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Posts Tagged ‘Encouragement’

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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Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher: the kind of day when the lesson plan gets thrown out the window (modified) and you just deal with life lessons.

We have been doing speeches recently. Public Speaking is an eighth grade state standard, and I had given my students the encouragement to pick a topic they were passionate about–either positively or negatively, explaining that if you loved something or it made you angry, you were more able to speak for three minutes, hold the audience’s attention, and otherwise make it easy on yourself. I knew I had a winner when one of my Honors students picked the topic of depression.

By way of background knowledge, this is a beautiful, popular young woman. What a number of her classmates didn’t know (which I knew through a variety of journals and her personal narrative paper), was that this girl had struggled with severe depression–to the point of having to be in an institution this year. When she asked if she should do the topic, I told her I thought it was an incredible opportunity to give meaning to her pain–to allow her experience to impact others lives. She asked if I wanted her to share her story. I responded that if she was willing, I felt it would help many students in her class that see her as this picture perfect image. Thankfully, she was willing.

Yesterday, a number of her classmates were out, so, while I could have had her give her speech then, I (with the remaining class members’ votes) decided to have her wait until today so everyone could hear.

Her 3-5 minute speech initially took about 7 minutes, with her stumbling around the symptoms and causes of depression. Finally, she got to her story. When she switched into that mode, she gained confidence and was extremely transparent about the reasons she had struggled with depression and her experience in the facility. Her classmates hung on her words. She shared the struggles she had undergone resulting in an attempt to take her own life. She praised her classmates who had been there for her to encourage her. She explained how she had learned to share her feelings with others and allow them to help her through her situation. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

I am thankful today was a catch-up day, because we only ended up having about 15 minutes for Shakespeare, Vocabulary, and continued work on research papers. But, as one student shared with her, “I feel like I used to know who you were–we had a few conversations, but didn’t really talk much. But, now, I think I have a lot more respect for you. I’ve seen what you’ve gone through, and what you’ve overcome. Thanks for sharing with us.” Those moments–the times when human beings truly are genuine with each other–are precious indeed. And in the midst of that, we were able to open up a taboo subject and show students that everyone has struggles, and we can overcome them, if we will stick together and encourage one another.

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Today, I had an opportunity that is far too rare in my experience. The story actually began Tuesday before break. I had two parents come in to meet with me. Their daughter had come to me in August about her habit of cutting and how her parents were trying to get her help. We had discussed the reasons she was cutting and the positive ways to deal with her emotions instead of cutting. I hadn’t really talked to her about it since. Her parents, however, started calling the school. Apparently, they had been trying to figure out who had been talking to their daughter. My name came up, so Tuesday, they came to talk to me.

In our meeting Tuesday, they had expressed their concerns for their daughter. They were hoping to understand what was causing her to cut and how to help her. I was deeply touched by their brokenness and loving concern for their daughter. I can’t imagine the humility it took for them to come to the school (the mom doesn’t speak English) and ask for help. I offered then to meet with them as a family and discuss the strategies to move forward. They gratefully accepted, and we set the meeting for today.

It was a complete surprise to the girl (not the way I would recommend, but how they chose to deal with it.) I set the ground rules of being honest, then asked the girl a series of questions about what the “triggers” for her cutting were. She explained the yelling in her house was a cause. I asked her dad about raising his voice. He explained that he had grown up in another country, very isolated, with little education. “I didn’t have experience in social situations. I don’t know how to communicate well.” I applauded him for his courage to come and admit he didn’t know and ask for help. We discussed ways to “slow down a discussion” and keep yourself calm. He and his wife were able to share with their daughter the things she does that trigger their anger, so we could talk through what each party needed from the other.

While I am not arrogant enough to think we solved everything in an hour, I think we made definite progress in each member of this family learning to communicate honestly and positively what they need from the other. I walked away from the meeting with a deep sense of gratitude for a set of parents who had the willingness to say, “My child is having problems, and I need help to know how to handle them.” I think so many parents have ignored the adage “It takes a village to raise a child,” and have seen the school as an enemy they have to fight instead of an ally with which to stand. I wish more parents were willing to ask for help–even just to find out they’re not alone in the struggle they face. It takes both humility and courage, but it can save a child’s future set the course for strong relationships in the future.

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Yesterday was a long day. I was supposed to go directly to help with Musical Theatre auditions, but ended up counselling 4 kids along the way.

It all started 8th hour when I had to break up a fight in the hallway. I finally got eye contact with the student I had grabbed (other students had helped with the other boy), and got him calmed down. I took him down to the office (frustrated because 8th hour is my most out of control, and I couldn’t imagine what they’d do without me in there…) On the way, he decided to punch the wall, splitting two knuckles and dripping blood down the wall. He was so mad, he cried in the office. The other kid had called a girl a “B” and when this kid had confronted him about it, he said, “B means girl.” So, the kid wanted to hit him. I explained that the instinct to protect a woman was noble, and I was proud of him, but fighting wasn’t the way to handle it.

When I returned to class (having wiped off his knuckles and the wall), they were all sitting in their seats (mostly quiet…) Miracles DO happen. I made it through the period, went to check on my kid in the office, and returned to class to get ready for auditions. Someone else was already there.

I’d forgotten I’d told a student he could talk to me after school. Sigh…He explained that he had feelings for a friend’s girlfriend (and she for him). He didn’t want to play his friend but really liked this girl. I explained to him how valuable he was and that he didn’t deserve to be anybody’s “What if something else’s better…” person. We discussed his future, and he gave me a hug, and said, “I love you. You totally made me feel better.” Now on to auditions…

Except there were two students in the hall. One just needed a notebook, but the other was dealing with trying to restore a relationship with his best friend who he’d ignored for weeks because of his girlfriend. His girlfriend had said they should stay friends, but now was mad that he was trying to restore the friendship. We talked for a bit, and he walked me down to auditions (for which I was now about 15 minutes late.) While I was telling him goodbye, another student walked up.

“Miss Brailey, can I talk to you?”

“Sure, what’s up?” (I’m expecting him to ask for help with English, since I’d told him I would help him on his work…)

“I need to figure out how to deal with my anger issues, so I don’t end up like my dad.”

Sigh–his dad’s in jail.

“Okay, come on in here.” I took him into the choir room (Which attaches to the stage where I could hear the auditions I was supposed to be helping judge faintly in the background…)

We sat down, and I explained to him that he has a choice. Patterns of behavior are repeated from parent to child unless someone deals with them. If he doesn’t deal with this, it will not only affect him, but his kids as well. He needs to say, “This stops now, and this pattern won’t be repeated in my family.”

Then, I explain that we become like what we focus on. I explain that always dwelling on what his dad has done makes him like that (angry.) I shared with him that he needed to forgive his dad–not that what his dad did was right–but acknowledge the wrong of it, and forgive him for it. I shared the example of Corrie Ten Boom and having to forgive the guard who killed her sister. Forgiveness releases us to not be held captive by another person. I gave him examples of how to forgive his dad. He said, “Wow, how can you know so much about me when I haven’t talked to you about this?”

I had the opportunity to pray with him, and he said, “Man, I feel so much better already. But, now what? What’s the next step?” I reminded him how to forgive and encouraged him to find men in his life who would pour into him, since manhood is bestowed by other men. He asked, “How will I know who’s the right kind of man?” I explained that he should look at the man’s wife and kids. How they respond to him is a good indicator of what kind of man he is. I also explained that he should pick a man he wants to be like and ask that man to spend time with him doing guy things. He had a coach in mind to talk to.

He said, “Man, you should be a therapist.”

“I am,” I replied. “I just don’t get paid the big bucks for it.”

He laughed and gave me a hug. I held his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “You are not your dad. You are not your brother. You are you. And that is enough.”

He thanked me and left. And I finally made it to auditions…45 minutes late, but with changed lives in the meantime.

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I asked a journal question this week which ended up being extremely eye-opening to me. The question was “If you could have one of your parents be someone from any time in history, who would you want as a parent and explain why.” The response of one student blew me away. Here’s what she said:

“I would want my mother to be is you, Miss Brailey. You push people to get good grades. Also a kind heart on how people feel. You care about how us students are doing.”

