An Open Letter To The Students Of 2020

Dear Students of 2020, 

Here you are! You are stepping into a world where no one has gone before. You are attempting to continue your education during a global pandemic. Someday your kids and grandkids are going to read about you in history books. 

They are going to read about your Chromebooks and iPads sent home to you from your schools for virtual learning. 

The face mask mandates in the districts and the creative face shields to replace masks.

They are going to see pictures of desks 6 feet apart and hanging sheets of clear plastic hung strategically throughout the school. 

Books and articles will talk about hybrid learning at home part-time, and at school for the rest of the time. 

It will highlight the stress of teachers, parents, and the stress of you as the student. 

You are being asked to learn on platforms that are still developing instead of classrooms that have been established for centuries. 

We are asking you to rise up and take a step into the darkness. The darkness of the unknown for our future. The unknown of when “normal” school full of chatting friends sitting nearby, tag at recess, and less than 6 feet apart for group work, will resume. 

It’s hard, and it’s scary, and you are the pioneers for this. Your feedback on Zoom meetings, Google Classroom assignments, and in-person lectures with adapted seating will drive our school system to success as teachers, administration, and parents navigate and troubleshoot this new layout of education. 

To the students of the 2020-2021 school year, our future is in your hands more than it has ever been in student’s hands before. And we trust you. Together, we can make it through and create a better world for those to come. 

You’ve got this. 

Learning Acceptance And Tolerance While Teaching Christmas Traditions

In 4th grade, I had this teacher who was nothing short of magnificent. She would get so excited about everything that just had a way of lighting a fire in everyone to learn. 4th grade, in my opinion, has some of the best curricula as well, state history! Since I grew up in Idaho she taught us all about Lewis and Clark, the pioneers, and the Appaloosa horse, our state horse. 

She also did a read-aloud every day after lunch. We would come in from recess, turn off the lights, and she would read to us as if we were in the story ourselves. I distinctly remember her reading Earthquake Terror and being so terrified myself because I was convinced I was in the water with these two siblings holding onto logs for dear life. Because of her, I will always 

One of my favorite units she taught was about Christmas around the world. It wasn’t required curriculum to teach, especially now with common core state standards, but something she felt was important to include in her teaching each December. Looking back, I am realizing it didn’t just teach us what each country saw Santa Claus as, but also taught us inclusion. Tolerance. Diversity. Loving. Acceptance. And more. 

Here is a great article on a few things I learned about Swiss Christmas.

We spent time researching multiple countries, what they ate around the holidays, traditions they have, and the values they held close. At the end of the unit, we had one big potluck of each type of food that we were even able to try ourselves! Talk about exposure to culture! I also want you to understand that I grew up in the sticks of Idaho. Ucon, Idaho to be exact. In Ucon, there was one elementary school, and then we had to “go into town” to attend Jr. High and high school. It was and still is, a farming community with very little diversity. So my teacher taking the time to teach us culture and give us exposure to something different was huge. 

I’m grateful for a teacher that took the effort to give us these opportunities and teach us beyond the test, especially in the early 2000s when being less aware of others was more common. I am not sure if she is still teaching to this day, but if she is, I cannot imagine the impact she is making on this world, given the impact she had in just my life. 

Amidst The Negative, You’re Doing A Good Job

One month before my first-grade year started, I received a letter from my teacher welcoming me to class. To start off my full career as a student, this was a great way to begin. I beamed with pride reading the words my soon-to-be teacher left for me in my mailbox. I knew this year would be extraordinary. 

Our first library trip as a first-grade class was overwhelming for me. I loved reading and I loved books, but I had a hard time choosing with all of the options in front of me. When library time was over and I was about to leave the room empty-handed of something I loved so much, tears overcame my little 6-year-old body. My teacher ran to my aid and led me straight to the shelf I never knew I needed. Books by Ann M. Martin. The Babysitters Club. She told me I would really enjoy them and that it was perfect based on my reading level. This simple act gave me the confidence in her that I could trust her judgment and that she would always be in my corner when I needed her. 

Fast forward to the winter. I was out playing in the snow with friends, too far from the school to hear the recess bell. I walked into the classroom 20 minutes late (it felt like over an hour to me). I felt bad for not following protocol and not paying closer attention to the bell, I knew I would be in trouble. However, it got worse when the blue board came into play… 

The blue board was a public shame. It was a big board with two columns and everyone’s name running down the left, white side. When an individual did something wrong (like come in from recess 20 minutes late), their name was moved to the other side of the board, the blue side. No one wanted to be on the blue board. But walking into my own fate, my name was moved for the first, and only time that year, and my soul was CRUSHED. I felt like my whole relationship and trust with my beloved teacher had shattered in seconds because of one mistake I made. 

Slowly throughout the year, the trust was rebuilt and I truly loved my teacher and the relationship I had with her, but I always held the blue board moment in the back of my mind. I held it so close that at the end of the school year I said to myself, “Someday, I’m going to be a teacher, and I will never use a blue board. That’ll show her!” 

Fast forward even further to my experience as a pre-service teacher. Many college classes spoke of clip charts or “shame boards” and it solidified in me that what my teacher did in first-grade was wrong. I had a small run-in with a clip chart in a different classroom, you can read about the experience here.  During this very brief time of using a clip chart, I still held my resentment for my teacher’s use of the blue board in my heart. I knew how much it affected me, and I truly did not want that for any other student I taught. 

A few years later after I had graduated with my teaching degree and did my long term sub job in a first-grade classroom, I unexpectedly ran into my past teacher while on vacation. I sat and spoke with her for an hour and told her about my experience subbing the same age of kids that she taught for years and years. I asked her advice on certain situations, how she would have handled some of the harder kids I had to teach, and ultimately thanked her for being such an influence on my life, especially for helping me keep my love of reading. I never mentioned the blue board, because even though it was still something that I thought about often, I held no resentment 20 years later. 

But in the conversation, she said something that really stuck out to me. She said:  

“I didn’t teach in a time of educational blogs and information readily at our fingertips, learning new teaching methods took a lot of searching and dedication. I made a lot of mistakes and I worry that I negatively affected the kids that I taught. But then I hear from you the successes you’ve had and it makes me feel better, so thank you for sharing.” 

I found this so interesting that she spoke these words to me since I had not brought up the negative interaction I had with her. I held these words close and silently forgave her for putting my name on the blue board years and years ago. It also made me think about my own interactions with children. 

How have I negatively affected students? 

What positive interactions have I had? 

Also, how many more of my past teachers and professors out there are beating themselves up because they weren’t the perfect teacher every day, and could use an encouraging message from past students? 

Teachers invest their whole heart and soul into educating human beings and often focus on the bad days and interactions. Let’s all take a minute to remember that even if you made a mistake, you’re still a great teacher, and your students still love you. 

You’re doing a good job. 

Labeling Emotions In Kids VS. Feeling Empathy

I was sitting in my economics class in high school, it was finals week. This class was a college credit for me so it was important that I did well. I studied the material and came prepared to get a good grade on my test, I knew the content and was prepared to show it. 

My teacher walked around the quiet room passing out the tests. He placed a one on my desk, and then put his hand on my shoulder. 

“You seem anxious,” he whispered, “Do you want to take this test in the resource room where you can sit in a quiet corner and focus better? It may help your anxiety.” 

Right away, I started to panic, was I anxious? Did I need a quiet room to test in? I was confident in my testing ability before, but this went out the window faster than my thoughts could finish processing. He told me I was anxious, so obviously I was. 

I truly know that my teacher meant well and that he never wanted to cause me more harm or anxiety. He was looking out for me, as well as other students, and tried feeling empathy and create genuine relationships with his students in order to teach us how we needed to be taught. 

But this experience made me think a lot about labeling a child’s emotions for them versus feeling empathy. What’s the difference? 

Labeling emotions is telling kids what they are feeling before they have the chance to tell you what they are feeling. 

Feeling empathy is giving a child the chance to process their own emotions, tell you what they are feeling, and then helping them feel those emotions. 

Emotions must be taught and understood so that students can label their feelings themselves before we create unnecessary labels for them, even if we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts. 

Looking back on my experience of having a teacher label my emotions, I have thought many times about what a better approach might have been for him to take. 

Instead, he could have said: “How are you feeling about this test?” and waited to hear if I was confident, or worried. 

He could have also given me affirmation about my testing ability by saying, “I know you have worked hard in this class and to study for this test, especially when you came in during lunch to ask further questions on material you didn’t understand. You will do great.” 

It was a learning moment for me to watch what I was saying to my own students so that they can feel and process their own emotions, instead of me placing the burden of what I thought they were feeling on them. 

It took time, practice, and dedicated effort, but the results were worth it. 

What do you do to make sure you are genuinely feeling empathy instead of labeling emotions in your students? 

The Power of Authentic Praise in the Classroom: My Personal Experience

I had a student once, you know the student. The one that pushes buttons, tests boundaries, and always seems to say just the right things to upset you. He was difficult to have in the classroom and a challenge for every teacher, resource aid, and adult that walked the halls of the school. In my attempt to reach this student and use him as a powerful player in the classroom, not a distraction, I found research on praising in a positive, genuine way and the impact it can have on students. 

In short, I found in my research that we should be praising students genuinely, immediately, unexpectedly, and both publicly and privately. It should also be honing in on your own feelings, not said in a general sense. For example, instead of saying, “Good job on your book report” if you phrase it more in a sense of, “I was really impressed by your book report, I can see how hard you worked on it.” it will come across as more personal and elicit more feelings of accomplishment in the student. After coming forward with these findings, I was ready to apply them in my classroom with not only my difficult student but all of my students. 

It started slowly, I gave authentic, specific praise as often as possible, but whole class and individual students. However, I found that it was harder to give this type of praise to the harder students that didn’t seem to naturally follow directions like the rest of the class. 

One day, my particularly hard student (we’ll call him Johnny) was having an especially rough day. On the way out to recess, I saw him shove a notebook I had never seen before into his desk. “Hey Johnny, can I see that really fast?” Instantly he was defensive and hesitant because he was expecting to be reprimanded for it. I reassured him he wasn’t in trouble and just wanted to take a peek at something I found interesting on the cover. 

Right away I saw incredible artwork cover the front. I flipped through a few pages and found sheets and sheets of dedicated time and effort. My initial thought was that if he can spend this much time creating something like this, why isn’t he spending five minutes on his math homework? But then I had to change my thinking. 

“Oh, Johnny. This is absolutely outstanding! Did you create this all on your own? I love the attention to detail you gave this drawing.” 

He instantly was quiet and his cheeks red with embarrassment. I could tell fairly fast that this type of praise was not common for him, he wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew it was something that needed to become more and more common with my speaking not only to him, but again, every single student I came in contact with. 

I started putting in extra effort into praising my students in an authentic way and started seeing a difference in my students. 

They started trying a little harder. 

They saw the hard work they were putting forth too. 

They started complimenting their peers and even myself in the same way.

Our classroom became an even more enjoyable, positive place. And on top of that, my little Johnny had a different attitude about learning and school in general. He sought to receive praise in his hard work. Don’t get me wrong, we still had struggles and I worked hard to motivate him the rest of the time! But deep down he truly did try to find that encouragement to keep going. He was easier to understand, and I truly found happiness in his drawings, especially when he would create something specifically for me! 

Ideally what I took away from this was that a little more effort in praise can go a long way if we take the time. 

The Worst Phone Call I’ve Made to a Parent

My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone. I was about to make a phone call to a parent of one of my best first-grade students, a call that I never thought I would have to make during my time teaching, especially during my very first teaching experience.

“Hi, Mrs. Johnson, it’s Mrs. Ross, your daughter’s teacher right now while her regular teacher is on maternity leave. I’m calling about your daughter, we had an incident today that I need to let you know about. While we were doing an activity with scissors, a boy in the class took a pair to your daughter’s braid and cut off the end of it. It was about an inch of hair and she is devastated. Do you mind talking to her for a little bit?” 

