It Matters That We Remember Our Students

I recently ran into a former professor of mine from my undergrad days at U.P.E.I. I actually had been invited to attend a talk that he was presenting to a small group of people in his home- thus the reason for our paths crossing. As I was re-introduced to him by my friend (after a fourteen year hiatus from studies at the same university where I had first met him), I had already convinced myself that he wouldn’t remember me. After all, the class had been held in an amphitheater-style classroom- I was just a face in the crowd. A number on a spreadsheet.

Why would he remember me?

Why that mattered to me that he remembered me, is an interesting thought. Does it matter that teachers remember their students? As his student, I certainly remembered him- his style of teaching, his topic of interest- even some of the things he had said. But for some strange reason, it mattered to me- in that moment- that he remember me.

As pleasantries were exchanged, he assured me that he did indeed remember me. And he paused to talk to me about my life, work and writing. As we reacquainted, I remember feeling honored that a teacher at the university level would remember a former student from many years prior and thus take the time to talk to that student, me- showing an interest in who I had become.

It mattered that he remembered. It mattered that he was that kind of teacher that remembered. And I am of the opinion that it matters that we care enough for our students to remember them. To remember the essence of who they were when we were a part of their lives.

Can we always remember their names? Regrettably, no. This is a grief of mine. Can we remember all their likes and dislikes? Not likely. All the ins and outs of their lives? The ideas and beliefs they espouse? Their dreams and ambitions? Hardly.

We can’t remember everything, but we can remember something. And that something essentially is that we can remember the person.

It matters that we care enough about our students to remember them, that we care enough to remember the person.

I have students whom I still remember from my student teaching days fifteen years ago. Do I remember everything? Again, this is an unreasonable expectation. I sometimes find myself forgetting details as the years go by. Yes, I forget details at times, but I still remember the person. And I believe I do so in part because I challenged myself to take the time in the classrooms I was blessed to be part of, to be in the moment. To really make what I was doing an experience that I was present for, not just something I put my time into so as to make a buck. So as to do a job, fulfil a mandate or complete a task.

I remember because I made it a priority.

Caring for people requires investment. And when we invest our time- using that same time to open up discussion, opportunity, possibility and conversation, we have more of a chance of remembering. More of a chance of keeping connection. And it’s worth it to ourselves to remember the people who’ve touched our lives, our students. It’s worth it. Because those same students we remember, for better or for worse, are the very reason we do what we do.

They are the reason we are in this profession. The reason we teach.

So in thinking about remembering people who’ve changed my life, I wanted to share with you some students I remember:

That boy in my third grade class who brought his favorite CD in for me to listen to

That girl who loved to figure-skate, whom I drove forty-five minutes to watch practice

That boy in my high school history class who always fell asleep because he had worked at the fish plant until 11:00 p.m. the night before

That boy who I eventually won over- even after I caught him starting a fire in the school gazebo

That girl I wrote a letter to and read to her class after I watch her being bullied

That boy I would have followed to the moon and back after he shared with me what had happened to him that morning before he’d even made it to the bus

That little girl I knew needed extra love- and her parents too

That boy in my tenth grade law class who scribbled words I can’t even describe- whom I knew needed to be read by someone with more authority than me

That girl whom I nominated for a music award

That boy I sang a duet with at the school variety concert

These students I remember, these students I will never forget- for they are blessings in my life, even though I may not have known it at the time. Little graces that I have known along the path. People who have touched my life in this journey of mine as an educator.

True- sometimes my memory fail me. The details become a little fuzzy. The faces might even lose their defining features in my mind. But the person behind that face is forever etched in my heart.

I will always remember these students- their stories of hope, resilience, determination and sheer grit have made me the teacher I am today.

May I never forget the reason for why I chose to be a teacher. For why I am who I am.

It’s because of my students.

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A Teacher’s To-Do List

The air has that familiar chill that reminds us fall is nigh. A beautiful maple I noticed just this past week has already turned golden and ruby in color. The gardens are brimming with produce while the sun sets earlier on these late-summer nights. And for those of us in the public school system north of the 49th parallel (metaphorically and physically), school is just around the corner.

School is on my mind.

