Knowledge Versus Behaviors


I have been struggling with the idea of shifting what we know about empathy into consistent actions that show empathy. After 22 years in education, I consistently observe the knowledge of what empathy means is more developed than consistently acting with empathy. My struggle is not just because I see kids “saying the right thing” but not always “doing the right thing” – it is my struggle, a teacher-in- general struggle, a parent struggle, a human struggle.

Over the course of my first year in a middle school setting, I have witnessed numerous opportunities for students to say and do the right thing. Sometimes the word and actions are very little, like a student saying thank you to another; sometimes they are big, like a group of students voluntarily helping to work with special needs students.

Sometimes I witness the perplexing situation of students being able to say the right thing, but do the wrong thing within the same class period.

About two weeks ago, I read aloud the book Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds to my classes. Nerdy Birdy is a fabulous book. It tells the story of a bird who is invited to a community of birds after he has been excluded by a group of “cool” birds. Nerdy Birdy is later disappointed when his new community excludes a bird that doesn’t fit in with their norms. Both during and after the read aloud the discussions of this book were fabulous. The seventh graders saw some of the humor in the descriptions of the birds and they explored the hypocrisy of the group of birds that welcomed Nerdy Birdy. We also talked about how these moments of inclusion/exclusion happen in the real world. They shared ideas about immigrants, cliques in schools, and the gap between the rich and the poor in our city as well as our country. They said all the right things.

After the read aloud and discussion, the students moved into an individual work time that gave me the chance to work with a small group and confer with some individuals. After about 20 minutes of this individual work time, I asked the students to find a partner to share some thinking about what they accomplished that day. We have a sharing norm, that when I say partners, it means two people in a discussion. If based on attendance, we have an odd number of students in the class, I will ‘claim’ a partner so everyone is involved in a discussion with one other person. In all of my classes that day, I witnessed several students actively avoiding others. There seemed to be a desire to not get ‘stuck’ with a partner who was not perceived as a friend. Even though they could say the right things less than 25 minutes ago, they struggled to do the right thing.

Once I gave a gentle reminder of the expectations of a partner share, everyone eventually found a partner for this two-minute chat, but there were some eye-rolls and tangible sighs before everyone had someone to listen to his/her thinking.

I feel like I put forth a great deal of effort into community building. I believe that the kids I work with could identify characters in stories who show or lack empathy and compassion. I believe that if asked, “What would you do in _______________ situation?” they would all say the right thing. However, I am still troubled when I don’t see them act in a way that shows they understand the right thing to do.

It could be easy to dismiss the ideas I just shared with the notion that my students are 12 or 13 years old and over time they will learn how to control impulses (like actively showing frustration when you are disappointed with an outcome) that could make others feel unwelcome or excluded, but I see the same problems with myself and other adults. I am definitely guilty of not consistently doing the right thing. When I reflect upon my actions, I get frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to break the cycle. I fail to include colleagues, family members or a neighbor. I cringe when I am expected to work or be around people I have had difficulty with in the past. I struggle to entertain ideas that might challenge long-held beliefs about a variety of topics.

With role models like me, is it any wonder that students in our schools have difficulty doing the right thing? 

The statement above was not written in a state of self-loathing or as an attempt to dismiss the thoughts of anyone who knows that I definitely do not walk through my life as a teacher by yelling at kids, shaming kids, or actively show disrespect to others. That statement is an honest statement. I believe I am a work-in-progress in regards to consistently acting compassionately and with empathy. To be honest, I also believe we all are works-in-progress. However, if we want our students to grow into the future adults we hope them to be, we all need to do better.

For now, I will continue to work at being a better version of who I am. I will also continue to give chances for my students to both say and do the right thing. Maybe next year if I read Nerdy Birdy, I won’t see the eye rolls or hear the audible sighs later in the class period.

photo credit: MTSOfan Legalize Empathy via photopin (license)


Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 6.50.14 AM

Fill in the blanks:

If I didn’t have to ____________, then I ____________.

If my students were____________, then I ____________.

If my class size was____________, then I ____________.

If my salary was____________, then I ____________.

If I had more ____________, then I ____________.

If the parents ____________, then I _________.

If the standards ____________, then I _________.

If my room ____________, then I _________.

