The Courage to Teach

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When I heard the news from the Parkland School Shooting last Wednesday afternoon, I was numb. I didn’t have much time to process due to the busyness of my schedule that day, I just felt an overwhelming sadness for the community that is and surrounds Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My wife, son and I had plans to go out to eat for Valentine’s Day after we all met at a doctor’s office to get an update on my son’s broken finger. As I rushed through my afternoon and early evening, I pushed down the sadness and anger because I wanted to just be with my family and appreciate the time we could spend together.

Finally reading the news about Parkland later that night horrified me. I put my phone down and ignored social media completely for a few days. I assumed Parkland dominated my feeds because about 90% of my online connections are teachers or news agencies. I needed time to think without the constant barrage of tweets, facebook posts, images, and articles.

When I felt I was ready to emerge from my cocoon of avoidance, one of the first things I saw was the video from a rally where a survivor passionately called for us to act. Emma Gonzalez shook me to the core.

Because I have lived a relatively comfortable life, it can be easy for me to look away and shield myself from the bad things because the bad things rarely happen to me. With the exception of cancer killing my first wife at the age of 33, just about all my bad things have been temporary setbacks at best. It took me two years to get a full-time teaching job, but I know plenty of teachers which that journey took far more time. I occasionally get into arguments with family, but who doesn’t? There are days that work frustrates, but if you are a teacher and haven’t been frustrated at some point then I may need to drink what you are drinking. My current struggle is dealing with a shoulder injury caused by a car accident this past summer. Which isn’t fun, but it is legitimately my first injury since high school. I have never been the victim of a crime, sexual harassment or racial profiling. Nor have I ever had to worry when I would eat next or stress about paying my rent or mortgage. I can afford numbness because while I work very hard at what I do, I have it very easy compared to at least 95% of the world.

I have watched Emma Gonzalez’s video several times. I get teary-eyed, I get angry, I worry about the safety of my son at his high school, my daughter at her college, my wife at her school (she is also a teacher) and I worry about my middle school. And I ask myself, why would any young person want to be a teacher? If the 20-year old Tony Keefer was an undergrad now I know he would have never considered going into education. He would have said, “Why would I want to go into a profession that is under attack – both literally and figuratively?”

If we want stronger communities in our schools, we need to become better at many things. One of the things I feel we need to do better is not hiding from the issues that can break down attempts to build strong communities. I know I need to be more visible and vocal about what I think needs to change. I need to be more like Emma Gonzalez.

When I started teaching, somebody gave me the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. It was one of the first books that inspired me to connect more with my students. When I leafed through it while trying to write this post, I came across this, “The personal can never be divorced from the professional. “We teach who we are” in times of darkness as well as light.”

Sadly, as I write this post, it is yet another time of darkness. Back in the front of my brain is the disbelief of how we, myself included, have become observers in a dystopia that sends ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a mass shooting, but can’t figure out how to take action. I am not sure if I completely know what I will do differently yet, but I am not hiding anymore. The professional in me will make things more personal. And I won’t keep my personal thoughts to myself anymore.

photo credit: arjan.jongkees Broken Hearts and Broken Promises via photopin (license)

“Please don’t give up on me.”

There are a couple of kids each week that I check in with on Monday, set weekly goals, and then follow up with on Friday afternoon. I try to vary the hours in which I call them down so they don’t miss even more class than they already do. I have one young man whose goal is strictly attendance. We are still trying to make it to every class, every day. Sometimes I call in to his classes; other times I simply walk by his classroom and wave at him just to make sure. Another’s goal is to focus on just one class. She can get overwhelmed and her transcript shows that she hasn’t passed a class yet. For another young man, we are working on developing necessary “soft skills” of making to-do lists, setting deadlines, and following through with actually turning in the work. This all came about after I learned he does many of his assignments, but they rarely make it in for credit.

But I’ve been thinking a lot more about how I approach these students, especially after my Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday, a student was taken to the hospital. Whenever we cannot get a hold of parents or they cannot be there in a reasonable amount of time, an administrator goes with the student. Thankfully this post is not about that student. He’s fine. Mom and dad eventually arrived. There was no major concern.

