Tag Archives: successful 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.

A Simple Story About A Farmer And A Pig

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

Last Wednesday my class had just finished another benchmark assessment which was intended to determine who was progressing adequately according to our county’s learning objectives.

My students had taken them on laptops and gotten their results immediately, so they knew their score and knew which specific problems had stumped them.

This is the story I told to my class the next morning which I remembered first hearing from my former colleague Will. It seemed appropriate and timely.

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

You see, a farmer doesn’t buy a pig or doesn’t allow a piglet to be born in his barn without a reason.

He feeds that pig and over time that pig gets larger – some would say fat.

The farmer keeps doing what he’s doing and waits it out. There’s cleaning, there’s worry about the cold or heat, and there’s quite a bit of anticipation.

And every day: food and time, food and time.

And then one day the farmer decides that enough time and feed has been fed to that now very large pig. The time has come.

The time has come to make sausage.

Because, again, the farmer doesn’t just raise that little piglet to become a very large pig because he likes pigs, or thinks pigs are cute, or is a fan of Charlotte’s Web.

The farmer instead knows that with enough time and enough food, his pig will one day be ready to become some very yummy sausage that he will use to feed his family.

Teachers are like farmers is what I told my class.

We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort on students. We spend this kind of energy because we have a goal too.

Our goal is to get you to learn and understand.

And we do it all kind of ways.

We do it by being creative in our lessons, having you help one another, and having you complete projects. We talk in front of you, tell funny stories, use videos, remind you to stay on task, and ask you a lot of questions.

We do it because we know that time will run out and if we’ve done our job, you’re supposed to know what you have been taught.

And then it will be time to make some sausage.

Except the sausage we’re making will be how you do on your SOLs.

I expect all of our effort to pay off.

I’ve worked hard every day, listened to when you didn’t understand, and tried again in a different way to help you understand better.

Now the farmer out on the farm might be able to spend some more time getting that pig ready. Maybe give that pig some more feed. Maybe wait just another couple of weeks or months.

We can’t do that here at school – and I know that might seem pretty unfair.

So instead I need you to understand that we only have so much time to finish what needs to be done.

Our day of sausage-making will be here soon and I guarantee you and I will both be disappointed if all this effort won’t have worked.

Just like you can imagine the disappointment of the farmer whose pig isn’t ready, even after caring for him for months and months.

So if you know you’re not ready to sit down in front of a computer and prove what you know answering forty questions about math or reading. If you feel like you haven’t understood it no matter how hard you’ve tried.

Well, then it’s time to spend more time asking questions and trying to understand why you don’t understand.

Oh, and let’s forget about the SOLs for a second.

If you haven’t left this classroom understanding more than when you came into this classroom in September. If you have been waiting for time to just tick on by every day instead of really trying your best. If you still aren’t kinder toward other people in this class because you’re now a whole year older than you were last year…

Do you think that you’re ready for 4th grade?

I ask each of you that question because I cared about each of you since the first day of school when you walked into our classroom. Each day since I’ve done my best to make our classroom a place you would want to come to.

If that didn’t help you get ready for what’s coming in the 4th grade then I either didn’t do my job, or you didn’t do yours.

Which do you think it is? And would it be fair to you if we sent you to the 4th grade and you weren’t ready.

This is really, just a very simple little story about a farmer and pig.

It’s about working day after day and getting ready for something much bigger. It’s about working on yourself to be better tomorrow, than you were today.

So, how will you spend today?

Escaping Classroom Failure

I try to be that teacher.

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

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

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

I am not that teacher every moment of every day.

I fall short. I fall short a lot.

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

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

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

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

Yet the doubt still creeps in.

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

Option One: Mercilessly Plow Ahead

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

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

Option Two: The Sound of Silence

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

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

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

Option Three: The Honest Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Resolving to Reach the Unreachable and Ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, but not nearly enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I resolve to reach the unreachable and ignored.

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

Sadly, you’d be wrong.

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

Yes, I know.

Assumptions aren’t a good practice to rely upon.

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

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

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

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

This is simply a promise to my students.


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

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.