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This one took me a long time to debunk. If you are an insecure person, and let’s face it, most of us are when we begin teaching, the first time a person is disrespectful of your authority, it will throw you for a loop. Having my head packed full of exciting lessons and textbook examples of classroom management, I was stunned the first time someone was disrespectful of me. I internalized it. In my mind, if I was worthy of respect, they would respect me, so if they didn’t, it must be something I did. I spent months, running into years, before I realized that kids are naturally disrespectful, and as I said previously, you have to earn their respect. Finally, I was able to stop beating myself up and truly take the authority that was rightfully mine. I realized that I didn’t have to tolerate disrespect, and even beyond that, I didn’t deserve disrespect.

Now, let me take a moment to stress again: Respect is earned. It doesn’t come naturally. The weakest form of respect is positional. So, how do you earn respect? Honesty and Consistency. First of all, let’s consider honesty. Let your students be a part of your life. Tell them when you’re happy, sad, sick, going on vacation, having dinner with a friend, or attending a family birthday. One of the greatest times I have had as a teacher was the time surrounding the death of my dad about two months ago (as of writing–Father’s Day:  June 15, 2008). It was completely unexpected and happened in the middle of summer school when I was teaching the students I would have the upcoming fall. It was difficult for me, as I had only known them a week before my dad died, but when I returned to school, I made myself share with them, both who my dad was, my pain in losing him, and my pain in knowing that most of them didn’t have a dad like mine. It broke down amazing walls with them, and they were more sensitive than I could have imagined. I’ve met teachers that are so closed about their lives, they don’t want students knowing anything about them. This hardly engenders respect. Let them see you as a real person, and they will respect you. Obviously, there are lines with what you share, but in my opinion, an honest question deserves an honest answer, and boy, will they ask.

Secondly, Consistency is vital. First, let me release you: You will never be 100% consistent. You are, in fact, human, and as such, are prone to miss things, have bad days, or forget what you just told the previous student who asked. That being said, justice and fairness is something that students long for, and they look to you to establish it. Have a few basic rules that students know for a fact will be enforced every time. Apologize when you are out of line, or for those times when you have been inconsistent. A great book on this subject is Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones. He is an amazing instructor with a lot of insight, especially in the areas of establishing boundaries and being consistent.

Example as of posting:  On the last week of our 2016-2017 school year, a teacher I know lost her long-term boyfriend.  She is one who believes your personal life is not the kids’ business, so consequently shares very little about herself (to the point where she had told students she didn’t have a boyfriend despite their almost decade relationship.)  Then, when he died suddenly (as a man around 30), she was understandingly devastated.  I’m so grateful she chose to share her experience with the students.  Suddenly, kids who couldn’t stand her were crying with her–they saw her as a real person.  Those who had always liked her gave her hugs, words of encouragement, and added their tears to hers.  Yes, a few were still jerks, but for the most part, they were incredibly sensitive.  While I understand that personality may play a large role in this, I still tend to believe honest questions deserve honest answers, and being authentic is a great gift.

If you’re like me, this is the first piece of advice you received as a new teacher. Someone gave you a lecture about not being too friendly with kids and “professional distance” and the way you have to establish your authority early on. On this statement, I have one word to say: Hogwash.

This method may have worked in the time when children were “seen but not heard,” but the fact is, if you truly want to reach this generation, you have but one requirement: Be real. Kids today can spot a fake faster than anything. The more you yell and bluster, the more they will tune you out, or better yet, enjoy the fun of watching you throw a tantrum. I have heard students say that they purposely annoy certain teachers because, “It’s funny because he/she turns red and cries.” It certainly is not the way to win respect.

The adage you should be living by is this: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I have long loved the scene in Patch Adams where he addresses the board about emotional transference. I’ve adapted the words to apply to teachers as well:

“Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re gonna fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all–indifference.

Now, I’ve sat in your schools and heard people lecture on transference…and professional distance. Transference is inevitable, sir. Every human being has an impact on another. Why don’t we want that in a [Student/teacher] relationship?