When the phone was handed back to me a few minutes later, I apologized over and over to her. I couldn’t believe that something like that happened in my classroom. All of the reminders of procedures and the rules we had in place for using scissors, it all went out the door the second the little boy put the scissors up to her hair. I felt like a failure as a teacher. 

Her mom came to pick her up from school early, she was too upset to make it through the school day. Proper action was taken on the situation with both students, and at the end of the day when all of them filed out of my classroom, I finally let my emotions show. I sat with other teachers in the copy room while we prepped for the next day and I told them how awful I felt about the situation. All of them helped me feel better by swapping their own stories of situations they have been in with students throughout their years of teaching, it helped me realize I wasn’t alone, others had been in this boat before too. 

What really helped most was my conversation with this little girl’s mom the next day. She dropped her off at school in the morning with a fresh new haircut and I continued to apologize to each of them again. Her mom responded by letting me know that she wasn’t upset in the slightest, either at me or the other student. These kids are seven years old, they are unpredictable and emotional human beings and it would be impossible for me to keep my eyes on each of them at all times, it wasn’t my fault. She even ended the conversation by asking if she could volunteer for anything, even if it was just cutting up things for me (since we had a new classroom rule of NO SCISSORS ALLOWED until I could get over what had happened). 

I expected her to be more upset with me, blaming everything on me, so to have her be understanding and in my corner was refreshing and uplifting. It really made me realize how much we as teachers need parents. They can be your advocate in bad situations. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dealt with my fair share of difficult parents too, but that doesn’t mean they are all that way. Even though I was only in a long-term substitute teaching job, I wish I could have gone back and utilized parents more from the beginning. They really can be your best tool, if you let them in. 

I truly am curious, what is one of your worst teaching memories that you can hopefully look back on and laugh now? 

My #OneWord2019 Almost Broke Me. Carefully Choosing My #OneWord2020

Hi, all! Mary Wade here again for a couple of posts as I wrap up my winter break. It has been a much-needed time, filled with family snuggles, house projects, and even potty training. I am feeling ready to jump back into the kindergarten fray on Monday. But first, I’d like to start with my one word goal for 2020.

I have loved my one word goal journey.

2017’s year of synthesis brought clarity and connection.

2018’s year of power brought hope and resolve.

And 2019’s year of flexibility has brought, well…more than I bargained for.

Choosing flexibility has yielded tremendous growth and opportunities. But the truth is, that discomfort nearly brought this planning-centric TeacherMom to a breaking point. Accepting a last-minute kindergarten teaching position, trying daycare for the first time, stepping into the spotlight on an sharp local political issue–none of these are arenas I would have imagined for myself. And all had me exclaiming out loud a few times, “I take it all back on growth mindset being a good thing!!

Of course, this is exactly why flexibility was exactly what I needed. Both figuratively and literally, by the way–I’m pleased to share that I can now touch my toes after a year of trying to stretch as often as possible!

But as I ponder the intensity of this last year’s one word goal, and the seriousness of all my one word goals thus far, I think the time has come for a year of…joy. Not that these previous years have not brought joy, and not that I want to retreat from the stretching and growing that has been so valuable for me.

One of my favorite photos I took last year.

It’s that I recognize that for me, the exercise of identifying joy–especially amid difficulty–will yield at least as much growth as might the weightier-sounding endeavors like “discipline” or “grit.” My strength in planning can quickly become my weakness as I’m prone to excessive regimentation and delayed gratification, pushing aside frivolity if I feel like it will stand in the way of productivity.

This year, I will choose to embrace messy interruptions and the bouts of silliness that come with raising and teaching children. I will choose to deliberately linger on moments of wonder and delight, seeking out new ways to document, savor, and share. I will also choose to notice when pressure to perform threatens to swallow the joy from my days.

I look forward to this year of joy and the new and different ways I hope to grow!