“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.


Nurture the Dreams, Not the Explosions

The other day, I had a student in my office and she asked about the quote I had set as my desktop background: “It’s much easier to nurture a dream than to deal with an explosion,” a line from Ernest Morrell’s speech at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English’s Annual Convention. Over three years later, it remains a line that I quote often to colleagues and use to guide my work with young people every day.

Before I knew it, I was down a rabbit hole. I was talking about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”; I was talking about the English teachers I have learned so much from yet do not directly know; and I found myself endlessly talking about why I want to teach, the safe space I want to create as an administrator, and how I can always do a better job of helping my school become the place where kids’ dreams are nurtured.

If we aren’t nurturing our kids’ dreams and sense of hope, who else is?

For some, no one.

So when I recently read Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Jensen’s comments about hope, I started to think differently.

As Jensen points out, “learned helplessness” is not a “genetic condition.” Rather, it is “an adaptive response to life conditions…” in which “[students] believe that they have no control over their situations and that whatever they do is futile” (113).

I think we can all point to a student in our careers who has lost hope, who thinks that he or she can do absolutely nothing to change their life trajectory. I encourage you to pause right now, and picture them. Remember their name? Remember how they used to frustrate and challenge you? You may have even blamed them for a gray hair or two. They never seemed to respond to what you would say, and they would tell you again and again that they “don’t care or “will never care.”

That kid needs our help finding hope.

Jensen encourages teachers to talk to students about their dreams, their hopes, and their aspirations. But this talk also has to go beyond the mistake that Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, shared in this podcast. If we only do surface-level work of just asking kids about their dreams and not really listening and talking, we can get—and accept—responses like that of the student she worked with, whose negative response ultimately became his outcome.

As educators, we also have to be aware that “Students raised in poverty are especially subject to stressors that undermine school behavior and importance” (27). This doesn’t mean that all students who live in poverty are subject to poor behavior, nor does it mean that that these students will perform poorly. They are, however, at a greater risk. If we really want to tend to those dreams, we, as educators, must be aware of that and teach students to recognize and overcome some of these stressors.

We must nurture those dreams, make relevant connections in our curricula, and continue insisting that students can take small steps to accomplish their goals. If we don’t, then we can find ourselves managing more of the “explosions” that Morrell talked about in his speech. After all, it’s easier for a student to realize that yelling, screaming, stomping out of our classroom will earn him or her a “pass” at the day’s work. But if we are truly serious about nurturing those dreams, we have to think in terms of empowerment and persistence. Like Jensen also argues, “Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently” (30). We won’t accomplish it in a day or a quick lesson about grit or mindset. Instead, we have to be as hopeful and relentless as we can be.


The Opportunity of Re-Entry

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we welcome students back into our classrooms after they—or we, at times—have made mistakes or have had something serious happen in their lives.

Maybe a student lashed out at you. Maybe they fought another student at the end of your class period. Or maybe they recently lost an immediate relative.

We all know what happened yesterday, or last week, or five minutes ago. Or we hear and see posts on social media, or we overhear students who talk about events that have happened around the building and outside of school. The witnessing of the fight downstairs a few minutes ago has now made its way onto the third floor and, despite not having seen it, it’s all kids are talking about, and then somehow that conversation is resurrected when that student finally returns to school and class.

We don’t just forget.

And we have to acknowledge that. If we simply forgot, then we miss out on opportunities to improve relationships, to signal to students and colleagues that we care, that we are people, and that we are a part of a community working to support each other. And it’s our experiences with each other that contribute to who we are and how people perceive us, and it’s our response after a negative experience that enables the rebuilding or refining of relationships.

So I write more without answers but more of a topic that I have been thinking about lately, the idea of re-entry, of return, of welcoming students back into our rooms and our lives after we all know that something happened. Because our goals as teachers and administrators are to teach, to adjust, to refocus, to redirect, to support and, I think, very rarely ever to ignore or to give up.

I think we first have to acknowledge that it is going to be awkward. People will look. They will talk. They will whisper. They will point. They will have thoughts that we will never know about the incident before.

And we have to communicate to students that we will recognize their discomfort, the awkwardness, and everything else that showing up again after a difficult event entails.

It might be a pat on the back and saying, “I know how difficult this is for you, but I am here to talk it out / be a support / prevent it from happening again.”

It might mean addressing it as a class (I seek permission from parents and the student when doing this), which I think can be incredibly powerful. When you acknowledge that something happened, others were affected, and we are now moving on, it can send a message to students that we make mistakes but our classroom culture is important to us—so important that it had to be addressed—and now we can move on.