I know this girl’s history. (She’s the sister of the student I mentioned in “When did my life become Jerry Springer?”) Her mom’s in a gang and treats her horribly. Another teacher had mentioned an incident to me where her mom had come to get her from a practice that ran late and cussed her out in front of her coach and entire team. I can’t imagine this girl’s home life, and, though her sister (whom I never had in class) got pregnant at 16, both she and her brother are amazing kids.

I think of the things she wanted from a parent: Someone to push me, someone to be kind and care, and someone to make sure I’m doing okay. Not too difficult of standards to meet, but it’s amazing how few of our kids have that. Thankfully, for the many that don’t there is often a teacher there–in loco parentus–to care about them and push them to succeed.

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We’ve been discussing World View recently in an effort to give some background on author beliefs. I begin the discussion with the explanation that everyone in the world has to answer Three essential questions: Where did I come from? (Meaning how did the world begin), Why am I here?, and Where am I going when I die? I then lay out all the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Agnosticism, and Atheism) and explain how they answer these questions.

Next, we read Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne and The Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman. We examine each for the author’s beliefs. John Donne’s work is ordered and rhymed (design) and demonstrates his deep longing for a relationship with God. Whitman, on the other hand, writes in a free verse style (no rhyme or rhythm), and demonstrates his lack of answers to the essential questions. In his own words, he is “Seeking the sphere’s to connect.”

Usually, it’s one of my favorite lessons, as it provokes a lot of questions about a number of different things. This year, though, my mom came to visit me in the middle of the week. She had been watching a number of specials on this generation, and when I said she was welcome to come to school to meet my kids, she said not only would she like to, but that she’d like to speak as well. Shocked, I agreed.

Even my rowdiest kids were silent and attentive as she shared five stories. She began with an explanation that we are in a battle daily between good and evil, and that their age group is especially vulnerable, being at the age where moral decisions are made. She then shared the story of Joseph, explaining how his brothers had mistreated him and sold him into slavery. She explained how he was falsely accused, after gaining favor with his new master, and thrown in jail. Yet, at the end of the story, he had risen to prominence and saw his brothers again at a time when they need his help. He explains that he has made the choice to forgive them because he knew God had a purpose for all the harm that had come to him.

The next story she shared was about my grandpa, who was one of the oldest of twelve children. He had to drop out at eighth grade to help his family put food on the table. He went to work in the mines, but eventually began selling equipment, becoming so good that he was in charge of the sales distribution from Mexico to Canada through the Western United States. Ashamed of his eighth grade education, he consistently bettered himself through extensive reading.

The third story was about her. My mom has dyslexia, but determined to do well. While reading was difficult for her, she had auditory and observations skills which helped her learn and allowed her to graduate valedictorian of her class. She then went to college, where she graduated with highest honors and became a teacher.

Fourth, she shared about me, and how I had been born with a heart problem, and had to have three surgeries where I could have died. She explained that during my first surgery (when I was two), God assured her that He had a special call on my life. She looked my kids in the eye and said, “And you’re it.” She explained how God had given me a love for junior highers and that I cared about them. In a recent interview, students who had started out in gangs and drugs then turned their lives around were asked what made the difference in their lives. They each shared that they had someone who cared about them, and they had decided to quit making stupid choices. She explained that they had someone who cared about them (me), but the last part was up to them.

Finally, she shared a story from the war. A convoy had driven into an ambush, and after a bomb went off and they were being sniped, the sergeant was trying to get the wounded into the vehicles that were still operational, and he looked around to see a soldier standing, dazed. He said, “Soldier, get in the truck and drive!” The soldier responded, “But, sir, I’ve been shot.” To which the sergeant replied, “We’ve all been shot. Get in the truck and drive.” My mom explained that she’s learned that everyone’s been shot. We’ve all had hard times that we can use as an excuse or a launching point. Our job is to get in the truck and drive.

The talk had a huge impact on my kids, who all too often are tempted to use the circumstances of their lives as an excuse. Once again, it was another great opportunity to let them into my lives, and we were all richer for the experience. I think my favorite part of the day was a student telling me, “I really like your mom. I know that sounds like a ‘Your momma joke”, but I really mean it.” Definitely a memorable experience!

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