But this post is about other students. As I sat in the emergency room waiting area for the student to be checked in, I overheard, “There’s Mr. English,” whispered behind me. I turned around and I saw a student I didn’t know by name, sitting there with who I assumed to be his grandfather. I nodded and smiled, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to protect his privacy and not intrude.

As I kept waiting, another student walked in with her mother. We smiled and nodded, but we didn’t have to say anything. Her mother was in pain. That was her focus. They, too, sat down, and began waiting to be called back.

I was at the hospital for over an hour and a half. The student I was with had arrived by ambulance and was seen quickly. These other students had arrived by car or by bus. They were still waiting when I had left.  This is not commentary on the process of the hospital for choosing which individuals to see first. I have mad respect for healthcare workers.

This is, however, a reflection on what I noticed in these students the very next day when I saw them in school. I called one of them over during passing time, and whispered, “Is everything all right?” He kindly shared that it was a “late night.” I patted him on the back, reminding him that I was glad he was at school. “Yeah, but I didn’t get all of my homework done.”

I encouraged him to talk with his teachers about what had happened, where he had been, how he was trying to offer comfort and support to a loved one that was in considerable pain. He nodded, but I also respected his request to not tell anyone about his “personal business.” Growing up and having spent countless nights in the hospital with my own mother, I understood completely.

So I write all of this because I’m thinking a lot more about the time when we don’t see students. When they’re at the hospital with a loved one in pain, or they are taking care of their younger siblings and just cannot find a quiet space to do their school work. Or when a student is working multiple jobs to help support his family financially because his father was injured at work.

And I am thinking through my approach, especially when one of the students I checked in with disappointed me. The three goals that we had set for the week weren’t met. I was disappointed, and I am sure the look showed on my face and in the tone in my voice. I don’t know all of his circumstances, like whether or not he was just like some of the other students I saw earlier in the week and had spent the night at the hospital. As much as I try, I cannot fully fathom all of the hardships that my kids go through.

But we agreed again that we would re-focus and meet on the Monday after break and that this time, he wouldn’t let me down. I asked him what he needed from me. He paused for a long time, looked me in the eyes and said, “I hear that adults are disappointed in me all the time. Please don’t give up on me.” I nodded. He stuck out his hand, and I assured him that I wouldn’t.

 

The Importance of an Apology

Here at Classroom Communities, we didn’t have a post prepared for today. We dropped the ball in our scheduling, and left a gap that was unfilled for far too long. We’re sorry. We’ll be sure to double-check the schedule well in advance in the future to avoid this happening again.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

That could have been today’s entire post. The truth is, we had a gap, and we didn’t fill it. We try to run a post every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. We’ve been pretty good at this since our start in July of last year, though we have left a couple unfilled gaps in the schedule. We have missed some days.

But let me ask you this, if you’re a regular reader of the blog. When we missed a day in the past, did you notice? Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. If you did, did you wonder what had happened? Perhaps you thought someone was sick? Or that we abandoned the blog? Perhaps you thought something was wrong on your end, or that the internet had somehow conspired against you to keep you from reading our post that day. [Perhaps I think we have a readership far more concerned about us than it actually is]

My point here is that, in the past, we have made a mistake, and yet you may have been the ones left with unanswered questions. That’s not really a good burden to bear for those who did no wrong.

What if we ran a post that was rude, intentionally or otherwise? What if we claimed something as fact, and it turned out that we didn’t do our due diligence, and we were wrong? What if we sent you away from our post, fuming mad? Not exactly the sort of reaction we hope to inspire as we discuss the importance of community.

If we had done that, though (and perhaps we unknowingly have–please leave a comment here if this is the case so we can address that), then an apology would be in order. Because again, we would have made a mistake, and you would have been left with unanswered questions or a justified anger. We could have issued a simple, “Hey. We screwed up. Here’s what we did that was wrong. Here’s what we’re going to do to fix it. Here’s what we’re going to do to try to avoid that in the future. We’re sorry.”

