How Vulnerability Lead To My Greatest Breakthrough

Graduating with a teaching degree in December can be a tricky thing. For me, I was in an area with too many teachers and not enough classrooms. While it may be an ideal situation for a school district, it was hard on me for finding work, so my solution was to sign up as a substitute teacher. Within the first few weeks, a principal from a nearby school called offering me a job as a long term sub for a first-grade classroom while their teacher was on maternity leave. I was overjoyed! The job wouldn’t start for a few months, but the teacher requested me to come in a few times to get a feel for the classroom and learn their daily schedule. 

I spent the next two months visiting the classroom about once a week, helping here and there, and getting to know the students. Right away, I could tell they all really loved their teacher, and even though they were excited for her to have her baby, they were sad to see her leave. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but immediately, I was intimidated. I felt like these kids already knew I was less of a teacher and that they would resent me for taking her place. Without even realizing, I started promoting myself to them, trying to prove that I would be a sufficient replacement. 

Every time I visited the classroom I promised them new things. “Guys, when I come to teach you we will do fun things!” My list grew and grew with promises. 

You love legos? Great! I’ll bring legos!

We can color ALL OF THE TIME. 

I have some super fun books that I can read to you guys! We can do read alouds all day long! 

Do you play the violin? We should find a day for you to play it for us! 

This was me showing them that I could be a fun teacher too. I was doubting my abilities, so obviously they had to be doubting them as well. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this would backfire. In fact, it only took one day. 

I walked in on my first day with the highest hopes and walked out at the end of the day in tears. Four kids had been shuttled to the principal’s office before lunch. During reading time we didn’t even make it through the text because there was too much side talking for anyone to concentrate. And walking through the hallways was a joke. I could not keep enough order to keep them in line, let alone quiet enough to not disrupt other classrooms. In fact, another teacher stepped into the hallway and yelled at the kids as we walked by because they were losing control. I was losing control. I knew I was failing. 

I had a 25-minute drive home to think about what went wrong and how I needed to fix it. As I pulled into my driveway, it all dawned on me. I never tried to be their teacher, I only tried to be their friend. And even though I truly believe in having a good relationship with your students and teaching to their needs, I also know that my prime role in the classroom is a teacher. 

Continuing on in my reflecting, I also came to realize that I actually didn’t have to prove myself to them. All of these inadequacies I was feeling came only from me, not from them. That night I sat down and made myself a plan for day two. Something needed to change in order for us to make it through the next 9 weeks together. 

Tuesday morning I started off different than their teacher ever had. I stood by the door, which immediately caught them off guard. I instructed each student as they entered to head to the rug for a meeting, to which most students gave me weird looks or protested because it was so out of the norm for them. 

Once we were all seated, I apologized to them for how the day had run previously. I apologized that I didn’t have better control of the class, that we were not able to learn much from the lack of management, and for the disruptions that hindered our day. I felt vulnerable in front of these first-graders apologizing for my mistakes, but it was a great learning moment for all of us. 

After apologizing to them, I laid out my expectations clear and simple for them. Talking while I am talking would not be tolerated. Walking through the hallways would look like quiet, respectful students who walked, not ran. Further expectations followed but ended with a powerful statement that I repeated to them for the remainder of my time there. I told them that they were the BEST class in the whole entire school and that they only sent me to be their teacher because of their exceptional behavior, and that I expected them to uphold this. 

Most of them did not believe me at first, they were known as a hard class throughout the school and they knew that. But I can promise you, I changed their minds by the time I left them. 

By the end of day two, I cannot say that we had a miraculous change. But I can say that there was an improvement. I took on the role of a teacher and it made a big difference. Little by little, we had better and better days. They were quietly walking through the hallways and raising their hands to speak more often. We still had our struggles and I still worked hard to maintain their confidence that they were the best class in the entire school, even when I was doubting it myself. 

I finally realized I had corrected my mistake a few weeks in as I walked my class to the library. They quietly filed in and followed the instructions of the librarian. Our school librarian looked at me in amazement and congratulated me. I asked what for and she said, “I have never seen this class behave so well, you are doing an incredible job with them! You must have been exactly what this class needed.” 

I had a little smile on my face as I walked back to the classroom. Little did she know, our first days together were chaotic and we hadn’t learned a thing, and it wasn’t necessarily the student’s fault, it was mine. 

I learned so many things from my long term sub job. One big takeaway that has helped me in my teaching is that classroom management is key and that relationships with students thrive after expectations are set. I couldn’t connect with them because I couldn’t gain control long enough to know them. 

I ended my 9 weeks of teaching with some of the greatest student relationships I have ever made. I may have taught them phonics and how to add two-digit numbers, but they taught me how to be the best teacher. And the most satisfying moment was when another teacher commented on how my class was one of the best in the whole school. I knew the potential was there all along, we just all needed to believe it a little more. 

What does your classroom management look like? How do you establish it with each new class? 

Cover Photo: deathtothestockphoto.com

A Lesson We Can All Learn From Mr. Meyers

I had a teacher in 6th grade named Mr. Meyers. He taught at the school across town for years, then transferred to our elementary school the year I was in his class. As sixth-grade students and especially sixth graders in an elementary school, we were determined to run the classroom that year, since we had a new teacher in a new environment. I’m sure all of you teachers out there know exactly what I am talking about. 

We were constantly testing his patience by requesting irrational things like, let’s only do math once a week! And, let’s have extended recess during our lunch recess since we are the last kids to go inside anyway! He was always working out deals with us so that we were both satisfied, such as, if we worked really hard all week on our math lessons, we would have Fridays off during math for free time instead. 

We all felt so in control. Little did we know, he had complete control and was also teaching us life lessons that I still carry with me today. 

One situation that sticks out so vivid in my mind was our seating chart. He created groups of 4-5 throughout the classroom and somehow planned it so perfectly that not a single person had a friend in their group. After making my fair share of seating charts years later, I am still baffled at how he managed to plan this one so strategically. Every single student was angry about the arrangement of the seats. 

I can still name every student that was in my group. David, Kelsey, Houston, Mitchell, and me. All of us had gone to school together for over six years now, some of us even back to preschool. And growing up in a small town, our parents even knew each other on a personal basis as well. 

Yet, until that day, none of us had spoked a word to each other. The same was true for the four other groups scattered throughout the room. The second each of us realized what had happened, we retaliated. We boycotted the seating arrangement, moved our desks on our own to create the new groups that we liked. We refused to learn or listen to what Mr. Meyers was teaching. 

I’m certain at this point, our teacher had felt like he lost control and probably panicked a little as well. But in time, he pulled himself together and called a class meeting. We discussed concerns and issues in a mature (sixth grade) way, then finally came to a resolution that we didn’t love, but we were pretty sure we could cheat the system on. 

Mr. Meyers told us that if we learned how to work together and be friends, he would move our seats. We whispered to one another that all we had to do was act like friends and he would move us. Simple. 

The next day the class put on our fake smiles and acted like best friends. 

“Hey, Kels! Cuuuuute shoes! Wow, you are SO LUCKY to have them, I wish my mom would have bought me the exact same ones! You’re so cool!” This was a very similar sentence I really did say to the other girl in my group. Kelsey and I were not friends. We were different in every way and I truly did not like her shoes. But we had to convince our teacher that we were friends! 

Our overdramatic talking and fake bright eyes were definitely noticed by our teacher. But not in the way we hoped. He knew better. He knew we didn’t just become friends overnight, but that smart man did not say a word. He continued on to let us speak to one another in chipper voices, pretending like we have been besties from day one. 

Slowly, over time, our attitudes changed. Our group would always ask Mitchell for help with math because we realized he was really good at it. And of course, Mr. Meyer had to be noticing that we were using one another as a resource! Look! We’re friends! 

Eventually, we found out that David was excellent at storytelling, although sometimes we questioned how much of it was true. Houston had a unique sense of humor that constantly had us laughing out loud, sometimes even when we shouldn’t have been. And although Kelsey was so opposite from me, we ended up finding out that we both loved to dance. 