And if I had to write out my to-do list of what I need to remember this year, it would unfold as follows:

Don’t forget this year to take pleasure in each and every day. Make each school day an adventure of learning, discovery and fun. Start out the morning determined that you will not let impersonal mandates, formal goals and distant rules and protocol rob you of seeing the personal joys found in each new day.  Rob you of seeing the people who have been placed in your path. Welcome your students. Smile at them. Say hello and ask them about their evening. Look into their eyes when they answer- make sure to hold their gaze for those few brief moments that you have their undivided attention.  Listen.  And don’t rush these precious, tender conversations.  Relish the moments, both small and great that define your day.

Show your students you care about them.

Don’t forget this year to enjoy what you are teaching. See the topics, themes, courses and curriculum as the resource they are. Let the resource work for you. Choose to see the opportunity rather than the limitations. Begin each day with the mindset that there is something worthwhile learning and let that mindset transfer to your students. Infuse your classroom with positivity, creativity, possibility, curiosity and hope. Welcome questions- don’t turn them away. Greet the inquisitive mind as a delight and honor the questions that come your way. Each moment that you are given is a gift- hold those brief moments in your hands with care.

Show students that you care about the subjects you teach.

Don’t forget to reach out to the others in your workplace. See the various people that cross your path as blessings, even if that might be in disguise! Treat everyone the exact same way you expect to be treated back- with honor, integrity, compassion, grace and love. Let the golden rule be your guide. Welcome parents, volunteers, visitors and likewise into your school and classroom. Accept the ones you’ve been blessed to call co-workers. And respect each person as the unique individual they are withholding judgment and opinions that are based on unfair, impartial reasoning.

Show people you care.

And never forget to take care of yourself. Look after yourself this year. Be kind to yourself- don’t hold yourself to ridiculous standards. Try not to stress about the little things that no one will remember anyway. Get more rest. Go for walks. Exercise. Recharge. And although it might be unreasonable to ask that you leave your work troubles at your desk, try not to become a slave to your work. Set it all aside at times so as to connect with the people who are really what your work’s all about.  What life’s all about. Determine this year that you will set work aside at times so as to refocus. That you will set work aside to rejuvenate. And when you are ready, determine that you will come back to your work with a renewed frame of mind- ready to give it your best self.

Show YOU that you care.

And above all, let your care for your students, your work and the people in your life be the one thing that defines you as a teacher this year.

 

picture courtesy of thenextfamily.com

And may this year be your best one ever.

My Five Wishes for the Upcoming School Year

It’s August. And as it happens to be my holidays, I am knee-deep in summer lovin’. I have paint spatters on my legs from the fresh coat I applied to the veranda this afternoon, a good book waiting for me on the couch and the idea in my head of a glass of iced coffee just waiting for me to drink it. Thoughts of school, teaching and work might be a million miles away from my immediate consciousness.

But are they?

As a teacher, this time of the year is one where my mind drifts to ‘what ifs’ and ‘how abouts’. To possibilities. Summer is the time of year when teachers are finally afforded the TIME in which to breathe, take stock and think about what is yet to come. So while I am not ready to cash in on summer yet, here are a five wishes I have for the upcoming school year, set to start in a few short weeks.

1. I wish for this upcoming school year that we as teachers act on the principle that education be not only about the mind. It be about the person. That is, the whole person. I love what Nel Noddings has to say on the topic:

“…school, like the family, is a multipurpose institution. It cannot concentrate only on academic goals any more than a family can restrict its responsibilities to, say, feeding and housing its children. The single-purpose view is not only morally mistaken, it is practically and technically wrong as well, because schools cannot accomplish their academic goals without attending to the fundamental needs of students for continuity and care” (Noddings, 2005, p. 63).

What Noddings is saying here is that school must function in continuity for the purpose of caring for students as whole persons, not just merely as empty minds which require regular and constant filling up of knowledge. Students have minds, yes- but they also have souls and bodies which both require care and attention in the course of the day, along with caring for the student’s mind for academic, physical, emotional and relational pursuits. My wish is for educators to remember that there is more to student learning than simply pumping the mind with facts and information. The possibilities for growth and development are endless.

2. There is a lot of wasted time in school. Time wasted before school while waiting for all the buses to arrive, time wasted in line-ups, in wait time, in coming and going places. Another wasted time of day is lunch time. Sure, it gets used for eating and sustenance- but wouldn’t it be great if lunch time was an opportunity for growing community, in the very same ways that those families who see it as a priority use it to grow family attachments? What I am talking about, and this is another one of Noddings’ beliefs as well- is the importance of mealtime. Breaking bread in the very real sense of the word. Mealtime is a time to talk and listen, a time to discuss and reflect. A time for sharing and caring. A time when what is said is not evaluated and assessed- but taken at face value and respected. If students were given this opportunity, to sit face-to-face, as might a family eating a meal together, how might that benefit in a positive way the dynamics of social interactions amongst students? We’ll never know until we give it a try.

3. There is very little choice for students in school- very little choice for teachers either. We have all been given the required curriculum and asked to adopt it as our own. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if students and teachers were able to work together to come up with themes and pursuits that might reflect curriculum ideals, using them as springboards for further areas of study and exploration. Using curriculum jazzed up with a healthy dose of imagination, critical thinking and creativity to make these extra-curricular projects work within the existing structure? I think the sky is certainly the limit for those who give it a chance. Who knows what new interests might be sparked for learning amongst students who are currently disenfranchised, disengaged and disempowered. The time is now for outside the box thinking and teaching..

4. My wish for teachers and students is that we remember that each person we see sitting in front of us each day, standing beside us at our desks, walking along in front of us or behind us in the hallways- each person going and coming in the hustle and bustle: each person is a person. A person with feelings, thoughts, emotions, complicated baggage, issues, story, problems, joys, sorrows, hurts and pains. They are a person with more than meets the eye. And I wish for all those who find themselves in the educational milieu, that is MY HOPE would be, that we never lose sight of the humanity of the people in our schools: the humanity of the students, the staff, the parents, the volunteers, the administration and any visitors that might find themselves walking through the hallways. May we always be known as a People that care. And may that define each and every one of us this year.

5. And as a final note- may we have fun! Is it too much to ask that we find time to play? Time to laugh? Time to breathe, and wonder, and imagine, and daydream? Time to doodle, and draw and sculpt and create. Time to rest and time to work. And may we never forget that learning is a life-time pursuit. We don’t want to burn out the creative fires until the very last embers of life have been snuffed out, when we find ourselves breathing our last. May we always be found learning each and every day of our life- and may it be a joyous, delightful, exciting, inspiring and worthwhile venture.

These five are among my wishes for you all- for we are all learners. And for those of us who call ourselves teachers, staff and students, as we set off in another few short weeks for another voyage, another adventure of learning, wonder and discovery: let’s not forget to take care of each other in the process.

Carry on, comrades!

{You can read this again on the Huffington Post by clicking on this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lori-gard/back-to-school-2014_b_5656507.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-living }

 

On Boredom and Wonder

It’s a day to be filled with wonder and gratitude.

The water is absolutely crystal clear- so clear I can see the lines along the sandy floor of the ocean bed where little hermit crabs have dragged their hard-shelled home along for the ride. It is one of those blissful summer days and we are spending it, more or less, here at a little piece of P.E.I. paradise called Canoe Cove. My daughter remarks, “I don’t know why they call it Canoe Cove- nobody canoes there.” No, but they do search for bar clams, and skim board, and throw Frisbees and build sand castles and make fairy forts and carve out time for seal sightings. Oh, and swim. The swimming here is glorious. If you catch it at low or high tide- any time at all really, it is worth a swim. The pools of water just perfect for families with young children. Later in the summer, we’ll be back to swim again in warm August waters and then we’ll climb out dripping wet, ready for a rest on shore before combing through low-lying blueberry bushes just for a taste of that juicy summer sweetness on our eager tongues.

One summer, the daisies grew so plentifully, I plaited them into winding crowns and placed them on my daughter’s heads before posing them (safely) along the edge of a cliff so as to take their picture.  They obliged- as long as I promised to have a swim with them as soon as our photo-shoot had ended. We have had family reunions here in this place: birthday parties and rehearsal suppers the night before the wedding day. This place is home to me and my family.

It is a little bit of God’s glorious heaven here on earth.

Later on, we change out of sandy bathing suits and pack up our faded sheet and books and all the other beach trappings we’ve brought with us to whittle away the day. We pack it all in, and then we bid a wistful fond adieu to those we’ve left behind. Two grandparents, an aunt and a family friend. Beaches are the best places to re-connect. And then we drive the winding dirt lane, past the country church with noble steeple reaching high to the sky, so as to cross the bridge over waters lined with bulrushes. We then turn down towards farm country.

As we drive past the first field green with summer grasses, I notice a whole herd of Brown Swiss and Angus moving quickly towards the corner of one fence. It is the fence closest to the road, thus why I noticed this strange convoy. I can’t imagine what the commotion is all about as this is not milking nor feeding time, nor is this the well-worn path to the barn. What I do catch lying there on the ground, something I just happen to notice out of the corner of my eye as we drive quickly by, is a bright, red balloon sitting motionless on the grass at that particular corner of the fence- wayward remnant from a birthday party next door. The cows move toward it in frenzied furore. Their sole focus- the object of their intent driving this processional is the perplexing thing which has landed just inside the perimeter of their territory, an area they know is clearly marked for them. They stand back a distance, but every one of their soft muzzles points expectantly toward that bright colored, mysterious object.

They appear transfixed. With wonder, and awe and curiosity.

If animals can exhibit this beautiful combination of attributes and character, how much more then should we too be in wondrous awe at the beauty and miracle of the life we are living. And yet, twice this past week, I have heard school-aged children speak the ill-fated words: “I’m bored.” I wonder myself, what dis-service are we doing to our children that this little word has even become part of their vocabulary?

There is so much to wonder in, gaze at, fix our attention upon.

Life is too interesting to be boring.

William Ayers had this to say about teaching:

“Teaching is hard work, tougher than learning, because you must find an infinite number of ways to let students learn. And teaching is all that much tougher when you retreat from the spotlight, redirect the focus of attention to the students themselves, now at center stage. You place yourself to the side and become something new: the guide and the mentor, the coach and the conductor. You notice modes of energy everywhere, life and effort in a thousand directions. You need to summon new courage to teach in this place, a keener attentiveness, a more responsive style. One new challenge will be to create an environment for learning and living that is rich enough, deep enough, and wide enough to embrace and challenge the students who actually walk through the door (Ayers, 2003, p. 27-28)

The challenge: to summon the courage to teach in this way and to be ready to rise to the occasion for learning that is deep and soul-changing.

Recently, I took my students on a listening walk. Run down emotionally from constantly asking them all to settle their inside voices and classroom energies to a dull roar, it was a move done initially in desperation.  Rather than sound like a broken record, we took that excitement and passion and channelled it into an exercise in concentration. We walked as a community of learners on a dusty dirt road with the sole purpose of noticing things- both with our eyes and ears. With our hands and feet. We saw so much that we came back and wrote about it as a class, compiling our findings in a classroom book about bugs, and birds and flowers. About a farmer driving his tractor as he ploughed a field in preparation for planting. About cars whizzing by. Things we’d otherwise have missed had we not taken the time to be present in those precious moments of learning and discovery.

I never heard the words, “I’m bored.”

On Being a Learner

Teacher. One who influences another in their growth and development as a multi-faceted person. That we can be influential in this endeavor is an amazing bonus. Those teachers with influence are said to be difference makers. And it doesn’t take a B.Ed to be one either.

I have been thinking about that word ‘teacher’ for a while now, wondering what a teacher really is. Who a teacher is. What they do. And how one goes about becoming one. How one becomes influential as one. How a teacher can really make a difference. And in thinking about such, I think I might have found a few answers to my many questions today. And by that I mean, I was taught a few things by a few students of mine today. They- that is MY STUDENTS: they are, and continue to be, some of my greatest teachers.

Here’s why.

It is our very last day of regular classes, and I am reviewing. I am trying to use the last moments of kindergarten to the maximum of my ability. We do our morning routine, three poems and two books. This, all accomplished before first snack of the day. And then, after recess I start in on the math lesson.

It’s going along terrifically.

When from out of nowhere, I hear the fateful words: “I’m bored.” As in, this math lesson you are teaching me, Mrs.G., it is boooooring. I am a little thrown off by this. This word: boring. I really haven’t heard this word a whole lot this year as we keep a pretty frantic pace here in KA all the live long day. There really is no time to be bored in kindergarten, tbh. In fact, I rarely hear those words. But today, they ring loud and clear.

Booooring.

“This is boring,” he says again, shrugging his shoulders meaningfully in my direction. I explain calmly that we are playing games- that this should be FUN. F.U.N. To no avail. He is not convinced, and he shows me with every fibre of his being. This is NOT fun.

So there.

Meanwhile, I focus my attention on another student who is struggling with these fun games I have planned. I patiently explain to her what I am looking for, but after several failed attempts at making myself clear- along with a bored student or two waiting in the wings and the one I am working with nearly in tears: I can feel frustration also rising in me. This isn’t working out as I planned it. As I thought it would.

This lesson isn’t flying. (The fun and games are now over…)

Sometimes, it is in humility that we learn our greatest lessons. It is when we are humbled to the point of being brought down low – taken down to a place where our ego can’t get the credit any longer. It is then that we find what we’ve been looking for. When we find answers to our bigger questions.

But sometimes it takes time to become aware of this important realization. It takes going through the waters to find dry land.

I wish I could say that I stopped the lesson immediately and switched gears- I didn’t. I kept plodding on. And I did so until something broke. And it was that moment of brokenness that made me realize- I am not here to fix problems, to make everything perfect. I am not here to help children reach perfection, to push them farther than they are ready to go: I am here to support them in their journey and walk beside them as they travel. I am here to learn from them- learn what it is to be a beginning learner. What that feels like to be a five-year old learner- what it feels like to be tired, frustrated, hungry and sad. What it feels like to be bored. And then, I am here to figure out how those emotions affect the person each of my students bring with them to class each and every day. So that they can learn better.

And so that I can learn better too.

That is, so that I can learn to be a better listener, a better empathizer, a better caregiver. So that I can learn when to nudge and when to pull back. So that I can learn when I need to support and when I need to release. So that I can learn how to accept and let go the things I cannot change. But also learn how to graciously and lovingly embrace the things I can.

This afternoon, I made a purposeful, intentional and deliberate decision: to be mindful of my students. To attend to them as they talked and played. To allow them to be themselves. And I found that in focusing my energy on my own learning, I was a happier teacher in that time frame then when I was trying so hard to accomplish my goals and outcomes. I was more at peace.

This isn’t to say that we can’t be focused and organized, doing what it is that needs to be done- but it is a cautionary warning. We must not let our individual agendas stand in the way of our all important learning. Learning which often happens when we are least expecting it to occur.

At least, that’s the way it has been for me today. Unexpected nuggets of wisdom from the little blessings in my life.

And I am still learning.

On Being a Teacher/Learner…

Their little voices banter back and forth as I flit from desk to desk. Like a mother robin tending her young.  I duck my head in and out, gauging the activity.  Monitoring the learning.  Watching that things are progressing.  Teacher stuff. They, my little brood, are discussing something- and there seems to be a disagreement that is arising.

“So-and-so thinks he’s the teacher,” a little voice says accusingly. He waits for me to pounce on the unsuspecting little rogue. Setting paths straight which have gone awry.  The accused says nothing in his defence.


I do know what is meant here: my role is the teacher character. Their function is to be the student. This is how it works in school- someone has to be assigned the role of facilitator or learning will become haphazard.  And someone has to be on the receiving end or the endeavor will be pointless.

Won’t it? That’s certainly what is often thought.

I lean down, trying to process my thoughts quickly. On the spot. My answer: to explain that we are both teacher and learner in this classroom. Even Mrs. Gard.

How easy it is to forget this truth.  The reality is we are always learning.  And we are not always needing a teacher so as to engage that process.  And true enough: there will be times that my experience will be such that I can share in my knowledge and thus “teach” the others in my life.  This shift between teacher and learner is fluid.  It is hard, at times, to know where one begins and the other ends. Even my thesis advisor reminds me of this in her latest email: that in graduate school, I am to be simultaneously both a learner and teacher. Of course. We state this in theory, but I often wonder whether we as adults make this a concerted practice. To what extent do we truly believe that our children teach us?

In thinking about this, I have compiled  a list of some things I have learned from my students.  In no order of significance:

• The rules to the game jacks
• Sign language
• How to dance with inhibition
• How to listen
• The best way to position a cup of juice, carton of chocolate milk or a water bottle so that it will indefinitely fall to the floor and make a giant puddle
• The characters on Mario
• How cats get fixed
• That certain words must never be rhymed unless one wants to live with the consequences
• That certain words have more than one meaning, depending on your family upbringing
• How to care for children who’ve witnessed abuse
• What sand sounds like
• How not to colour inside the lines
• Why hugs are important
• That grief can be felt in the very young
• Why teachers must be, as much as is possible, a stand-in for Mom, or Dad or Grandma or any other viable guardian because kids need someone they can count on. And teachers are certainly in a great position to be all that and then some.

I am ever the learner. Some days, I feel the burden of such overwhelms me. Great is the responsibility of needing to learn. To know. To find understanding. To become more aware. And huge is the expectation to learn everything I must know. Even in compiling a list such as I have above, I am in awe of what I do not know about my Splendid Seven:

• What fears they have of starting Grade 1?
• Why children sweat so much, even at the tender age of 6?
• How come they wipe their noses on their shirts?
• What details of their morning I am missing, leading back to before they got on the bus?
• What home is really like?
• Their greatest hope in life
• Their truest thoughts about me: the good, the bad and the downright ugly
• What they feel like when they are alone
• What they wonder about growing older
• Why they pick their scabs

I am ever the learner. But I am also a teacher. Two worlds collide even as a perfect collusion is formed.

Their little voices banter back and forth as I flit from desk to desk. Like a young robin looking up from the safety of the nest. I am five again.   Curious and full of wonder.

And I am ready to fly.

Here’s to Second Chances…

I found myself speaking sharply to a student this afternoon.   There was nothing different about his behaviour- nothing truly out of character in his actions. He is quite hasty by nature under normal circumstances, and today was really no different than any other. And there really was nothing different about the moment, the circumstances surrounding his impulsivity and my unravelling. It was quite an ordinary moment lived in an ordinary day. But at that exact moment of this otherwise ordinary day, something snapped within me. And the fragile distance between acceptance and rebuff was crossed.

I lost my cool.

I felt the thunder inside of me, the cool wind of frustration.

And for the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening, I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling that was left within me. Something akin to shame and disappointment wrapped up in uncertainty, doubt in myself. I tried to excuse my behaviour, but found myself continually coming back to reminders of love. Found myself prompting my teacher-heart to reclaim again, love as the path toward reaching out. The path toward acceptance and forgiveness. Toward hope.

For love is kindly care.

Even while love is careful, steadied discipline.

And love is always hope. Always.

Within love, there is always another chance. We can always do better the next time.

As the day wore on, I softened my own interactions with the precious Four living under the roof of our home. I took time to read, talk, cuddle, console, whisper. And remind myself, that tomorrow: I will do better. I can do better, because I know to do better.  I am a work in progress, a weak being. Prone to falter, prone to fail. But in falling down, I get back up again, resolving to stand that much longer the next time I find myself upright. Fixed in my intentions. For tomorrow is always another day. Tomorrow is always another opportunity.

These walls I have erected at times falsely paint a picture of me- a picture of my being infallible and experienced. Of course I am neither. I grieve my failings each and every day. My own inexperience in handling these delicate situations. But I try to focus my living and thus my writing on the positives I see: both in myself and in the world around me. Although there is always the possibility that one might mistake the stories I tell for sage advice. I would only wish for these words I share to be a testament to my humanity.

I have both my good days and my pitiful ones. Days in which I could easily go back to bed, and have a do-over.

I guess that is what tomorrows are for, what they are all about. Second chances.

So here’s to better days, brighter tomorrows and second chances. We all need them.

Once in a while.