.

So this is a reminder for myself that I do not know what battle occurs on the other side of that phone call or email.

I will do a better job that when I reach out to my parents and they’re unable to call me back, and when I react, I will do so with more of an understanding heart.

 

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.

Failing Our Students: Assessment Success

Boy Covering FaceEach year for the last fourteen I have stood at the front of the room reading from my Virginia SOL manual’s script.

I have been told to never veer off script. Which does in fact make sense if an education official far away is trying to get every teacher across a state to give the same directions without fault.

No unintended advantages, no intentional pauses, no giving secret signs that students’ answers are incorrect. It makes sense.

The whole prospect of testing every students across a state must certainly make someone at the top mighty nervous. When national nightly news reports that teachers have been found guilty of signaling to students in some predetermined way that their answers were incorrect, more testing documentation, parameters and scripts need to be written. It makes sense.

Except for one thing.

We’re dealing with humans and in my case, children no older than nine.

These are the ones that officials want to test in my take-everything-off-the-walls classroom. I even had to take down my clock so that no advantage would be had by looking at it. I tore down my classroom schedule. I had colleagues concerned about whether numbered coat hooks were worthy of covering.

Do you remember nine? I can’t say I remember much more than doing tie-dye during Art Class. I remember Recess where one day I sat on a warm piece of gum while swinging — that’s some serious trauma for a third grader who had to stand up on the bus all the way home. I remember my teacher’s name and where my class was in my elementary school. I don’t remember what happened for those one hundred eighty days I sat at my desk. Do you?

Fast forward to the present and I now stand in front of my students during a test session unable to encourage, unable to give a thumbs up, unable to lean down and convince them it will be ok.

If their little bodies require a bathroom break another adult must lead them to the restroom and determine that no other students are inside — ensuring that no conversation will occur having anything to do with testing.

Welcome to our present state of education and how we have chosen to assess our children – regardless of age, regardless of their fear and regardless of how fair or insignificant questions might be. I can’t bring a sense of calm or even introduce a pleasant you-can-do-it smile, because that would be a testing irregularity and that could send me to prison.

No really, it could.

I’ve been obligated to sign a paper that spells this specific consequence out.

What do I do? What should we do?

I would like to tell you I’ve got the magic dust and I’m ready to share.

I don’t.

Like many of you I continue to be amazed (well, disgusted actually) by what we’re asking little people to accomplish on a given day or two.

The expectation is that they will be amazing, be proficient, and use strategies that have been reinforced to the point that why we do math or read has long since been forgotten. Students will do exactly that which would make any adult nervous – choose the right question when given the answer, interpret a question in math that has more to do with one’s reading ability than computation skills, and choose all the multiple correct answers to one question in order to advance to the next confusing question.

It would make adults nervous. It makes me nervous and I’ve been doing this over a decade now.

Just yesterday we finished our last SOL. We’ve been doing a LOT of math earlier this week. It was like a factory in my classroom with all the worksheets flying from student to teacher, back to student and back to me to assess their success, and mine, at remediation.

For fourteen years I have done this. For most of those I taught fifth grade. Now it’s third.

That’s a Science, Reading, Math, and Writing SOL for most of those years. At an average of 25 students for 12 years, that’s about 300 SOLs plus another couple of years at 3rd grade equaling well over 400 SOLs under my belt – some years I had over 30 students.

That’s a good amount of worry for both student and teacher.

That’s a huge amount of focus on the importance of a few numbers each year that supposedly defines my success as a teacher.

Those numbers are also intended to define a student’s knowledge in a specific academic area. It’s all quite backwards, in my humble opinion, because how can one day’s assessment sum up a year’s worth of learning?

Regardless though, I and my colleagues around me, have all bought into the importance of these numbers because we stress, we worry, we do our best to motivate, and we remediate right up to the last day hoping that each students’ scores will be what we hope.

We know if our scores aren’t acceptable, next year we will have a microscope placed upon us to determine what we haven’t been doing “right.”

Whether students came to us prepared by those that taught them previously, whether students come from homes in which education is valued, whether students’ lives outside of school is a place where the importance of character is reiterated — those aren’t assessed or taken in account at the beginning of the state assessment.

Regardless, we teachers do not want our efforts to disappoint.

Repeat any mantra long enough and it slowly becomes both understood and heartfelt. Tell teachers that scores matter and reiterate it through countless workshops and school wide endeavors and we believe. When we believe it enough, we both unconsciously and intentionally pass on this importance to students. Goals have to be met, we’re told, and we tell to those that sit in our classrooms.

First goal: pass. Second goal: pass advanced. Ultimate goal: perfect score of 600.

Students, teachers, principals, specialists, school divisions and states all celebrate when those scores hit passing and above.

There’s cheering when it goes well, and downcast eyes when it doesn’t. There’s serious anxiety, walk down any school hallway this time of year and tell me you don’t see it on the faces of both students and teachers.

All of it outrageous. Just go ahead and let’s call it child abuse of the testing variety.

Perhaps these thoughts convey to you that my students didn’t do well and therefore I need a place to express my frustration.

Actually they did an excellent job. As students finished, their scores were posted for our administrator to view who in turn shared them with me. Impressive pass rate. Had some pass advanced scores too.

I was relieved, administration was complimentary, but for me, I’m not happy.

My frustration isn’t that students can’t do well or even that there’s an assessment. My frustration is that our educational system has gotten to the point in which a whole year’s worth of teaching, student success and challenges overcome comes down to one assessment.

How have we gotten to the point in which students’ scores are valued more than students themselves?