A simple action, and one that we’ve all probably had to do before.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Do we take this path with our students? Surely we’ve helped them apologize to us, or to each other. But do we apologize to them?

Raise your hand if you’ve made a mistake as an educator. Okay, hands down, I can’t see anything but palms and fingers. Some of you had 6 hands up; not sure how you managed that.

I bet if I asked for the same show of hands for who has apologized for those mistakes, it would be fewer. I hope not by much. But I know I’ve made mistakes as a teacher I haven’t apologized for.

We need to apologize to our students when we make mistakes. Here’s why:

1. It models appropriate behavior

Would we not expect our students to apologize when they make mistakes? I don’t mean making mistakes in their attempts at learning; I mean when they accidentally (or “accidentally”) knock a classmate down. Or when they speak in a way they know hurts others.

What if they don’t know how, or have never experienced what that’s like?

How could we reasonably expect them to apologize to others if we don’t apologize to them?

2. It humanizes you

You know who doesn’t make mistakes? Robots. And that’s only assuming a mistake means to go against how they were programmed. Humans make mistakes all the time. If we pretend we didn’t, it’s as if we pretend we’re not human. Not a good thing if you’re trying to run a classroom built upon relationships and community.

This also takes us back to bullet #1. We can draw upon our own modeling to help a student navigate how to apologize when there’s a lot of conflicting human emotions at play (regret and pride to name two big ones). Also, if you apologize…

3. It keeps you from looking like a fool

Do you really think your students don’t know when you screwed up? Please. Show them that you also know you made a mistake, and what to do when that happens.

4. It levels the playing field

Similar to humanizing you as a teacher, it also makes it okay for anyone in the room to apologize to anyone in the room. The person with the most positional authority apologized to those with the least. That flips the standard model, and it allows for all kinds of positive actions if your classroom is set up with the respectful environment that permits those actions.

5. It empowers your students

When you apologize, to anyone, it gives them the power. They can accept your apology or not. They can move forward with your plan to make it right or not. They can learn to apologize when they make mistakes. Or not. They hold the cards.

How often do we give the students the cards? How often do we let them accept an apology from us? Trust them with this power. I promise you, they won’t let you down.

Again, we’re sorry we didn’t have a post ready to go for today. We will work to ensure that doesn’t happen in the future.

 

Communities Don’t Need Elaboration

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I long for a decent snowfall here in Central Ohio.  I dream of days when snow was always around; bright, shiny, and glistening.  Snow was a daily part of my life growing up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State and I bet you can image what my college days in Buffalo looked like.  Snow was just a way of life.

Last week we got our first decent snowfall during the week and had a snow day.  I walked outside.  I shoveled the driveway.  I tried to help my dog find his tennis ball we lost in the cul-de-sac snow piles.   I added bird seed to my feeders to help my feathered friends.  As evening came, I got restless.  I knew recess would be inside tomorrow and my heart and soul said it shouldn’t be inside.

At 8:10pm I sent an email and a See Saw message to families.  I wanted to double guarantee everyone saw this classroom news.  I asked everyone to bring snow pants, boots, hats, mittens or gloves because we would be spending recess outside.  I technically had recess duty and I wanted to watch my children have fun and feel joyful.  I do believe snow can be joyful.

The students got themselves dressed with excitement and independence.  We went outside to embrace the sunshine and the snow.  Then I had a moment of weakness amongst the joy and fun my students were feeling.  I thought, “What if someone questions me being out here?”  I had asked my team to join me but they chose not to.  I get it, not everyone likes snow.  Then I watched and listened.

We were investing in our community.  We were smiling and laughing.  We were collaborating while digging tunnels in a bank of snow.  We were creating new games when we made a snowball and tried to make a basket with the basketball hoop.  We asked to do something we couldn’t normally do in winter; go out into the field.  Have you ever watched 19 students flopping around and making snow angels?  Pure joy.  We had to problem solve when someone pushed snow into something we were trying to do.  We got to be kids.  We got to enjoy life.  We got to be together.