The day came when Mr. Meyers announced that we would be moving seats. For a few seconds, the room was still. Silence hung heavy in the air as the class processed what was happening. We were supposed to cheer and be happy! This is exactly what we wanted! But what followed was everyone exclaiming, NOOOO! Please don’t! This isn’t fair! We love our groups! And the kicker is, this was all genuine. We really did come to love the people we were around and the friends we truly had made. 

Mr. Meyers pulled a fast one on us. 

He told us to become friends, so we pretended to be. In the process, we did find great friendship and positive aspects of each and every person. 

The rest of the school year our seat assignments continued to change over time, but our new friends were still there. Even continuing into middle and high school, they remained. 

David, Houston, and Kelsey eventually moved away before high school graduation. But Mitchell and I were still there. After the ceremony when the hugs and pictures commenced, Mitchell and I gave each other a look from across the way, because while we didn’t stay close through the years, there was always a little light of a friendship that never quite burnt out. And we owe that to Mr. Meyers. 

So why am I telling you this? Because my teacher my sixth grade year taught me crucial lessons that I have carried on to this day. 

First, I am capable of working with anyone. I have worked with my fair share of co-workers in a school setting and unfortunately, we didn’t always see eye to eye. But because of one situation in my elementary school days, I remember to look for the positive in others and can make a friend. 

I also learned how to be a better friend, because friendship goes both ways. 

The most important lesson, however, was that he was aware of us. He saw our strengths and weaknesses, then placed us in groups that strengthened each other. He wasn’t just there to make it through the math textbook with us, or make us write over and over. He looked beyond the standardized testing and taught us how to become better humans. Mr. Meyers sent us into 7th grade not only smarter, but more compassionate, more empathetic, and with more friends. 

He taught me what a difference one teacher in my life can make, and how influential they can be to students. Each student I now come in contact with I think to myself, will I make a positive impact in their lives? Or will I just be another adult that gives them a test at the end of the year? How I treat them is ultimately the deciding factor.

Let’s all keep a little Mr. Meyers in us. Let’s send our students on with not only the tools they need to solve problems and take tests but to make and keep friendships, even the unlikely ones.  Let’s make a difference in our student’s lives.

Cover Photo: Pexels.com

My Thoughts on an Ever-Changing World

Recently I had an interesting conversation with my grandma. She told me how in her day, back in the ’70s and ’80s when she was raising her kids, she used to keep her baby lying in the front seat of her car while she drove for convenience of nursing and pacifying them. She uses this in an argument when car seats are not present and justifies letting older kids go without seat belts. “My kids survived it, so yours will be fine.” 

But will they? 

The world she raised her kids in is a different world than the world I am raising my kids in. Cars were not even capable of going the speeds they are today. Freeway speeds limits were not 80 mph. Cellphones did not exist to distract drivers. 

Will my kids be okay if she just sits them in the backseat without the proper safety restraints while only going down the block? Probably. But at the same time, I think we need to ask ourselves the morbid question – How many kids had to die in order for the laws in a car to become what they are today? Just because my grandmother’s kids survived and were fortunate enough to never be in a car accident, doesn’t mean everyone was. 

We truly cannot compare the world our parents and grandparents grew up in, to our world today. There are worlds of differences, even in just 50 years. However, just because driving conditions have changed, does not mean cars are less safe. We know our cars can handle higher speeds and diverse conditions because they are safer and well made now. Seat belt and car seat laws exist to compensate for this change. How incredible is it to live in such an adaptable world. 

I also want to point out that our world has changed in incredibly positive ways as well. This article actually tells us what a safer world we are in today. Maybe we feel it is so unsafe and scary because of our ready access to news and media that was non-existent not too long ago. In my grandma’s younger years, ignorance was bliss. 

War rates have plummeted. Malaria cases have gone down. Homicide rates almost look non-existent compared to what they used to be.   

Our world is ever-changing, ever-growing, and ever-adapting. I’m interested to see what I will say to my grandkids someday that “my kids survived it, so yours will be fine.”

Photo Credit: deathtothestockphoto.com 

My Teacher Values

*Deep breath.* I know I shared last spring that I am planning on returning to the classroom in 2020, but I have decided to start applying to return to the classroom this year. Many back-to-school events have already started, so at the moment I’m looking at last-minute positions that have opened up unexpectedly, with little to no classroom prep time before the kids are in school.

I have said many times that there will be many changes to my approach to teaching and learning when I return to the classroom–it’s hard to know where to even start! So I’m trying to mentally organize and distill the strategies, ideas, & priorities that have meant most to me over the years. Not only do I want be oriented for a potential quick jump back into a classroom, but I want to be articulate when interviewing with administrators about what matters most to me as a teacher. So here are a few stand-outs:

Lens of strengths over lens of deficit ~Lanny Ball

Writing and reading workshops for independent tinkering & exploration. Marina Rodriguez (& all the teachers over at Two Writing Teachers!)

Caring for students vs simply caring about them. ~Taryn BondClegg

Helping students start with their why. ~Taryn BondClegg (also Taryn’s Questions, Problems, Ideas board, which I like a lot better than my old suggestion box)

#ClassroomBookADay ~ Jillian Heise

Self Regulation ~Aviva Dunsinger, Christine Hertz

“I intend to…because…” by Marina Gijzen

Culture of agency ~ Edna Sackson

Culture of inquiry ~ Kath Murdoch

Soft Starts ~ Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

Need for cultivating both reading skills and love of reading ~ Pernille Ripp

Holistic, integrated approaches to subjects ~ Anamaria Ralph

Learning through play ~ Kelsey Corter

I don’t know exactly what the future holds at this moment (keep in mind that this post is queued up and changes may happen before this actually publishes!) But I do know that, although I have missed being in the classroom over the last 5 years, I am profoundly grateful for the time I’ve had to read, learn, and discuss learning with teachers all over the world. They have been so generous with their own learning and strategies. A PLN is truly an incredible gift! Thank you to all here, and to many more not on this particular list!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How A Well-Run Classroom is Like a Well-Run Safe Routes to School Program

Last week, I came across this tweet from Amy Fast:

We cannot change human behavior by solely providing consequences & discipline. You also cannot change human behavior by solely empathizing & supporting. It’s often the combination of hope AND discomfort that ultimately compels us to change. This is true in education & in society.— Amy Fast, Ed.D. (@fastcrayon) April 5, 2019

Immediately, my mind went to my efforts over this school year with Safe Routes to School. One of the very first things we learned is that a successful SRTS program requires comprehensive efforts from all of the 6 E’s: Engineering, Enforcement, Encouragement, Education, Evaluation, & Equity.

When school leaders are frustrated that parents are disregarding their Safe Routes programs or policies, it’s likely the answer lies not in “entitlement” or “laziness,” but in a need for further support & guidance.

The National Partnership for Safe Routes to School has provided an excellent online guide that shares strategies and case studies for each of the 6 E’s. If you have any connection to Safe Routes at your school, I highly recommend digging in!

Back to the classroom. As Amy Fast described in the tweet above, we need a mix of strategies in order to affect human behavior. Here are my connections for each of the SRTS strategies to the classroom. Especially as some students struggle with the adjustment in coming back from Spring Break, I hope this is a timely post for anyone looking for ways to bolster their classroom culture!

Engineering: In Safe Routes, this is design. It might be crosswalks, bulb-outs, flashing lights. In our classrooms, it is how we construct that “third teacher” for learning & appropriate behavior.

Enforcement: In Safe Routes, this is police or safety patrol monitoring. In our classrooms, this comes back to our classroom expectations.

  • Do you hold regular class meetings to help reinforce expectations? Key here is regular; if they only happen to lecture students for poor behavior, they will not be as effective as meetings that students know they can always depend on for housekeeping outlets & community-building.
  • Do you emphasize and purposefully work on developing self-regulation skills?

Encouragement: In Safe Routes, this is fun, excitement, & interest. In our classrooms, this is the way we celebrate together & make our classrooms places to look forward to being in.

Education: In Safe Routes, this is providing safety training & spreading awareness of SRTS goals. In our classrooms, this is ongoing efforts to work toward the why & how of learning & behavior (and not just the what).

Evaluation: In Safe Routes, this is assessing our effectiveness & program course-correction. In our classrooms, this is assessments for our content, yes, but it’s also assessing the culture in our classroom.

Equity: In Safe Routes, this is accessibility, normalization, & stakeholder voices. In our classrooms, it’s the same thing!

This is not intended as a comprehensive or a condemnatory list. Just as a Safe Routes program is always tinkering and working toward stronger strategies, so, too, will we tinker & experiment with our teaching and learning. What are other strategies you would bring to the table?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

My #OneWord2019: Power in Flexibility

Take a minute to watch this artful video by RC Cone called, “trees, they move.”

Equally thought-provoking was the description added:

“Riding my bike home on these dark, windy nights has helped me realize that trees move more than our opinions, beliefs, fashions, discriminations, and judgements but still stay firmly rooted. They’re REALLY flexible.”

~RC Cone

I learned so much from my 2018 one word goal of power. It was incredible to engage with my community and learn that we all have so much more influence than we realize, especially when we find others who share our passions (see my mid-year reflection here).

It feels like a very natural progression to take all that passion and funnel it into my 2019 one word goal: flexible. No matter how sure we feel about our positions and crusades, we are always stronger when we seek understanding and empathy, and that takes a lot of flexibility.

I also need this one word in a literal sense. I still remember a P.E. teacher telling me that I was the most inflexible kid she had ever seen, and for some reason, things haven’t spontaneously improved over the last 20 years. And my back is especially starting to pay the price. I hope that as I work physical stretching into my daily routine, I will have a natural reminder to find ways to be flexible in all circumstances.

Just as those powerful trees stay firmly rooted, so will I. But I look forward to finding out how flexible I can become!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Top 20 Posts That YOU Wrote in 2018

Over the last week, I’ve shared my favorite books from 2018

…my most-read posts I published in 2018

…and today, I share my favorite blog posts that you wrote in 2018. 

I deeply enjoy all three annual reflections for different reasons. This one is a celebration of learning, which means it might be my favorite. As most readers here know, I am presently away from the classroom to be at home with my very small students. It has been 4 ½ years now, and while I am grateful for this precious opportunity, I feel profoundly indebted to the many teachers across the world who have taken the time to share their learning, thinking, and questions. It has allowed me to continue to grow as a professional, and it keeps me feeling excited for the day I will jump back in!

So here are 20 posts, in no particular order, that most provoked my thinking this year. Thank you very much, and please keep sharing your learning!

#1: Adventures in Unveiling: Critical Pedagogy & Imagination by Sean Michael Morris

 #2: No More Cookie Cutter Teaching by Deb Frazier

#3: A Shift Toward Student Self-Reporting by Abe Moore

#4: Teaching While Parenting: Facing Struggle by Kristine Mraz

#5: We Don’t Need Saviors, We Need Leaders Who Are Ready to Form True Partnerships with Families and Communities by Kaya Henderson

#6: Timetables — The Enemy of Creativity by Michael BondClegg

#7: Getting the Mix Right: Teacher Guidance & Inquiry Learning by Kath Murdoch

#8: Be a Reader Leader – What Administrators Can Do to Promote a Reading Culture by Pernille Ripp

#9: Being Human by Will Richardson

#10: The Importance of Documentation by David Gostelow

#11: It’s Not Complicated by Donalyn Miller

#12: Building a Culture of Agency by Edna Sackson

#13: Armed with Books by Russ Walsh

#14: Why Teachers Are Walking Out by Seth Nichols

#15: Letting Students Teach by Mindy Slaughter

#16: Work’s Worth by Monte Syrie

#17: What Could An Agency-Supportive First Week of School Look Like? by Taryn BondClegg

#18: Step Away from the Stickers by Lisa Cranston

#19: Writers, Not Just for Workshop by Kelsey Corter

#20: Supporting English Language Learners: Using Technology to Increase Classroom Participation and Creativity by Jen McCreight

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto