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Archive for the ‘Personal Opinions’ Category

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!

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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.

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This past week, I had two days of consecutive conversations with teenagers who were trying to navigate the baggage they had inherited from getting involved sexually at too young an age. It is one of my biggest frustrations that no one (or maybe not enough people) seems to be talking to these kids honestly about the choices they’re making, so that by the time they get to me, it is often too late.

The first instance was a young lady who came in to see me because she has sought my advice before. Just that Friday, she had come by at the football game and discussed a relationship with a guy. Knowing the guy she was “talking to,” I had warned her as explicitly as I could without telling his business. She assured me that they weren’t dating, but were “friends with benefits.” I explained to her that was worse. “Why?” she asked me, “What’s wrong with that?” I explained to her that being “friends with benefits” meant that she was willing to give herself away without any type of commitment on his part. She was completely devaluing herself. She agreed I was right, and shortly after, went away…

Tuesday, she came in to tell me “things had happened,” and now everyone knew about it and was calling her names, and she might have a disease–an incurable one. “I should have listened to you.” she said, “But, he promised me he was a virgin…” Of course he did. The whole school had heard rumors of everyone this guy’s been with. But, she believed him. And it may have affected the rest of her life.

We discussed how she couldn’t change the past, but she could learn from this. I explained that the most valuable lesson she could learn is to value herself–that her value doesn’t come from a beauty pageant or from an older guy paying attention to her–it is simply because of who she is. I gave her a hug, and she left.

The next day, the second girl came in. She came to talk to me because I had seen the scars on her arm from cutting. She explained that she was doing it because it made her ex-boyfriend pay attention to her. I asked her if she really wanted a relationship with someone who was only in it because he felt sorry for her. She said, “I don’t care why he’s with me, just so long as he is…” The back story on this girl is that she had given this guy her virginity because he kept bugging her. She finally said, “If I let you, will you shut up?” My heart broke when she’d told me that. I explained to her that the reason she felt so attached to this guy is that she had given him her virginity–that that act creates a powerful bond between people, and that’s why it is not to be given thoughtlessly. I explained to her that she needed her heart to be healed and that bond broken.

Two lives devastated by choices. I realize talking about sex is an awkward conversation to have. I also realize that everyone has to make the decision of when and if they are going to have sex, and that THEY have to make that decision. My challenge though–to parents, to teachers, and to adults who have conversations with young people is this: No one says, “I wish I’d been a bigger slut in high school.” But plenty of people say, “I wish I’d waited longer.” Please be honest with kids. Counsel them on the consequences of the choices they make. When appropriate, share your own experiences–even if they include regrets. It’s far easier to be awkward for a little bit than to pick up the pieces after the fact.

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This past year was an amazing time with my Honors English class. When we parted company, I was intending to have them the following year for Honors 9th grade. We had a number of plans for activities, books, and writing to share the following year, and so parted company for the summer without a real goodbye, fully expecting to be together the next year.

When I went in for our teacher day, I was informed by the administration that I had been chosen to receive the history position I have waited nine years to get back. What an amazing honor–to be able to have the job I love and the opportunity to help tie in the English standards into the history department, as well as plan project based instruction. I was thrilled–and yet, my Honors kids. I don’t know what it is about that particular group of kids, but not only did I connect with them, they connected with each other. They felt at home with each other and me, and I was anticipating the opportunity to continue to develop them. The last thing I wanted was for them to arrive at school the next year expecting to have me and be completely devastated.

So, I composed a letter informing them of the change, affirming my support of them (and my gratefulness at the opportunity to shape their education), and a challenge to continue to succeed and make me proud. Thanks to modern technology, I could find most of them on facebook, message them (without being friends) and ask students to forward the message to those who either didn’t have facebook or who had messaging from non-friends blocked. While they were understandably disappointed, it has been neat to see their continued encouragement, in addition to the support of others for my new position. Transitions are a natural part of life, and each one brings with it challenges and opportunities. While closing a chapter in any book is hard, I am excited for this next season with all it holds.

