Mission Seek and Uplift

Several weeks ago our superintendent challenged all departments and grade level teams to come up with a series of goals around the idea of creating a “generous and welcoming” school community. We were asked to create thirty and sixty day goals, and goals for next fall. The notes from my department included the phrase “Mission Seek and Uplift” under 60 Day Goals. Someone added “Can someone clarify this?” to our shared doc. I’m not sure what we meant we originally wrote this, but here’s what I added:

Between now and June 1, we will seek out and reconnect with students who are currently getting a D or an F in our classes and develop a plan with the student to raise the grade to at least a C by the end of the marking period. This will include the ability for students to show proficiency toward essential standards to earn credit. We will exercise grace and exempt failed or missing work from early in the semester if the student can demonstrate proficiency now. We will give full credit for makeup work during this period.

I once sat in a meeting where third grade teachers argued vehemently that their students should not get full credit on a spelling test unless they can pass it the first time. They taught itthe kids should have learned it. A fifth grade math teacher and I disagreed with them; students earned full credit even if it took them longer to master material or a new skill.

Each week I print a grade check for my advisory students and we have the same conversation about any low grades: “Have you talked to your teachers? Do you have the missing work? Can you retake the tests?” In my AVID class we also do weekly grade checks, and I suggest that students bring questions about the classes they’re struggling in to tutorial. With some students I offer to talk to the teacher, but for the most part the burden is on the student to figure out how to raise their grade.

But what if we, as teachers, took on that burden instead? Of course, many teachers already do this, but what if the mission of an entire department, or an entire school, was to seek out struggling students and help them succeed during these final weeks of the school year? Not because an administrator is hounding you about graduation, or because you don’t want to deal with that one awful parent, but because our students need our help.

We all have students who have given up. Maybe they’ve missed so many days that they don’t know how to rejoin. Maybe they fear students calling attention to their return. Maybe you’re the problem. Have you ever greeted a returning student with a sarcastic, “Hey, nice of you to join us?” Maybe that’s why they don’t want to come back.

It takes courage to ask for help when you’re struggling, courage to try to pass a class that you’re currently failing. It’s much easier to act like you don’t care.

What are you doing to seek and uplift your students who have given up?

Relationship Building through Discipline

(Some details have been changed out of respect for my student’s privacy.)

“I didn’t think Kelley would take me.”

I had left school thirty minutes early on a Tuesday to take my ailing 17-year-old cat to the vet when my phone rang, an unhappy Georgie in the cat carrier next to me. School had ended just minutes before, and it was the paraeducator who had covered our class at the end of the day calling. I answered because there weren’t any good reasons for him to be calling instead of texting when he knew I was dealing with an emergency vet visit.

“You know our friend who was in such a bad mood this morning?”

One of our students had been particularly surly that morning. Distracted by the need to schedule an emergency trip to the vet, I hadn’t taken the time to ask him what was wrong. He’d been hostile and disrespectful. I’d responded by alternating between ignoring him and reminding him about expected classroom behavior.

“Well, apparently his day got worse. They’re going to call and ask if he can do in-school suspension with you tomorrow.”

I didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, we’ll take him, of course. Tell them to call me.” At the time I didn’t realize that I was signing on for three days of in-school suspension, but I still would have agreed to have our student with us and not out of school for three days.

This isn’t the first time that a student has served time with me rather than a more traditional discipline. Last year a student who called me a bitch was sentenced to three lunch detentions. We agreed that he would serve them in my classroom so that he could complete missing work and pull his grade up from an F. By our third lunch together, he’d caught up on his missing assignments and we’d begun to build a better relationship as student and teacher. (Full disclosure: He skipped the first several lunches and an administrator had to finally track him down, but we made progress once we got started.)

Three days of in-school suspension is a lot of time to spend with a student. I was still teaching my regular schedule of classes, so the student sat at my rarely-used teacher desk in the back of the room while my classes did their usual work. One of the conditions for in-school suspension was that he wasn’t allowed to talk to any other students, and they couldn’t talk to him. The paraeducator who was usually only with me for part of the day was with us every period so that one of us could escort our student when he needed to leave the classroom.

It was a long three days. The student respected and followed the administration’s expectations, but three days is a long time to sit in a room full of your peers while only communicating with the two adults in the room. It was a lot of time for the three of us to spend together. While I was glad that he’d been able to avoid an out-of-school suspension, the public nature of serving ISS in a classroom still troubles me.

On the other hand, a lot of trust can be built in three days. Barriers can be knocked down. Because we had two adults in the classroom for the entire time, there were multiple opportunities to take a walk around campus when he needed a break. It’s unusual as a high school teacher to have the luxury of walking and talking with a student for twenty minutes. We talked about his mood the day he got in trouble. We talked about the chickens that live near the elementary side of our campus, and he showed me the slow one that his friend had managed to catch one day.

On the third day, during my planning period, it was just the three of us in my classroom. Our student could relax, move around the room, talk out loud. I’m pretty sure he was bouncing a basketball by this point. He started talking. He told us his story.

“I didn’t think Kelley would take me,” he said.

We aren’t all best friends now. He doesn’t come and hang out before school and during lunch, and he gives the teacher desk a wide berth when he’s in my class. But he knows that there are at least two adults in the school who will take him, who will pull him closer instead of sending him away. We won’t give up on him.

How Students Care for Each Other

Busses drop our students off starting at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, and first period begins at 8:30 a.m. I try to be in my room after 8 for my early birds who want to drop off their bag before they eat. One day last week, a student who usually isn’t early came in well before anyone else, picked a seat, and put his head down. I’m sure I said good morning, but I probably didn’t say much else. Students who come in at 8 and put their heads down usually want that last 30 minutes of sleep.

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Fast forward to midway through first period. Students are working independently on a series of research questions about an ecosystem; while I teach English, our current focus is informational reading and writing through the lens of a science topic. Since it’s first period, many students are slow getting started, but a few are asking me questions or are ready for me to check off what they’ve finished. The student who arrived first today isn’t yet working, but he’s only recently rejoined the class after being gone for a long period. He will need my help getting started since he hasn’t yet learned our strategies for reading informational text.

As I move around the room, I notice that someone’s music is extra loud, louder than the instrumental music that I have playing over the classroom speakers. Of course the students aren’t supposed to have their own music playing, but I pick my battles. I make a mental note to ask him to turn down his music after I check in with one more student.

It’s at this moment that another student, a young man at the opposite corner of the classroom, hears the music and looks around to see whose it is. He gets up and walks across the room to the student with the loud music, the same student who was the first to come into my room. He asks him a question then pulls over a chair. He leans over and wraps the student in his arms. It’s only then that I realize that the music was hiding the fact that the student was sobbing.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have said that the two boys were particular friends. And while I like them both a great deal, I wouldn’t have said that either was particularly sensitive or nurturing. I certainly didn’t expect one to cross the room and wrap his arms around the other.

I called a friend and colleague who is close to the student to make sure that she was in her office, and I wrote the two boys a pass. The second boy returned after a few minutes and put his head down. When I checked on the first boy in my colleague’s office, he was smiling, laughing, coloring a picture. When he asked for a restroom pass, my friend filled me in on what was going on. To say it’s a crappy situation is an understatement. It sucks.

I try to watch my students more closely. I ask them how they’re doing, and I make sure to listen to their answers. I tell them I’m glad they’re here. I tell they’re loved, they’re strong, they’re brave, they’re resilient. I tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

And I hope, that just like the observant young man in first period, that they will continue to look out for each other.

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.

Reconnecting for 2018

It’s the first of January and I’ve just sent my students a Remind message that I’m excited to see them at school tomorrow (and that they should try to get some sleep tonight). So far I’ve received reaction icons ranging from hands clapping to faces frowning.

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The transition back to school after the long break is a tough one. Everyone has forgotten the routines. Days have been spent playing video games and watching Netflix. No one has been going to sleep at their normal time. The first day back will begin much too early.

Here is my plan to get us through this first week:

1. Greet everyone. Greet them by name. Say hi in the hallways and in class. When you walk around the room to see who’s sleeping, check in with each student. At the end of the period or the day, look over your roster. Did you talk to every student? Did you listen to their response? Do this every day for the entire week.

2. Be kinder than necessary. Instead of just “Good morning,” say “I’m glad you’re here.” If the student is receptive (awake), ask about their break. If they’re not, allow them to be silent. Follow up the next day, or the day after. Make it your goal to sit next to every student at some point and ask “How’s it going?” and get an answer in reply.

3. Bring snacks. Share them liberally. The day will be long enough without a growling stomach at 10 am.

4. Ask how much sleep they’ve been getting. Share your own struggles if you stayed up too late and messed up your sleep cycle. Tell your students what you’re going to do to get back on schedule. Remind them every day of the importance of sleep.

5. Practice grace and forgiveness. There are times to be tough and to hold students accountable, and there are times to practice grace. We don’t know what has happened in our students’ lives during the weeks that we’ve been apart. Sure, they might have been eating candy canes and playing video games all night, but we can’t know that, and we shouldn’t assume. It’s our responsibility to be safe and kind and predictable even when our students aren’t.

We must respond to their crankiness with grace and forgiveness. Only after we’ve reconnected will we be able to get back to learning.

Not-So-Happy Holidays

Last year I had Christmas dinner alone. I had planned to eat Christmas dinner with my mom, but she woke up with the flu that morning.

I’m a teacher. I definitely didn’t want the flu over winter vacation. I took her some meds and got out of there as quickly as possible.

I briefly felt sorry for myself. Everyone else already had plans or was out of town. I didn’t even know what to feed myself for dinner.

After about a minute, I remembered a recipe that I’d seen online that I wanted to make. I remembered that the Safeway near my mom’s house was open on Christmas Day. I remembered that I’m an introvert. Christmas dinner alone was not a big deal.

I think that sometimes when we think about the holidays, we think that the worst that can happen is that someone won’t have many family and friends around. We warn children to remember that their classmates might not get as many presents as they do. We get caught up in “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and which songs are okay for the winter concert.

For many of our students, the holidays aren’t the happiest time of the year. For some, they’re the worst.

It’s not just about being sensitive because someone else might have less money. It’s not just about keeping church and state separate.

We have students who don’t live with their parents for good reason, but might have to see them at a holiday gathering. We have students whose families will drink far too much at their celebrations. We have students with parents incarcerated, or serving overseas, or lost to addiction, or just gone. Our LGBT students might have to hide their true selves around their families. Our student might be giving their meals to a younger sibling because there isn’t enough to eat, or sleeping on the floor in that sibling’s bedroom to keep them safe during a holiday party. They might be hiding bruises from extended family to protect their abusers.

I’ve written before that we don’t actually have to know our students’ stories to help them. They don’t have to reveal their secrets to us.

Instead, we need to remember that all of our students have stories, and treat them as such. Assume that holidays are hard and make your classroom a place of safety and predictability. Don’t add more stress to their lives.

It’s a busy time of year. As teachers, we’re trying to cram a unit in between two holidays. We don’t want to leave something unfinished over a two-week vacation. High school teachers know that the end of the semester is coming.

Stop. Slow down. Connect. Take the extra ten seconds to ask a student how it’s going. Take another ten seconds to ask the next student how it’s going.

I set three goals for December this year: relationships, engaged reading, and strategies for rigorous texts. Will it be better if we finish the whole book before vacation? Sure, but there’s a reason that I put relationships first on that list. The needs of the student are more important than my need to finish the chapter.

Our students won’t come and tell us that the holidays are hard. Some won’t even know it themselves. But we know, and so we must be extra kind and safe and predictable and wise.

Take a deep breath.

Take another one.

You got this.

Rebuilding Communities

I have, for the first time in 19 years of teaching, sold my planning period. I took over a class of sophomores and juniors with a little more than a week left in first quarter.

We talk about building relationships, but what about rebuilding relationships? What about repairing classroom communities after a teacher leaves before the end of the year? And how do we balance the needs of teachers with the needs of our students?

Two weeks ago I stood in our hallway discussing the situation with my next door neighbor. We knew that one of us would need to take over the class. It’s an elective that’s part of a program that we’re building at our school, and we couldn’t leave a guest teacher in charge long-term.

My neighbor and I were the logical choices. We had the necessary planning period and were part of the program’s site team; she already taught the elective to another grade level, and I knew that I was on deck for future sections.

But not in the last week of October with no warning.

It wasn’t an opportunity that either of us wanted. Our English department has a new curriculum this year, and we still haven’t even previewed the materials for second semester. We’re a department heavy in young teachers; all of their experience, my neighbor’s included, adds up to fewer years that I’ve been teaching, and that’s including our middle school colleagues. The high school teachers finally had a planning period together and were meeting weekly in our PLC. We’d already scheduled as many after school meetings as we could with our middle school colleagues; one of us losing our planning period would definitely leave us scrambling for enough time to meet.

But somebody had to do it.

I explained all of this when I sat down with the program’s director. We talked about what the class needed in a teacher and why it had to be me. My schedule is the one that’s easiest to adjust at the semester, though getting back the same planning period as my colleagues is a long shot. Even though the work that we do as an ELA PLC impacts every single student in our building, common planning time is about the teachers.

The needs of the students outweigh the needs of the teachers. Always.

And so, on the 39th day of the school year, the class became mine.

What are the needs of the students when a new teacher takes over a class, be it a planned takeover like a student teacher or a long-term sub in an emergency? How do we rebuild relationships with students who had finally started to trust the previous teacher? And how do we do this is a hurry, fast, without the leisure of the first slow weeks of school? Second quarter is upon us, we’re a quarter of the way through the year, there’s no time to stop and bond, we have curriculum to cover.

But is that the right call? Do we start on day 39 without the building blocks of all those early learning experiences? Or do we stop to take the time to rebuild, to establish community, to begin again?

What’s best for our students?

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.