There are lots of ideas for ways to create a community.  Once we create communities we need to invest on fostering communities.  Communities need tweaking and uplifting every once in a while.  I realized this day tweaking and uplifting didn’t need elaboration. It just needed simple, different, and an embracing environment.

In The DRIVEr Seat

Have you ever had a class that causes you to seriously reevaluate your beliefs about one aspect of your teaching practice? This year, my class has pushed me to spend a great deal of time thinking about classroom management. I have had many conversations with colleagues at my school and in my Twitter PLN about this topic over the years. Just when I think I have it, I have a group of learners who cause me to ask questions:

  • When is it okay to offer extrinsic motivators?
  • Is it ever okay to abandon voice and choice and tell a student, “You are doing it this way.”
  • When is it time to set up a behavior plan for a student?
  • Am I punishing the entire class for the actions of a few?
  • Is it okay to ask a student to finish work during recess if they don’t have the support at home?

To guide me in my quest, I recently reread one of the most informative and inspiring books. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink was the first, and probably most significant, factor in shifting my thinking when I first read it in 2010. In a nutshell, Pink states that the key to having high performance and productivity in today’s workplaces and schools is based on three factors that keep motivation high: 1) the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), 2) to learn and create new things (mastery), and 3) to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). He states, “enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on a project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver” of keeping people motivated. I want my students to develop the intrinsic motivation to do something because it is challenging or enjoyable, not because of any “if you do______, then you get______” motivators. These “if-then” situations tend to stifle creativity and critical thinking.

I’ve been making some simple shifts to allow for more autonomy, mastery and purpose in my classroom community. One example, I recently tried is to ask students how long they think it will take to complete their work. I’ve had students set time goals for when they will complete a task, and ask them what should happen if they don’t reach their goal. Some students have self-imposed the “no recess” consequence. Another little tweak I’ve made is by having a class discussion around the question, “What does it take to be successful in this classroom?” By asking students to define what success looks like and feels like in our learning community, they are able to gauge their own behavior based on a list of criteria and “look-fors.” Hopefully, they will get a better sense of mastering the feeling of success.

Nevertheless, even Daniel Pink says that rewards are not always inherently bad. What Daniel Pink has made me think about is turning rewards into altruism. That means I do not give any tangible rewards for basic classroom responsibilities (e.g. quality work, good behavior). However, I try to make sure every student feels supported and valued. These “rewards” are not always tied to a particular task, but are meant to acknowledge hard work or show appreciation.

  • Giving a high-five or fist bump goes a long way
  • Giving students a simple positive comment such as, “Thanks for working hard today” or “I appreciate your positive contributions to our class.” or “I love how you showed passion for growth today when that math task was challenging.”
  • Let a student be the first to read a brand new book you bought for your classroom library. Let him/her know you thought of them when you bought it.
  • If you do not have open seating, perhaps surprise the students by letting them choose their seats. “You’ve been working so hard on your student-led conferences, let’s have a choice of seats today.”
  • Let students share their work first during writer’s workshop. I can tell you this is one reward I don’t mind students requesting again.

These are all “rewards” that I try to do on a regular basis, and I don’t believe they reinforce the idea of dangling a “carrot and stick.” Are they extrinsic rewards? Well, I assume they are because I am the one giving them. But, I believe the most important part of these is the conversation I have with the students about the purpose. While some may see them as “rewards,” I see them as a way to keep our classroom culture strong. As long as I don’t dangle these rewards as an “if-then” situation, then I see no harm in acknowledging students’ positive behavior. They are positive consequences to keep students excited and energized to learn, and they let the students know that I’m thinking about them and that their hard work is not going unnoticed.

The search for answers goes on. I will continue to refine my classroom management and provide a safe supportive learning environment or each group of learners. It boils down to this. I try my best to maintain a classroom culture where students experience respect, acceptance, fairness, consistency, joy and positivity. I am always searching for a way to connect with students, and show them that each of them is an important member of our classroom culture. Whenever I start to question my teaching practice, I always try to remind myself that every decision I make is to cultivate a love of learning and encourage my students to be active learners and productive global citizens. The best reward I can give my students is to show them they are cared-for and valued. I want every student to know, “You matter.”  With this in mind, I hope that being a part of my classroom community every day is reward enough.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have a son. He’s two years old.
There is a student. She’s 14.
He’s 15.

Last summer, he moved across the country to a new house.
She recently entered a new classroom for the first time.
So did he.

He loves to bathe.
He loves to learn.
She loves to learn.

But this new bath was different.
This new classroom is different.
This new classroom is different.

The first day, the water was poured and inviting, but he was screaming and kicking before his feet touched the bottom. I tried to get him to just get used to the water, and maybe let me pour a little over his shoulders, but he was having none of it. He didn’t bathe that day.
The first day, the bulletin boards were inviting.
The bookshelves were stacked.
But he was lonely.
She was afraid.
They were uncertain of this new place. The teacher asked them to write, but it was all
just too much. They didn’t learn that day.

The next day, I got in the water with him.
The next day, the teacher pulled out their notebook and wrote beside her.
The next day, the teacher asked him to pull out his notebook and write.

He didn’t cry, and was pleased to stand in the water. Not much washing got done, but he was comfortable with the situation.
She didn’t sulk, and even wrote a few lines in her notebook. Nothing too great was written, but, unlike the day before, the page was not blank.
He opened his notebook, but just stared off. His teacher didn’t seem to care enough to do anything about it, so he didn’t even reach for his pencil.

The next day, I tried to wash his hair. He wasn’t ready. He instantly cried out, threw down the cup, and climbed out of the tub. This was actually a newly-learned skill: he had never climbed out of the tub before.
The next day, the teacher asked her to write an essay. This was too much. The few lines from yesterday were fine, but she wasn’t ready for an essay. She closed his notebook, closed her eyes, and slept through class. She learned something new that day: she had never known she could sleep through class before.
The next day, the teacher asked him to write an essay. This was too much. The teacher hadn’t even pronounced his name correctly, and now they wanted an essay? He closed his notebook, closed his eyes, and slept through class. He learned something new that day: if the teacher didn’t care for him, he didn’t have to care, either.

The next day, we didn’t have a chance for a bath. Instead, though, we did go down to the pool. We didn’t soap up, but he did get all the way in the water, smiling and laughing most of the time. On the way back, my son exclaimed, “Fun water! Fun bath!” At least I knew it wasn’t the water itself that was causing his behavior.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we’re not going to write an essay. We’re just going to play around with word and story.” The students each wrote a line and passed their paper along, creating collaborative stories. Some were nonsense, some were passable stories, and at least one was too vulgar to share. But every student wrote the whole time. After class, our student exclaimed, “That was fun! We should write like that more often.” It wasn’t the act of writing causing her to shut down.
The next day, the teacher tried something new. “Today, we are going to write an essay together. Please, at the top of your page, write down ‘Class Essay #1.’ I would like you to start out with the line ‘My summer was….’ Fill in the blank for that sentence. Next, write ‘It was this way because…’ and finish that sentence.” Our student wrote these sentence starters, but never finished them. The teacher walked by, asked him to please put his name on his paper, and moved on. He put down the wrong name. The teacher never corrected him. It wasn’t the act of writing causing him to shut down.