That’s why I’ve listened to your teachings, and I believe they’re wrong. A [teachers]’s mission should be not just to prevent [ignorance]…but also to improve the quality of life. That’s why you [teach a subject], you win, you lose. You [teach] a person, I guarantee you, you win, no matter what the outcome.” (Movie transcript).

For a while, every new teacher was taught to answer the interview question, “What do you teach?” with the answer: “Students.” The point they were emphasizing is that the central purpose of teaching is the students, not the subject. If all a student needed was information, they would be just as well—better probably—just learning off the internet. But, they need human contact. Another colleague said it well: “90% of what we teach isn’t our subject matter—it’s the life skills—how to find your way in this world. It’s how to deal with other people in an appropriate manner.”

So, let your students be close to you. Enjoy them as people; let them touch your heart. As you truly care about your students, they will respond. I heard a conference speaker share that their standardized test scores had been raised dramatically when they divided the student population and assigned each student to a teacher who merely took an interest in how the child was doing. So SMILE! It makes a difference!

Introduction

When I set out to write this book, I’ll admit it was with fear and trepidation. You see, like many good teachers, I felt I was young and inexperienced with nothing much to offer. Sure, I was creative, and my students enjoyed my class, but that wasn’t any special gift, was it?

Then, two years in a row, I was asked to mentor women older than myself, who, to me, seemed to have it all together, and whose advice I should be asking, not vice versa. But, through those times of mentoring, I began to see that there was indeed wisdom I had learned that I had to offer. And so was born the decision to share it with you.

Much of what you will read over the next pages is just a compendium of the wisdom others have shared with me (kudos, Mr. Sundberg), seasoned with many mistakes of my own. I trust through this, that not only will you learn new strategies, but that also, you will be reminded of the reason you began teaching in the first place. (No, I’m not talking about the money or summer vacation, which frankly seems not to exist.) I hope to break through the lies you’ve been taught and set you free to be the teacher that you have been afraid to be. This book is yours. Take it; steal the ideas. Use what you can and throw away the rest. (Or as Mr. Norvell used to say, “Eat the chicken and throw away the bones.”) But most of all, be affirmed that you are making a difference every day, and that the role you play in the lives of your students is invaluable.

A Re-introduction

I started this blog almost seven years ago when I was in the process of writing a book entitled Life Lines for Teachers–a collection of advice pieces I wish I’d known as a beginning teacher.  I was new to blogging, but had been shamed into believing everyone who wants to be an author needs a blog.  So, I wrote–sometimes previewing sections of the book,  sometimes dealing with incidents that arose in the the course of the school year.

Then, the state made cuts.  By changing the complexity model to only funding based on free lunch, not free and reduced lunch, our school (80% free and reduced lunch) lost almost 20% of our budget.  Overnight, my building laid off 1/4 of its staff, and I went from teaching all of the eighth grade (a task in and of itself), to teaching all of eighth grade and half of seventh grade–all while writing the plans I was teaching, creating power points, etc. (an insurmountable task).  Obviously, the blog got pushed to the wayside–as did the book.  I had gotten a rejection letter from Scholastic, and while I had plans to finish it anyway and submit to other publishers, again, time was an issue.

Yet, often, things would come up, and I would think, “Man, I need to write an article on that.” *Sigh*  And now, the state cut another million dollars from our budget, so once again cuts were made, and next year, three of us will teach all of sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, and eleventh grade (one of our department is only licensed to teach seniors…)

Obviously, I will have even less time next year than I did this, but I realized in the course of travelling (and blogging) for another grant I received, that I have an unpublished book sitting and not helping anyone.  So, while I may not have time to blog regularly.  I should have time to post chapters from my book–and maybe occasionally add something if the stars align.

So, thank you to those who have stuck with this blog or checked in–even during my long absence. I hope what I post will be helpful!

Lincoln Hearse 150th Anniversary

Lincoln Hearse 150th Anniversary

Today (5/2/15) marks the end of an era.  While there were Civil War related happenings that occurred after today, the celebration of Lincoln’s funeral trail arriving in Springfield, Illinois, represents the end of a glorious 4 years of remembrance.  As a reenactor, I have thoroughly enjoyed having the Civil War so close to our thoughts during this time.  I’ve attended national events, visited battlefields and museums, and watched movies (including this week covering the Lincoln assassination and showing The Conspirator) and TV shows focused on the period, and attended countless other events.  With today’s event, that aspect will begin to fade.  For that reason, despite the busyness of the season for me and the struggles of coming off chemo and preparing for surgery for my friend, we decided to make the 3+ hour trip to Springfield–to be there for this once in a lifetime event.

We arrived in Springfield just as the horses were pulling the hearse down the street followed by a procession of reenactors.  But, we still had to park, so we actually arrived just as the formal program was beginning.  It was truly a beautiful beginning.  Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield opened with prayer, recognizing the fact that when Lincoln left Springfield to travel to Washington D.C., not knowing if he would see his friends and neighbors again, he left them in the care of God.  He explained that while many lost a president, residents here lost a friend.  A number of other speakers followed–each with a pearl of wisdom.  Governor Bruce Rauner shared about Lincoln’s role as a uniter of races–a relevant topic in light of recent events.

Reenactors outside the Old Statehouse

Reenactors outside the Old Statehouse

The military commander shared about Lincoln the soldier, and not only the way that he followed instruction, but the way that he led.  Lincoln was represented by a number of members of the armed forces from Illinois who also represented fallen comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The ambassador from San Marino to the U.S., Paolo Rondelli presented a Lincoln coin that had just been created in Italy.  Interspersed with these inspiring speeches was the music of a number of different bands and a choir.  My favorite was when the choir sang “Amazing Grace” shortly after the invocation.  The man beside me began singing along, I did as well, and before the end of the first verse, many of the crowd had joined in. It was a powerful moment.  What I loved most about this time was that each speaker painted a different picture of Lincoln.  As our group would later discuss, Lincoln was a man–he did many things I agree with and admire, and a few that I don’t, but all in all, he was simply a man.  A man who as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now (he) belongs to the ages.”

From the opening program, we headed over to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  It was an amazing experience, well worth the $15.00 combined ticket with Union Station (which I got for $8.00–Teacher perk…)  The museum really focuses on Lincoln’s entire life.  It starts with Journey 1, where visitors will track through Lincoln’s early life, his boyhood, jobs, courting, etc.  In the section called Journey 2, Lincoln’s political life comes to life and death, for here we trace Lincoln’s career as a young Senator, through his presidency, and finally to his funeral.

Entrance to Journey 1

Entrance to Journey 1

Each area offers incredibly lifelike wax figures portraying scenes in Lincoln’s life, but also shows artifacts from the period and gives information on Lincoln’s journey during that time.  My favorite section of the display was a series of political cartoons published about Lincoln.  I had seen about 4 or 5 of them, but there were probably 50 completely vilifying Lincoln.  I’ve long told students that political cartoons back in the day were brutal, and the ones about Lincoln are exceptionally cruel.  Just another opportunity to see a different side of Lincoln.

The dual ticket from the Museum also offered entrance to Union Station where there is currently a display called “From History to Hollywood.”  This display boasts sets and costumes from the movie Lincoln.  What was most interesting to me in this section was the wardrobe of Mary Todd Lincoln (costumes.)  I learned that Sally Fields is exactly the height of Mary Todd, though she had to gain 20 pounds to play the role.  Standing on the floor beside the costume resting on the steps, I towered over the top (I’m 5’9″).  How short was Mary Todd?!  About 5 feet tall–Imagine that next to the 6’4″ Lincoln.  They must have looked fun in pictures, though I don’t recall any of the two of them beside each other.

Lincoln Home draped in mourning

Lincoln Home draped in mourning


With sore feet, we headed to the Lincoln House, but, when we found out that the next tour wouldn’t leave until about an hour and a half later, we decided to just enjoy the outside and head out of town.  We made one final stop at Lincoln’s tomb to see where all of the family is buried, except Robert, who is buried at Arlington–I’ll have to look him up next time I’m there.  The monument tomb has to be the coolest burial place.  Not only is the monument huge and imposing, there are replicas of numerous statues of Lincoln with details of where the actual statue stands.  The walls also bear transcripts of famous speeches Lincoln made–incredible to read.  Finally, the sarcophagus for Lincoln is beautiful and surrounded by the flags of states where he or his ancestors had lived.  Just an amazing and appropriate place–and indeed, the perfect place to lay to rest this season of Civil War celebrations.

Lincoln tomb monument

Lincoln tomb monument

What struck me most is a statement Lincoln makes in his farewell to Springfield (transcript posted inside the tomb and quoted in the opening ceremony today.)  In the speech, he states, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.  Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.  With that assistance, I cannot fail.  Trusting in Him who can go with me and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”

What stood out to me was the fact that he had a tougher task than George Washington.  Washington merely had the task of building a nation (merely!)–Lincoln had the task of reconciling a nation that had splintered before he ever stepped into office.  And yet, he managed.  With faith and trust in God, he saw our nation weather devastating losses, brought an oppressed people to freedom, and kept our nation from splintering, all while undergoing untold personal losses–the death of three of his children and its affect on both him and his wife.

Close up of Lincoln Memorial

Close up of Lincoln Memorial

One of my students asked me this week how the nation would have been different if Lincoln had never been assassinated.  The ripples, I explained, would be vast.  With easier reconstruction, racial reconciliation might have been easier, perhaps even eliminating the need for the Civil Rights movement, as segregation might never have happened.  But, he also might not have been quite so loved.  Lincoln had been horribly unpopular in wide circles, but with his assassination, the tide turned, and people flocked to pay their respects.

But, regardless of what might have changed, the fact is, 150 years later, we are still touched by the legacy of a man who held fast in difficult times and saw our nation through.  His example of steadfastness in the midst of adversity is incredible.  May we strive to do the same today–to bring reconciliation to long held wounds, to hold fast to truth and integrity, and to seek to leave a legacy for those who follow behind us!

I woke up early this morning (my first back in the U.S.) thinking about school. I have been out of the country for the past month, and now have a little over a week until a new year starts with all the joys and challenges that brings.

What was on my mind this morning was actually an incident from last year. I had an incredible class last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them after the summer. There are very few years as a teacher when you have a class in which there is NO student that you don’t like. Last year was one of those years for me: No one that annoyed me, no one I hoped would be absent, back teaching a subject I love, just an incredible year. While that is an amazing thing, it makes preparing for this year a lot harder. It’s true that I’ve heard every year from at least one 7th grade teacher, “This is the worst class to come through the system!”, but by the time they get to us as 8th graders, they’re usually not bad (except the traditional 5 to 10.) The class coming up has mixed reviews (Some teachers loved them; most had a few challenges.) Still, going from the best class you’ve had in 10 years at the school to the unknown is bound to be rough.

So, what was on my mind this morning was an incident from the last week of school. I was in the midst of writing my traditional “end of the year” letters for my students, and when I wrote one particular student’s, I started crying (and I’m not usually a crier). So you understand, I put a lot of thought and prayer into the letters and try to say what I feel each child needs to hear. The kid that made me cry was a rough kid. He had had a hard life–more difficult than most of our kids who have hard lives. But, in the course of the year, he had shared bits and pieces of his story with me, and on a few occasions, I was able to see through the chink in his armor to the little boy he was hiding with the “tough guy” exterior.