It might mean that a simple “I’m sorry” is necessary. And sometimes brevity is okay. More can be said with less, and it is so important for kids to hear that from their peers and adults. We must model the behavior we expect from our students.

We must acknowledge the sinking-of-the-gut feeling that happens when we all do something difficult and then acknowledge when students take this important next step. This might mean a quick, “I am proud of you,” or a thumbs up, or a pat on the back. But we must reaffirm the power of taking that step to rebuild and move forward.

Returning is never easy, but with our help, the burden is lessened and we begin our journey toward restoring or reaffirming the sense of community we want to achieve.

You don’t have a pencil, but you have…

The day before break, there is joy in the air for most teachers that is nearly tangible. A much deserved break is upon us. For many of us, it’s two weeks to rejuvenate. Two weeks to catch up with our friends and families. Two weeks to relax and to focus on us—which is perfectly okay—rather than on everyone else.

When we come back from break, our interactions with kids will reflect this “down time.” We will be more patient and more lenient. We will be friendlier and, perhaps, our truer selves. Having had time away from the stress and the constant push to do more for those who need it most, we will be fresh again.

But it won’t take long for some of us—and I will admit that I have defaulted to this before—to show a side of us that isn’t the positive person that we once wrote about in our undergraduate teaching philosophies.

So with this post, I want to address the elephant in the room after winter break: How can a kid have that new __________ (insert object, item here) but can’t seem to ever bring a pencil to class?

Admit it. You will wonder it. You might think it. You might even really, really want to ask.

But what will it accomplish to ask the student, particularly in front of their peers or the class? How does it improve your relationship, which actually does matter for teaching and learning to occur, by snarkily asking about their lack of supplies?

Quick answer: It doesn’t.

Long answer: It can do irreparable harm. You’ve made the student feel inferior and stupid. You have implied that they don’t value your class, or that they value it less than another material object, like a cellphone.

But if you talk to the student, you might just find out that during the holidays, they had a parent re-enter their life temporarily. For some students, it is all too common to have a parent come back in their life during the Christmas season and then to disappear again. As one student shared with me, every year his dad buys him a new cellphone, computer, or something that’s expensive because his father thinks that the amount he spends on him will demonstrate how much he cares.

The student shared with me that he knows better. The visit will be temporary instead of permanent. It will last long enough to resurrect pain from so many years of absence. And then he will disappear again. But that doesn’t mean he throws away what he was given. But while he might still use the gift, it does not have to become a reminder from us when we see that he doesn’t have a pencil the next time he’s in our class.

I even could go on and on about the desires of humans to fit in, even though some of us don’t. For some students, getting that one item is the only thing they want and keep asking for because it feels like everyone else around them has it. (And let’s be real: We all have bought things that we didn’t need because others had them. Raise your hand if you ever purchased a Beanie Baby.)

I recently saw this Facebook post that went viral about parents pretending that gifts came from Santa.


I don’t share it to advocate the message about Santa, but I do share it to emphasize the point about the disparity in Christmases that exist with so many of our families. I will be the first to say that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but I also know that we can forget that we sometimes live much more comfortable lives than most in the communities we serve.

The easy way out is to judge and assume. The more difficult route, the route where we seek to understand with our students instead of shaming them, will help us establish a safe and supportive environment that is necessary for learning.

Bruce R. Taylor and Glenn Kummery (1996) wrote about the different types of shaming in their article about family conferencing. They discuss stigmatizing shame and re-integrative shaming, and I think this can have profound effects in our classroom. The first is meant to label offenders, like the time that my then-seven-year-old niece continued to refer to herself as a “bad kid,” and the other is meant to “reject the deed and not the doer.” Our actions with kids need to reflect this.

So with the new year quickly upon us, remember to listen more than you talk when it comes to kids. What are they saying but, perhaps, without words? What are you communicating when you point out that the new iPhone 8 could have been 8,000 pencils? Compare that to what you want to communicate. For me, it is that my classroom and school will support any student in his or her learning, and I will work really hard not to make them feel ashamed along the way. I can’t control who comes into their lives outside of my classroom, but I can welcome them every day and not make them feel embarrassed when they enter my room.



Stepping Back to Rebuild

The other day I tweeted about StoryCorps and how easy it is to capture relatives’ stories during the holidays. I still have the recording of my grandfather saved, where he recounts growing up in Fowlerville, Michigan, as an orphan.

And remembering this, made me remember the time that one of my Creative Writing classes was at war. Some students would frequently volunteer to share their writing after Sacred Writing Time, and a small faction of students began expressing their frustration at repeated topics. No matter how many times I assured that them it is okay to “write what we know,” the same small group of students would still mumble and disengage, subtracting from the safe environment that I had hoped to create. I knew that I had to repair the sense of community before we could move on, before we could share our StoryCorps recordings from the holiday season. If not, no student would be willing to take the risk necessary to put their families, their histories, their cultures and traditions on display.

