Teachers & Parents: Who Deals with the Pressure of Mandates?

“I just don’t know what to do. He has zero interest in the paper books that come home to practice sight words.”

Anxiety. Fear. Worries about falling behind. It was like I was looking in a mirror from several years back when I was stressing about my reluctant kindergartner.

Only this time, as the kindergarten teacher (and as a somewhat-less-neurotic parent than I once was), I was able to offer all the reassurance that I wished I had received for my kindergartner.

I told the parent, “If he is expressing disinterest in those practice books, please don’t push them. It means he just isn’t ready yet, and that is perfectly ok.”

That precise concern was what made me hesitate in sending home those books to begin with. They are part of a program that pushes reading faster and earlier than was ever expected of kindergarten even a few years ago (our state now has standardized testing even for kindergarten that expects them to be reading by the end of the year).

Schools here must comply with these standards in order to keep their doors open. And so, cushioned by as much developmentally-appropriate play as possible, we engage in guided reading, word study, shared/independent reading and writing, and sending home these paper books to practice sight word recognition, in order to coax literacy along.

But just because I’m feeling the pressure of the latest state standard, does that mean I should transfer that pressure to parents, or heaven forbid, to the children themselves?

There are those who believe that warning parents of the growing demands–that if they don’t push, the kids will fall behind–is a kindness; I can see why they would feel that way. They do not want parents to be blind-sided by the increasing pressures from grade level to grade level.

But we can equip parents with tools without alarming them, or putting them in a scarcity mindset with their young children that will only make children hate learning before they’ve even really started. It may be the teacher’s role to shoulder the pressures from educational mandates, but I don’t believe we need to push that on parents. Rather, we can focus on our shared roles as teachers and parents on nurturing a lifelong learner, on preserving and cultivating the innate curiosity we all inherit.

Which is why my weekly emails now include this reminder about those paper books:

“Thank you so much for doing your best to read these with your children at home. These are meant to help your child retain our sight words throughout the year, but of course the most important reading is the kind that makes your child love reading! Stories they choose, text you guys identify as you drive or look at restaurant menus, and other forms of reading are all so beneficial.” 

As I often try to point out, capital “S” struggles–such as developmental delays, disability, and profound lack of access to resources–these are all caveats that should never be dismissed when making decisions on the timing for and types of interventions that might be needed. But barring these extreme circumstances, most children will flourish at their own developmental pace if given the space and resources to do so.

It just so happened that that readiness was closer than either I or my student’s parent thought. Not 2 weeks later, this parent returned and told me, “I don’t know happened! I did what you said and stopped pushing those practice books. And now suddenly he is excited about trying to read everything! It’s hard to keep up!”

And I just smiled to see this beautiful & familiar pattern unfold yet again: when in doubt, go with the child.

Last-Minute Kindergarten: Distilling What Matters Most

Hi, there! Mary Wade back again for a quick post as promised on Twitter a few weeks back:

Jumping from teaching 5th grade to kindergarten certainly made for a steep learning curve in those first several weeks, intensified by the fact that everyone in my family has taken turns passing around various illnesses ever since school started.

But now that things have finally settled down and I’m feeling more like myself as a teacher again, I’d like to share some insights. When necessity forces us to keep things simple, what matters most? We already know the answer, of course: relationships, relationships, and more relationships.

That was not really a surprise. But what did surprise me was what does not matter as much. It turns out that contrary to what Pinterest or other pressures might have us thinking, being a kindergarten teacher does not require…

love of crafts (nope; hands-on exploration through centers is my jam)

Our Look Closer Center is probably my favorite.

Perfect handwriting (I really thought this would be so much more important for kindergarten as they are learning to form letters, but it’s just been a great chance for me to revisit my own letter formation!)

Haha, one of my favorite discussions on the year so far! We wanted to know the difference before practicing writing our letters and numbers in shaving cream. I definitely did not anticipate the conversation would go this direction, but that’s kindergarten for you!

Drawing skills for labeling everything (kids are more than willing to help with this, and it creates more shared ownership anyway).

I love our class calendar. Students draw pictures representing each day on halves of index cards and then staple them up. They are always so proud of their shared work.
A few students volunteered to draw pictures of the different emotions and problem-solving strategies we generated together.

Every manipulative or tool under the sun (I felt crushed at first under the weight of things advertised at LakeShore Learning; I since have learned that an exacto-knife + recycled cardboard can make letter tiles on the cheap in a much more environmentally-friendly manner, anyway). However, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to my many incredible and generous family members and friends that donated all sorts of beautiful supplies and furniture to get my room assembled nearly overnight!

I didn’t have student whiteboards, but I did have dry-erase sentence strips, clipboards, and a basket. Viola! Student whiteboard for practice writing.
My classroom on the first day of school, thanks to the hard work of many family and friends.