When I read the letters to my students the next day, a number of students cried over their own letter, but his was the only one I’ve ever read that made someone other than the person it belonged to cry. I had warned him that his letter had made me cry, but he let me read it anyway (and I cried again, as did many others in the class.) When other classes came in later in the day, I heard the same statement, “I heard you’re going to make us cry.” I explained that some students do and others don’t, and that more people had cried in the previous class because I had when I was reading someone’s. They immediately guessed the student, so word had gotten out (as things do in a small school.) A student asked me, “Why did you cry over (student’s name)?” The answer I gave surprised even me. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe because no one else ever has.” The truth of that hit me like a ton of bricks. If even part of the stories I’ve pieced together about this student are true, his dad has never cried, his mom can’t stand him, and his siblings beat him up. So, in all likelihood, no one has ever looked at his life and loved him enough to cry for the things he’s suffered and the wrongs that he’s experienced. No one has watched him make bad choices and grieved for him. Whatever way he’s made, he’s made most of it himself. To me, that’s not how it should be. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten a huge heart for this kid without realizing it until I started typing.

As I gear up for a new year, I know some of the kids I will have are students that have caused a lot of problems for other teachers. I already know them by reputation or discipline reports, or from having to write them up in the hallway. And yet, if I keep in mind this situation from last year, I will remember that this kid was a student who had gotten in trouble, and who, from the exterior, made others assume he was trouble, and yet, I had seen a side of him no one else had. If I approach each student (remembering that looks can be deceiving), searching for that chink in the armor that will let me see what’s really going on with them–if I look beyond the external to the heart of a child, I will have no problem loving each one. And when a child knows you care, it’s amazing what kind of a year you can have!

When we came back from Christmas Break and headed into the long stretch of winter before Spring Break, I could tell my students needed a bit of encouragement. In a moment of honest discussion, one student asked me quite candidly, “Why is school so boring?” At the time, I gave him a typical, “You’re used to a more fast-paced world because of video games, so it seems slow…” answer. Then, I actually thought about it and discussed it with all my classes the next day.

While it’s true that this generation has never known life without cell phones and a myriad of other technology, it does not necessarily follow that school has to be boring. I opened the discussion with the question, “What makes school boring for you?” I explained quite fervently that I did NOT say “Who is boring?” So they were precluded from mentioning specific teachers by name. I really made them analyze what was boring about their classes.
The number one thing the listed was that the content didn’t interest them.

Then, I moved the discussion to them. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Tough Crowd’?” They nodded. “Well,” I explained, “You guys are a tough crowd. Imagine what it feels like for your teachers to look out and see this…” (I mimic their behavior, and they laugh.) “Do you think that makes them WANT to be passionate about what they’re talking about?” It’s beginning to sink in…

“Over break,” I share, “My mom and I went to Dollywood, and we got to see the same show performed two nights in a row. The first night, it was a good show, but the audience totally wasn’t into it. I still was pleased with our experience. But the next night, the audience was incredible–clapping, encouraging…The show was entirely different, even though they performed all the same numbers. The same is true at school. I teach the same material five times, but every time is different based on the audience. My ____ hour class last semester was awesome because they asked great questions, and we had some amazing discussions. Other classes weren’t like that. The difference is YOU!”

“What you have to realize, “I continued, “is that YOU determine what kind of class you have. This is 8th grade–all of your teachers have at least a college education. That means they know WAY more than what they’re sharing with you. So ask about it. When you’re covering material for class, look for something in it that is interesting. Think of how it relates to something you care about. Everything you study has something cool about it. When the teacher mentions something that’s interesting, ask him or her about it. They’ll have a better day because they think you care, and you’ll have a better day because you get to spend time on things you like.”

Now initially, we had to lay out some boundaries because they would just ask question after question. (I reminded them that as the one who EXPLAINED this concept to them, I knew what they were doing.) But, since then, we’ve had some incredible discussions–all related to the material we’re covering (At least loosely…). I even had one girl come up to me and say, “I tried what you said in Mrs. _______________’s class.”

“How’d it go?” I asked her.

“It was really good. Though then we had other things to do, so it got boring again…”

“Well, keep at it.” I encouraged.

Reminding students that THEY are responsible for their education too is always a good thing.