I can’t remember what was said that day, but I remember the tears and shouting from students. Had I been observed, I am sure that from the outside my classroom management skills would have been considered incredibly weak. The classroom had reached a point so divided that I knew that what I had planned would never come to fruition if we did not address our sense of community.

So I stopped. The writing for that day? Moved. The mini lesson I had planned? Postponed. We needed to get to know each other even more. We needed to understand our similarities and our differences. We needed to focus on interacting as people before we could fully interact as writers.

So I used a tool that was shared with me by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. This “Cultural Sharing Sheet” became the foundation of our next few days, including an exploration of “Life’s Lessons,” the verbal and non-verbal lessons that were imparted to us about nationalities, genders, races, socio-economic status, and education levels.

It was awkwardly slow at first. I had to begin by sharing the messages that were shared with me growing up: Hard work is the solution for everything. You will go to college and be the first person in our family to graduate from a university. No one is better than anyone else.

As we went around the group, first sharing safer categories and then others not so safe, students began to see each other in a different light. While we are not inherently the beliefs that raised us, we are influenced by them. Sometimes we want to embrace them, and other times we need to actively work to distance ourselves from them.

I wish I could say that everyone got along from then on out, but that would be a lie. The tension dissipated, sure. There were still disagreements and misunderstandings. But when they did happen, everyone was a lot more willing to pause and think, recognizing that we aren’t necessarily the beliefs and actions of our families, but we are definitely shaped by them.

Big Payoff through Small Moves

One of the things that I am still adjusting to as a new assistant principal is managing my time and being able to build positive relationships with students. When I first assumed my position, I had big plans of regularly scheduled blocks of time to meet with students, especially the ones that I had grown quite close to over the years. And then I quickly realized that there are days that I have much less control over my schedule and sometimes more fires to put out than I imagined. Despite that, I still actively work to develop stronger relationships with students because spending time up front building a relationship will pay dividends later. Although small, I’ve tried to be intentional about:

Reading a book that I know a kid will like and then give it to them. Just the other day I read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and I knew right away that I had to get it into a student’s hands. The internal conflict that the main character faces is similar to this student’s very decision he is making in regards to his own life. I was so excited to get this book into this young man’s hands, and I could tell from his reaction that he was surprised. And he soon indicated to me that he’d never before had an adult read a book and think of him.

Sending a positive post card. Working with teenagers truly is wonderful. There are so many small things that can go unnoticed throughout the day, but I can assure you that I am surrounded by so many young people who will make truly great adults. From volunteering to help a student carry her backpack as she heals physically to helping another student out who has collapsed, young people amaze me. I really enjoy sending out these small notes to parents and guardians who don’t get the pleasure of seeing such great behavior on a nearly daily basis.

Calling a student down to celebrate positive news and achievement. I don’t like to call students to my office during class, but I have quickly realized that for some students, it has been a really—and I mean really—long time since they have heard something positive about themselves. Every now and then when I “drop in” to check on students’ grades and I notice something positive, I have to let them know. Small reminders of hard work and progress matter, and it’s even a bigger deal for a principal to recognize that hard work.

Just saying, “Hi.” I truly believe that every young person who walks in our doors should be spoken to at least once each day, but I know that there are some students who probably are not spoken to at all. When I pass students in the hallway, I intentionally try to model good behavior and friendliness, saying “Hi” to many students, even the ones I don’t know. I may not know a student that well, but I can show that I care about their success and well-being by just saying something so simple.

Noticing small changes in behavior and mannerisms. This is similar to the move directly before, but a little more complicated. When we see young people every day, even if it’s only in passing, we can begin to notice patterns of behavior and mannerisms. If a student is usually smiling every day when you pass them in the hall and today they are not, then I have found it makes a huge difference to talk to them about this. By acknowledging that you have noticed a change, it signals to the student that you see them every day, even if you don’t talk to them. And when you notice a change, you care.

Following up, even when it’s easier not to. Even if it might not seem a big deal to us, students appreciate when we follow up on what seems like a big deal to them. If they’re sick, we can ask them if they’re feeling better. If they’re having a rough time, we can ask if things have improved. If they mention an upcoming test, we can ask how they did. I’ve found that when I follow up with a student, it shows that I really listened to the small details they’ve shared with me and that I’ve really “heard” them.

What are some small things that you do that you think really signal to students you care?

Build a Positive Culture with Assessment

I think one of the things that is often overlooked when it comes to establishing a positive and supportive culture in our classrooms is assessment. As teachers, we can sometimes feel as if we have no control over it. I’ll admit that I know I have felt like this before in the face of common assessments and standardized tests. But we have more control than we think, and we need to work to reclaim not only the term but also the use of assessment in our classrooms.

I first learned about the idea of construct and consequential validity when I read Beyond Standardized Truth by Scott Filkins. In this book, Filkins explores both ideas of validity, and argues that “What happens to the student as a result of taking a test (including accounting for the instructional time devoted to participating in the assessment) is as central to the test’s educational validity as the quality of its construction” (19). He breaks this down further by posing a set of questions to help differentiate between the two. One of the questions that I think is most important is this: “Is the student in any way harmed by the assessment?” (19)  

As teachers, we spend a lot of time thinking about the validity of the construction of our assessments. We ask ourselves, Does this measure what we want it to? We think about whether or not the items are inclusive and that they honor students’ identities in order to reduce bias. We ask whether or not the assessment matches our learning targets and whether or not it is of appropriate difficulty, but we rarely ask what our assessments do to the learning environment. Will our assessment leave students feeling empowered or defeated? Will they feel as if we have prepared them along the way, or will the expectations of our assessment surprise them and damage their sense of self-efficacy, motivation to continue,  and trust toward us? 

Even if just one student’s motivation is negatively impacted by our assessment, our entire learning environment suffers. Sometimes we are quick to acknowledge this about external assessments like the ACT or SAT when we see students’ reactions as they receive their scores, but we sometimes avoid their reactions when they receive their results from our own assessments. And then there are even those teachers who pride themselves on how difficult an assessment was, rather than celebrating how many students succeeded.

Regardless of the norms that we establish or the countless times that we reiterate to the class that we “care” and are there to “support them,” it all means nothing if the way we assess them feels like a kick in the stomach or a slap in the face.

Rick Stiggins reiterates a similar point as Filkins in The Perfect Assessment System, where he argues for educators to rethink how, when, and why they assess in their classrooms. And this line stopped me hard: “You might show me the most valid and reliable assessment in the world, but if the results it generates lead students to give up in hopelessness, it may not be a high-quality assessment, for the simple reason that it may do far more harm than good” (84).

He continues later by writing that “assessment FOR learning” is important because “A student’s emotional response to assessment results will determine what that student decides to do about those results: keep working, or give up” (85).

Stiggins mentions that students who seem to always encounter failure in their assessments, can begin to think along these lines:

“This hurts; I’m not safe here”

“I can’t do this either”

“Why is it always about what I can’t do?”

“Feedback hurts me—scares me”

And these responses are in direct contrast to the type of mindset we want to cultivate in students. Those who develop positive views of themselves begin to want more success and embrace feedback, while those who experience negative consequences begin a downward spiral that can affect the rest of their educational experience. 

If we want students to take risks in their thinking, to challenge themselves, to try something on, we have to create spaces where they can try again. We have to embrace the messiness, the idea that first attempts aren’t always right. We can prove to our classes that we will support students with assessment, using our informed practice to help all kids learn.

Brookhart and Moss argue in Learning Targets that learning targets help develop students who are “assessment-capable” or “students who regulate their own learning” (79). And if we want students to really be capable of embracing and using assessments and feedback, we have to be mindful of the messages that our assignments send to students. If they are one-shot assignments, then we tell students that we don’t value mistakes or the learning process. We expect them to get it within one opportunity, something that anyone who has ever learned anything knows is not the case.

We also cannot forget that very real reality that assessments–and I use the term broadly here to include many kinds, including essays, performances, tests–are experiences for students. They do not just do these things; rather, they do these things under particular conditions and experience effects afterward. There is a direct connection to an emotional state of mind and well being that we cannot separate and we have to think long and hard about.

We must also think about how this contributes to the culture of our classroom. Do we want students who value their grades or who value learning? What do our assessments reveal at the end? This can also lead into helping students develop different types of goals. Sometimes students buy into the idea that performance goals matter more than mastery goals. As Moss and Brookhart also mention that students that choose performance goals (like getting an A on a test) are “more extrinsically motivated and rely on rewards or praise from others” (67). We can work to help students become interested in mastery goals, who want to “increase their competence,” put in effort over longer periods of time, and “expect to receive feedback on how well they are doing and how to improve” (68). The latter is the culture around goals that I would want in my classroom. 

I end with a final reminder that we have students in our classrooms who have not felt successful in very long time, if ever at all. With the start of the year upon us, I ask us all to think about the ways we can assess students to inform instruction but to also support and build students’ confidence and winning streaks. We can ask how our assessment will impact students’ motivation, and we can actively work to develop an assessment culture where everyone learns and thrives.