If my contract ____________, then I _________.

If the community ____________, then I _________.

If my colleagues ____________, then I _________.

If I had ____________, then I _________.

If the __________ teachers ____________, then I _________.

If my administrator ____________, then I _________.

If I could just remove ____________, then I _________.


Check yourself. How many of the if-then statements above we positive?  How many were negative?

Positive or negative answers to hypothetical statements don’t have much impact. But the way we frame our verbal and written language to our students, colleagues, families does have a huge impact.

I constantly am checking myself and my language. I make mistakes, but I work hard not to fall into the trap of ‘if-then’ negativity. And when I step into that trap, I feel the bite of its teeth. So I work to get out of it immediately.

The Courage to Teach


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)

How We Respond

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 8.47.29 PM

A few years ago the idea that teachers make hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions a day bounced around the internet. A remember reading posts like this Larry Cuban’s “Jazz, Basketball and Teacher Decision Making” and thinking something like, “No kidding – I am usually exhausted at the end of a day and it isn’t because of the physical labor.” The idea of teacher decision-making sparked my curiosity for a while. I looked for more information about teacher decision-making. Read a lot about it, talked to people about it, thought about my own decision-making, read some more, talked some more, thought some more.

I muck into metacognitive swamps like this often. I overanalyze the decisions I make in the classroom. One good side effect of my thinking about decision-making in the classroom is I narrowed the focus of my daily reflections. I shut down a great deal of internal noise to start with one consistent question. How am I responding to students? Then, I check myself frequently when I think I might be causing shame.

Justin Stygles, a friend/mentor, who teaches in Maine started pushing my thinking about the role of shame in education at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention. Our discussion about his passion of working to counter the impact of shame in teacher-student relationships challenged me to learn more about shame. Shame is something we all deal with, but we are very unwilling to discuss, especially in public conversations. I am pretty sure that Justin’s thinking led me to Brené Brown’s work. If you don’t know her work, a good place to start is the videos page of her website.

My learning and thinking about shame, which led to more understanding about vulnerability, empathy, connection, and guilt, is the reason my thinking about my daily decision-making always starts with how I responded to students during the course of the day. Sometimes I feel like I had a great day, sometimes I know I screwed up a few times, but I am getting better at understanding that how I respond to students has a profound impact on not only my relationship with them as individuals, but the entire classroom community.

Brian Wyzlic shared a moving story about a response he had to a student transgression on this site last week. To be honest, his post reminded me of the thinking I have done the last few years. I had another post ready to go, but his ideas of grace and mercy and choosing to build connections rather than tear them down kept running through my brain.

I am not sure how I would have handled a student saying, “Oh, f***” in my room. Depending on the student I may have been disappointed, concerned, surprised or maybe I would have laughed out loud (because I love a well-placed obscenity as much as anyone I know). That being said, I am sure, like Brian, I would not have ripped into the student. Rarely, maybe never, does a verbal lashing help diffuse a difficult situation in the classroom.

We need to be honest with our students, we need to hold them accountable, and we need to let them know what is acceptable and unacceptable while at the same time showing compassion and empathy. When a student is not respecting the norms of the classroom or the school, we need to be able to respond to students in a way that lets them know that their behaviors are the problem, not that they are the problem.

I believe too many of our students feel they are wrong or they are awful. I have too much hope to think that any child is wrong. Behaviors can be wrong, but a child? I don’t think so.


Midyear Reflections

Enjoy your stay!

We have passed the halfway mark of the school year in my district. During this time of the year, I always reflect (actually overthink and overanalyze) about what we have accomplished to this point. My reflections usually involve two areas; the learning we have accomplished and the richness of the community. I have never had a formal list to help focus my reflection but this year I did jot down a handful of questions for both learning and community.

For the learning side of the reflection my questions were:

Are my students actually improving their craft as writers?

Are my students thinking deeper about the texts they read?

Are my students showing improvement in the ability to converse/reflect about their reading and writing?

Are my students showing more independence in their learning?

For each of these questions, I was able to flip through notebooks, look at assignments and check my anecdotal records for the first two quarters. For the most part, we are growing in our learning. Of course, individual students are growing at different rates. Some are flourishing, some are not moving as fast as I’d like to see. But, I can say that collectively we are learning and becoming more confident as readers and writers.

The tougher part of my mid-year reflections is thinking about how we are progressing as a community of learners. While I occasionally jot some notes, reflecting on the community is a truly gut-feel thing for me. I haven’t quite figured out how to take records on the soft-skills of social interaction and feelings like empathy toward each other.

That being said, this year I thought about these questions:

Are my students listening to each other in partner, small group, and whole class discussions?

Are my students doing the little things (like handing a book or computer to a partner) for each other?

Are my students using kind language toward each other?

Are my students excited about the books classmates are reading and the writing classmates are composing?

Are my students supporting each other without doing the work for each other?

For these questions, there was also a mixed bag of success. I think we are growing closer, but there are still many things to improve. For example, in each of my classes, there are small close-knit groups that are doing well, but we are not there yet as a class. It is a rarity to see a member of one group seeking out a member of another group.

Over the years when I start this time of reflection in January, I often remember Alfie Kohn’s work. Kohn is both inspiring and a reminder that I am not the teacher I want to be yet. His book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, is as relevant to me now as it was when I read it back in my early years of working with children.

As I balance the last learning question, “Are my students showing more independence with their learning?” With the reflective questions about community building, I have asked myself over the years, Kohn’s thinking about how interdependence versus independence is a strong reminder to ask a different question. “How do I balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community?” I lose sleep at times when I think about this.

I know Jeremy needs more intensive support than Charlie, but if I consistently don’t make time for Charlie how does that impact the fabric of the community I want to see in my room? I know Elle is a fabulous reader, but if don’t spend the time challenging her level of thinking, then how will she be able to nudge conversations with her classmates to a higher level?

For the rest of this year, I have decided to focus on community interdependence more than continuing to foster independence. Due to the constant bombardment of news that seems to show a distinct lack of empathy and community building, I feel the need to be a counterweight to those negative messages.

So, the first thing we are doing this morning after the long weekend is to talk to each other and hopefully find more connections. Discover or remember commonalities we have. Looking for these will help us build empathy and become a better community. I want my students to remember that we are far more responsive to the greater good when we go beyond just our personal responsibility.


Long Term Investment

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 3.38.50 PM

In the last four school years I have taught three different grade levels. I jumped from fourth grade to fifth grade. During that first year with fifth graders, I learned with  35 of the 57 students I spent time with in fourth grade. After spending one more year in fifth grade I jumped to a seventh grade position this past fall. My new school is the middle school that welcomes students from the elementary I left last spring. This rather unusual path led me to be a 7th grade Language Arts teacher for a group of students I also worked with when they were in fourth and fifth grade. We know each other extremely well. I have invested an enormous amount of time in building relationships with this group of frequent fliers.

One of these frequent fliers is a child who I worry about excessively. For the purposes of this post, I will call him Jonathan. Jonathan is a very unique child. He in incredibly intelligent, has an amazing sense of humor and devours information at alarming rates. That being said he struggles with impulsive behaviors that make social interactions difficult for him. Jonathan’s behaviors toward other students often leave him ostracized. I have witnessed how his quick wit is not perceived well and/or his quick temper drives peers away from him.  

Besides challenging peer relationships, Jonathan is also one of those kids that aggravate some teachers. The quality of his work doesn’t always match his intellect. He can rush through projects making careless errors and sometimes he won’t work hard because he thinks the work is pointless (which for a student with his background knowledge, the work might actually be pointless).

Jonathan is one of those kids that you love because he will make you laugh and want to talk about the latest Rick Riordan book that he read in one day, but will break your heart when you hear that he impulsively hit another student in the hall and has to spend a day in the office.

When I found out that Jonathan was going to spend another year with me I shifted my thinking about what my role for him should be this year. I knew no matter what I did as his Language Arts teacher Jonathan would continue to devour books and most likely rush through writing projects. Helping Jonathan develop the more affective domain skills of communicating and connecting effectively and more empathetically with classmates became my goal for the year.

I’d love to tell you my plan to help Jonathan has been a resounding success. It would be great if I could say that after a few weeks of one-on-one talks and sharing books and articles with my students that highlighted ideas like kindness and empathy that Jonathan is now a beloved student. I wish I could say his classmates have suddenly started appreciating Jonathan’s differences and welcomed him into their social circles. Jonathan is not an Auggie Pullman feel-good story yet.

I do think the subtle, but consistent work I have done has helped him this year. Jonathan does not interrupt other students in the class discussions as much as he did previously. Jonathan is not as quick to fire off a snide comment when someone says something he perceives as being completely incorrect. He was also unbelievably patient and kind to his group in recent book club conversations. The Jonathan from earlier this year would have not uttered a statement like “Oh, I wouldn’t have called Castle (the main character in Jason Reynold’s novel Ghost) a troublemaker, but I respect your opinion.” He probably would have ripped that idea apart because he didn’t agree with it.

I cherish these small victories because I want Jonathan to thrive, not just survive. I want Jonathan to learn how to be a better version of himself. I think if he can hold tight to all of the good in him and continue to work on improving some of his negatively perceived traits he will be in a much better place.

I share this story to remind myself and hopefully others the work we do as teachers is more valuable in the long run if we invest in our student as humans first. Jonathan will most likely graduate from high school with above a 4.0 and get something like a 34 on his ACT, but he will be in a better place if he can do those things and feel valued as a human. So I am determined to plug away and invest my time with him as a person as much in not more as I invest in pushing him as a student.




Frayed … I feel a little unraveled this time of the year. The crunch of getting things done before the last day of school. The never-ending list of must do items before we smash several get-togethers with family and friends. The packing before leaving for a vacation. The lack of sleep. The … well, the everything.

Our students are frayed. Teachers demanding their assignments. Parents rushing them around. Realizing they might not see good friends for two weeks. Having the pressure to be perfect at family get-togethers. Knowing the safety of school will not be there for the next two weeks.

Our families and colleagues are frayed. Most likely everyone we have recently seen or will see in the next few weeks are feeling the stress we impose upon ourselves this time of year. Holiday stress is so real that the Mayo-Clinic has a page on its website dedicated to coping with stress and depression.   

We cannot expect to be perfect during this time of the year, but many of us expend a great deal of energy trying to be or pretending to be. This includes the time we should be relaxing, away from the day-to-day time spent with our students. We don’t always need to feel like we are doing everything we possibly can. I need to remind myself frequently during the Holiday Season to take the time to refresh myself. I want to return to school excited to be back with my community of learners. I don’t want to return to classes of 25-29 students feeling like I need a vacation to recover from a vacation.

Over the last few years I have, rather secretly, only had three goals over the Holiday Break.

  1. Read a book that has nothing to do with school. This year I am planning to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (which I received last for Christmas. ugh).
  2. Sleep at least eight hours each night. This may not happen, but it needs to happen. I think I’ve had one night in the last month that I slept more than seven hours. Most nights it is less than six hours. The lack of sleep is a constant for me during the school year, but it doesn’t need to happen during a break.
  3. Practice gratitude. I think I do practice gratitude regularly, but I am forgetful during the busyness of this season. Since I know I am happier when I share my thankfulness toward others, I will do something to show my thankfulness each day.

I know I have to do so much more than these three things before I return to school in January, but most everything else can wait. If I don’t read the numerous books I hope to read, then I don’t. If I don’t finish pre-planning the next writing unit, then I don’t. If I don’t go to every event I want to attend then I don’t. None of those things will make me feel renewed at 8:18 am on January 3, 2018. However, I know reading a book just for me is a gift to myself. I know catching up on my sleep is a necessity for me and a gift to my family. And I know being thankful will make me a better person and remind the people I love the most that I am thankful they are in my life.

Our classroom communities need us to be the best version of ourselves when we return from a long break. We should return to school feeling put back together, not coming apart at the seams.
To start my practicing gratitude phase, I am publicly thanking Brian, Sarah, Jim, Lysey, Kevn, Jennifer, Angie, Scott, Lea, Mandy, Andrea and Aliza. You said yes to collaborating on this site and I am incredibly thankful you did. I have learned a great deal from all of you in just five months. I cannot wait to see what you do to challenge and affirm my thinking in the future. I am truly blessed to call you all mentors and friends. I wish sometime in the future we can all be at the same place at the same time. Let’s figure out a way to make that happen.

photo credit: greg.simenoff Knot- via photopin (license)