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I have taught “The Tell-tale Heart” for years, but just yesterday (11/1/11), our discussion turned into an amazing teachable moment. I had been sharing about Poe’s troubled past and the speculations of his use of Opium (for which the paranoia in “Tell-tale Heart” makes sense) and his trouble with alcohol which seems to have brought about his demise at the age of 40.

After explaining these details, one of my students asked a very poignant question: “I don’t mean to be inappropriate, but if that stuff made him imagine all these things that made him such a brilliant writer, wasn’t it a good thing?” An interesting question.

I explained that any addiction may seem to have good qualities–a number of kids say that marijuana helps them focus or allows them to deal more easily with stressful situation. The problem is that those advantages are short term. Poe died at the age of 40, delirious in a gutter. That’s not quite the end we long for. What kind of writer could he have been if he hadn’t had an addiction?

Another student piped up, “It’s easy to quit smoking.”

“For some people,” I said. “A lot of that has to do with your family background. If your parents smoke, it’ll probably be a temptation for you. If they drink, you will probably struggle with that as well. That’s why it’s better to stay away from that kind of stuff. When you’ve never tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you have, it’s a lot harder to avoid. And the lie of that kind of stuff is to think you can control it. In the end–like Poe–it ends up controlling you.”

I love when a simple Literature lessons turns into an opportunity to talk about life. That’s why I do what I do…

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Yesterday, I spent some time at school in what has become my annual ritual: Praying over my building. A lot of parents and churches take time to pray for their schools, but it’s different having an “inside scoop.”

See, unlike those members of the community, I have the almighty key fob, which lets me in the building almost any time. Additionally, I know the faculty and stuff personally. So, I go in on a weekend when no one is there. I walk around the building, stopping at each door to pray by name for the teacher who teaches there. As I know their families and lives, I can pray over areas where they struggle as well. Also, I pray at each entrance, bathroom, and locker room for safety and protection (A number of our fights occur there since there are no cameras.) Finally, I pray over my eighth graders’ lockers and their seats in my room. The process takes about an hour.

While I realize not everyone believes in God like I do, I’ve found it’s a lot harder to be a jerk to someone if I’ve spent time praying for them. I’ve also seen teachers have breakthrough in the very areas I’ve been praying for (Ex. One teacher who’d been separated from her husband reconciled their marriage, as I’d prayed for her the beginning of the year.) It’s a true statement indeed that where your treasure is, your heart follows. And when you invest in the place you spend every day, you can’t help but be blessed in return!

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It’s the summer, so not much is going on on the school front, obviously. When I was travelling, I didn’t notice that I missed school, but once I got back in the area, I missed my students. Luckily, as a teacher, you are never far from an opportunity to see kids–even if you don’t want to.

If you are a new teacher, you should be aware that unless you move, you can never have a normal life again. What I mean by that, is you can never go anywhere without being recognized, so be alert. If you think celebrities have it bad, we may have it worse. Here’s an example:

When I left the house, I was just going to a friend’s house to tutor her in Algebra. I knew this would involve about nine hours sitting on a sofa (literally–she had a lot to make up), so I donned a pair of men’s pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. I wanted to be comfortable, and besides, no one’s going to see me, right? All went well until I decided to make a Walmart run about 11:00 to get some weed killer. No sooner did I walk in the store when I saw a student of mine and his girlfriend. Spotted! That’s just one example. Others include the mall, the movie theater (Where incidently I’m planning on seeing a number of students tomorrow for the midnight Harry Potter showing), Drive-thru, the gas station–Even Jamestown, Virginia, on Spring Break.

Knowing this to be true, I am very careful where I go and what I do. (Hey, I even case a store before I buy underwear!) Others, I know are not so careful and have been spotted going to bars, into strip clubs, etc. I guess my challenge is that if you are a teacher, you are being watched–ALWAYS. And remember, the old adage is true: Actions speak louder than words. What are yours saying?

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