The next day, my son had a bath. He grabbed his own washcloth, added his own soap, rinsed and washed his own hair, and even drained the tub. He had never done any of these things before. He was now not only comfortable with the new tub, but his skill set was greatly improved. I believe he would have done this had I not stepped in the tub with him, followed his lead, played around with water in other situations, and respected his autonomy. But I’m glad I don’t have to find out when that would be.
The next day, she was eager to write. They weren’t doing a collaborative story as a class, but she was applying that practice to hew own work. The teacher asked them to write about anything they wanted to, and even gave some prompts for anyone who needed help coming up with a topic. She chose to write about a time she felt scared. She wrote for longer and better than she ever had before. She was not only at her skill level she was at before she entered the room, but had surpassed it. Perhaps she would do this even if her teacher had not written beside her, let her find her own way, had her play around with words and language, and respected her autonomy. But how long would that have taken?
The next day, he skipped English class. He found one of his favorite teachers on their prep hour. That teacher talked with him and took him to the counseling office. There, he found someone who would listen to how things were going in class. He decided to give class another shot. When he returned to class, pass in hand, the teacher greeted him with his name, and said they were glad he was with them today. Maybe this would work. He had promised the counselor he would try, and he likes to keep his word. Besides, he’s only a week behind. Perhaps he will grow as a writer yet. Perhaps.

Kindness, Respect, and Love

you deserve kindness

One of my students sometimes asks me why I’m so nice.

I don’t actually think of myself as particularly nice. I’m impatient. I’m judgemental. I’m an introvert who mostly wants to be left alone. Sometimes I want to scowl when students ask me for a Band-Aid. Again.

I try not to let that show with students. “Infinite patience” is my counsel when anyone asks how I do what I do. I can go almost the entire school day telling students where the pencils are, providing snacks, picking books up off the floor, before I snap.

Many of our students don’t get a lot of kindness. The world is filled with snark. Negativity is cool. Kids tease each other, but they’re often tone deaf about it. “I’m just joking,” they say, but their friend isn’t in on the joke.

My students in Chicago loved to play hide the lunch. A girl would get up to get a napkin or a milk, and the other girls would hide something from her lunch. They’d laugh. They thought they were hilarious. They didn’t think they were being mean, but no one should have to return to a table where everyone is laughing at them.

My current school is conducting a Kindness campaign. Students and staff track their kindness every day and turn in their tallies at the end of the day. “How do you count kindness?” the high schoolers ask. “You count it all,” we respond, “every greeting, every class arrived at on time, every door held.” You count it until it’s habit and you forget that you’re doing it.

you deserve respect

At a recent meeting about behavior, one of our leaders said that “Students should not refuse a reasonable request from an adult.” I think it’s a good way to put it, and it’s been pretty effective with my students when I remember to use it. If a school staff member makes a reasonable request of a student, the student should not refuse. That’s respect that most schools expect students to give to adults.

But what about the reverse? Do we always treat our students with respect? Do we respect their privacy and their boundaries? Do we ask them for hall passes with respect? Do we greet their return from an absence with respect? Do we treat their stories with respect when we talk about them with outsiders?

you deserve love

I don’t know how to write about this. Last week I learned that a little boy who I had known since he was a baby had died at age twenty-five. He was probably in elementary school the last time I saw him, but I was babysitting his older siblings when he was born. When I went away to college, he would wake from his nap and call “Hi Lea!” out the window of his bedroom to my parents’ house across the street. He’ll always be that little boy to me.

The day after I found out that he died, I started writing on the tables daily. I don’t know how else to convey to my students how wonderful they are, how impressive and challenging and creative and important, how much their lives matter, how devastated we all would be if they were gone. They deserve love. They are loved.

i'm glad you're here
I’m glad you’re here, even if you’re sitting on the table.

I usually write this on the announcements that I post on Monday mornings. For the past two Mondays, I’ve written it on their tables.

Mondays are rough. Our students have terrible weekend sleep habits. Some report that they haven’t slept at all before arriving at school; others have maybe only slept on the bus.

Sometimes I’m annoyed that students have been absent. I wish their cell phones and headphones were already put away. I don’t like that they respond to my greeting with a snarl. But I’m still glad that they’re there, in class, every Monday, even if they won’t smile at me until the end of the day.

Be kind to yourself.

I’m going to write this on their tables this morning. I saw it in a magazine this weekend, though I can’t find the reference now.

You deserve kindness. Be kind to yourself.