Posters for everything under the sun, waiting and ready for kids (turns out, the kids pay more attention to things they help create anyway; and it really is OK to build things up slowly over time. I have had many moments where I felt the impulse to prepare something for students, but then realized that it would be a more meaningful learning experience to co-construct it).

This poster is full of “sneaky letters” students have found or made that I snap a photo of. It kind of makes me crazy that it skips around and is incomplete, but it’s been an excellent exercise for me to let go and let the students take the lead!
We talked about the different kinds of stories people make during writing workshop, and I drew pictures of students’ ideas; I ended up printing the photo of this discussion, and it is now posted by our writing workshop cart for students to remember possible picture stories.

Signing my contract to teach kindergarten 6 days before school started was one of the crazier things I’ve ever done in my life. But now, I’m grateful for the way that it forced me to let go of less-important extras, and to focus on co-construction, sustainability, and ultimately, better work-life balance for me and more ownership for students.

What are the most important elements that have distilled in your room over the years? What are you glad you’ve let go of? How have these decisions improved what matters most for you and your students?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What’s the difference between CARING for our health & WORRYING about our health, & why does it matter? #TeacherMom

My daughter and I got chatting about health yesterday. I told her that it’s important to care for our health, but that it can be a problem when we are constantly worrying about our health. I asked her:

“Can you think of an example of what it might look like when a person focuses on caring for their health verses worrying about their health?”

I was surprised by her response.

Thoughtfully, she replied, “I think exercise could be an example. Like, if you take care of yourself, you love yourself and want to help your body by exercising. But if you are just worried all the time, you might keep exercising way too much and get sick.”

Profound words for a 9 year-old. We agreed that if our primary motivation for anything is love — love for ourselves, love for others — we’ll probably be just fine.

This kind of thinking is fundamental to quality of life. Exercise is a positive concept, but when approached with fear/worry vs. love/care, the results (and the impact on our overall health) can be dramatically different. The same goes for relationships, food choices, and yes, even learning.

Helping our students get to the root of what’s powering their motivation each day is important. It is a self-regulatory shift with boundless possibilities for them to see their own worth — that they deserve to have a good education and that they can take intentional steps to move themselves forward.

This approach, of course, especially thrives in classrooms where teachers, too, are permitted the kind of ownership that fosters love/care over fear/worry.

Back to the exercise, I think it’s interesting to note that it’s easier to approach it in a positive way when we make it less of a burden. Specifically for me, this happens by embedding it into our transportation by walking or biking to our destinations (most of which are within 2 miles). Riding a bicycle is exercise that does not feel like exercise (it feels like fun), so it’s a wonderful way to foster joy.

How might we help our students see learning as a more joyful experience rather than a burdensome duty? What are ways we might initiate this discussion with our students? How might we cultivate a healthy approach to personal learning? Why does ownership make a difference?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Fragility of Our Children’s Self-Determination #TeacherMom

Self-determination. We have such good intentions. We all want it for our kids, and I’m sure most of us (including myself until a recent check) think we’ve got it pretty well covered. But then life gets in the way.

We get in a hurry, we run out of supplies, we feel pressure that we then pass on to our kids.

I had two experiences recently to remind me just how fragile the development of our children’s self-determination can be. I’m sharing not because I know better now, but because I know that writing about it helps cement the lessons for me.

Lesson #1: The first happened when my 8 year-old was getting ready for school. Combining her school’s earlier start time with the fact that she’s one of those kids that needs a lot of sleep to function, I had felt justified in lending a hand as she gets ready. Specifically, as she would sleepily make her way down her bunk bed, I would grab her an outfit so she could quickly change and then move on to the next task.

But when she woke up unusually early one morning, I turned everything over to her — only to find that she no longer felt confident about her own outfit-choosing skills. She wanted me to tell her if I thought the clothing went together, and I wanted her to be able to choose without needing anyone else to validate her decision.

I was astonished to realize how my good intentions had gone awry. How I had sent an unintended message that I was not confident in her abilities. How quickly she came to depend on me for a simple decision. How my desire to help solve one problem had created another.

Lesson #2: The second happened with my 4 year-old. The details are less important, but he had started to regularly say something very sweet, and we were quick to tell him how nice that was (you know, positive reinforcement and all that). One day, when he said it again, and I did not offer praise, he looked at me, surprised and unhappy. Again, I was astonished to realize that my own good intentions were actually getting in the way of something good. What was once something for which my son had intrinsic interest was now diminished by the extrinsic strings I’d attached.

Our kids possess natural self-determination. They have interests, talents, and capacities originally driven entirely from within. But it turns out this self-determination is terribly fragile. As enthusiastic and helpful parents and teachers, we jump in with our encouragement and praise and assistance, which props up something that perhaps didn’t need propping up in the first place. Instead, it causes that self-determination muscle to quickly atrophy as we train them to look to the grown-ups, the “experts,” for guidance, instead of looking within to the original source of those capacities.

I feel like I learn more each day about how I need to “get out of the way” of my children’s learning and growth. Hopefully those lessons will stick a little better for next time!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How My Kids Use the Google Home Mini #TeacherMom

Someone gave us a Google Home mini last fall. I don’t really use it, but we thought the kids might be interested, so we set it up. I recently found out I can view all of its history, which I found fascinating. Here’s how my kids have put it to use, most of the time without my presence. “Hey Google…”

  • “…can we listen to music?”
  • “…what are fake flowers made of?”
  • “…what do you eat for breakfast?”
  • “…start a timer for 20 minutes.”
  • “…how do you spell…?”
  • “…what should I be for Halloween?”
  • “…where do wolves live?”
  • “…are tarantulas harmless?”
  • “…tell me a story.”
  • “…are you a robot?”
  • “…what are orangutans?”
  • “…do you eat donuts?”
  • “…can you play a game with me?”
  • “…do you have a sister?”
  • “…tell me a joke.”
  • “…what author wrote Amelia Bedelia?”
  • “…tell me a fairy tale.”
  • “…when do you unplug cords?”
  • “…when do you go fishing?”
  • “…where should me and my dad go for our date?”
  • “…it is 9:45. How many more hours until lunch?”
  • “…what kind of claws do jaguars have?”
  • “…what’s 12 times 12?”
  • “…are fairies real?”
  • “…what colors can dogs see?”
  • “…how do you say bear in Spanish?”
  • “…what do dragons eat?”
  • “...how long does it take to walk between home and school?”
  • “…is there a Santa?”
  • “…what was the first thing people made with electricity?”
  • “…how many hours are in the morning?”
  • “…is the blue whale bigger than any building?”
  • “…what are very good kid jobs?”

I love the questions almost as much as the fact that they can so readily find answers. What a marvelous gift it is to have a record of the questions my children have been asking over time.

How is technology impacting your children’s sense of inquiry (like their ability to find answers to questions even before they can read), access (like their ability to turn on music and timers), and connection with the world around them (like their ability to feel like the information of this age belongs to them, too)?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Tolerance of Messy in Favor of Learning #TeacherMom

I like tidiness. I find myself struggling to think straight when my environment gets too chaotic.

And yet for the last several months, our family room inevitably returns to some version of this:

Not too bad, but when it happens every day, several times a day, and across every room and even his bed — it starts to wear down this parent’s sanity.

Lately, however, I have started to try and shift my perspective. I realize that the repetitive scattering of books can look like a mess…or it can look like rich early literacy development.

After all, my 2 year-old is not just yanking them out just to make a mess. He is just devouring them, sometimes flipping through the pictures, other times approximating the story out loud for himself.

When we’re in the classroom, the reality is that we can’t always handle the volume of messy learning — especially when there are 30+ students! That’s why it’s important to spend time talking about our shared responsibilities for our shared learning space, and making room for students to express how they feel about their environment.

We are currently working on learning to put the books back on the shelves, as well. But through this process, both with my very small student at home, and with our classroom students, it’s important to always hold aloft what matters most: the learning. It reminds me of a quote I’ve often heard:

One might similarly state, never let a problem to be solved become more important than learning to be gained.

What are ways a shift in your perspective has helped you navigate the complexities of teaching?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Ways To Make Room for Ownership with “Learning Targets”

I want to see students journey. I want to see them wonder. I want to see them trusting in themselves as they make decisions about their learning — because I don’t hold all the answers for what works best for them.

But I also want to see them given the tools to navigate that journey. I want them to see them feeling confident about strengthening skills. I want them to see them trusting my feedback as their learning consultant — because I can offer them guidance on their journey!

So where does the compromise lie, especially when we’re talking about posting learning targets, success criteria, etc.? After asking this question and searching out my PLN’s strategies over the last several weeks, I have found a few ideas. I would love to hear more of yours!

#1: Don’t necessarily make the success criteria the content itself, but rather the skills and mindsets students might need to be successful.

For example, instead of:

“Identify the difference between weathering and erosion.”

You might write:

“Clearly communicate your science observations through speaking and writing.”

#2: Co-construct success criteria with students.

#3: Rephrase learning targets as questions.

#4: Use James Durran’s “Boxed” Success Criteria device (I really like the big wall version). Read full post here.

#5: Allow students to plan their own learning time based on learning goals they develop (from the curricula & from personal goals)


Ultimately, shifting our conversations from what we expect students to learn to what tools might help students learn can be powerful. Because in the end, their learning is up to them!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto