Teachers: You Are Better Than You Think You Are

One year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” which went viral the second month after I published it.  Since then, it has been the single most-read item on my blog with hundreds of views each day and over 2 million views to date.  In particular, at key times of the year (August, September and mid-way through the year), it will spike an interest again with the teaching public, with tens of thousands of views on certain days.

I have been perplexed by this phenomenon over the past year because I am really at a loss for why this particular blog post has struck such a chord. And then I happened upon these two articles tonight.  One, about why teachers feel so bad most of the time and the other, a test to take so as to determine whether or not you are a bad teacher, both written by Ellie Herman (a former teacher).  It got me thinking about teachers again- and why teaching matters.

I don’t want to focus solely on the content of either article so as to critique.  But I do want to point out one thing that I think explains the interest in my blog post that went viral: that is, why it continues to be read by teachers one year later.  And I think the answer lies in part within Herman’s two blog posts. According to Herman, teachers are inadequately trained for the classroom realities they face, get little to no support to deal with those realities, and don’t have the resources  to do the job well.  Add to this, the reality that many teachers (both those who are essentially good teachers as well as those who should never have entered the profession- due to Herman’s five criteria) have given up because the odds are stacked against them.

It is a tough gig being a teacher.

Ironically, when I wrote the article about teachers fourteen months ago, I had no intentions of publishing the letter.  It was actually written concerning a real person involved in a real interaction with me, an actual event; so that scenario I portrayed in the letter was between two real-life colleagues.  I had an actual conversation with someone and sent them the letter because I cared about them as a teacher, and I wrote the letter because I wanted to somehow encourage that person in the very same ways I sometimes need encouragement.  More than anything, I wanted to care for the person I was interacting with as a colleague, so as to remind them that I believed in them and that I knew they were doing a better job than they were giving themselves credit for.

I think teachers need this type of encouragement so as to be reminded of how well they are doing.  And it takes sometimes a moment for us to remember to do this for one another- spurring each other on so that we stay the course. That was one reason I wrote the letter- as a means of inspiration.  But even more than this, I wanted to also relay another message- one that has been felt in more general ways by teachers the world over.  That message was this: teachers, you are doing a far better job than you give yourselves credit- so believe in yourselves and the influence you have on your students.  You are good teachers.  Teachers, we are all better than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

Something I have heard said about students from both the administration level as well as from our provincial teaching federation (P.E.I.T.F.) president is the following: students bring their best selves with them each day to school.  It might not be what WE would deem best- but the reality is, it is THEIR best for that particular day. I have had conversations with administration as well about parents- parents that do things differently than I do as a parent, but who love their children nonetheless.  Parents who bring their best to the table.  And what I have discovered about parents is this: parents tend to bring the best they have to give to their child’s education as well.

Is their best the same as my best or even your best?  Not necessarily- but best is a relative term as long as we are not talking about inflicting harm or injury on another human being in physical, emotional or psychological ways.  What I am trying to say here is that as long as we are aiming to do something productive for our children, what is BEST can differ.

Which brings us around to teachers.

Do teachers bring their best to school each day? Let’s assume that teachers do not meet the five criteria that Herman has established which make for bad teachers (disliking children, consistently uninterested in your subject matter, don’t have a clue what you are teaching, ignoring a large subset of your students most of the time, and who are overall, totally disengaged in teaching).  Teachers who are not consistently any of those five and who also have a desire at all to investigate their practice and think about their identity as a professional are really who form the baseline for me.  If teachers are at that place- caring somewhat about who they are and what they do, then I feel those teachers are bringing their best to the profession.

Now again: that word best, it is a relative word.  When someone talks BEST they start envisioning other buzz phrases: words like charismatic, creative, reform-minded and inspirational.  Words associated with teaching style like: engaging in praxis, integrating technology, differentiating instruction and scaffolding  instruction. But I am not talking about setting a bar for best for either personality or teaching style.  What I am maintaining here is that bringing your BEST SELF to work means bringing the self that cares.

Care is the quality that defines truly great teaching.  And caring is for me the underlying quality that defines a good teacher.

Weighed against that criteria, good teachers are those who do the following:

Good teachers care about themselves- care for their own personal, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Good teachers care about others- care for people both young and old both children, youth and adults.

Good teachers care about ideas- care about thinking and understanding, knowing and connecting.

Good teachers care about things- classrooms, and books, and lunches and school buses.

Good teachers also care about non-human entities: animals, and plants, eco-systems and habitats.

And good teachers finally care about experiences- what happens at home, in school and some of what happens in between.

Simply put: good teachers care. 

And they tend to care a great deal the longer they exercise that caring muscle.

So when it comes to criteria for defining good and bad teachers, focusing on the fact that most teachers who care enough about ideas and experiences to read an article about teaching are probably good teachers, it almost becomes a waste of time for teachers to ask themselves if they are bad at their job.  We hear enough negativity in the onslaught of media messages to waste too much on this consideration. What we need to be asking as teachers is this: what makes you a great teacher…and how can you find ways to do this again tomorrow?

Then too, ask yourself this: how can I find ways to rise above the imperfect circumstances in which I find myself, the less than ideal situations I find myself in as a teacher and be my best teaching self?  And how can I tap into that reservoir of care that brought me into this profession in the first place?

Teachers, we are better than we think we are.  We just have to remember.

We are a caring profession.  And while we are diverse in scope- each of us bringing different traditions, orientations, philosophies, backgrounds, experiences, personalities, cultures, attitudes and beliefs to the table; what binds us together as a collective is our common care for our students and our profession. We care. And may we never forget how important that quality is in making us great teachers.

Dear Teachers (About THESE students, one of whom is my son…)

Dear Teachers,

I am the mother of four beautiful children, all unique and wonderful in their own individual ways. One of my children is an extreme introvert. When I think of him, I often wonder how he might be perceived, might be viewed in connection to his teacher’s perspective. But this blog is not about a teacher’s perspective. It is about a mother’s.

This is my story- a story about being a mother to my son.

When my son first entered school, I lost natural hair color through worry. Stressing about his ride to school (where he was exposed to things like soft porn found in magazines the bigger boys read, exposed to language and stories children in our home would otherwise never have heard), stressing over his day at school (I will never forget the day I picked him up, wet with another boy’s urine: a bully incident which happened during an unsupervised visit to the men’s room), stressing about whether he had someone to talk to on the playground ( I hoped for the best), someone to play with during center time (I had co-ordinated with another mother to protect for this very thing). Stressing about that bus ride back home again (would he lose his hat again to a game of toss?).

Stressing. Because I knew my son. And I knew that school might not be the kindest place for him to grow and flourish.

Add to the outside factors in a school that might influence a child was the fact that my son was an introvert. I don’t know if his initial school experience was typical or not, as he is my only boy and I merely have his one experience to go on.  But, I am starting to wonder, what with all the things that have been shared one with another via social media.  Although the variables might change from child to child, there are certainly some parallels to be found when it comes to the experience of THESE children. Introverts. The ones who just pass through the system largely invisible.

My boy worried himself about school from the get-go.  His first day home from kindergarten, I waited patiently under the old maple tree, picking at the moss growing along the spreading roots.  I watched the bus go by, and then watched as it swung back again, up our side road, dropping my son off at the end of the lane.  And, as eagerly as I chased him down to hear stories about the first of all experiences at school, he equalled my enthusiasm in stridency, storming passed me, eyebrows in a furrow.  Pounding feet against the stone walkway, as he stormed into the house.  It is a memory I will never forget. How I wished we could both sit in the late summer breeze sharing with each other all the wonderful things he’d done, all the magical experiences he’d been part of.  But he had other priorities, other needs. He had some unwinding to do. And school for him wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Grade 1 was even harder.  He clung to my leg for the better part of forty-five minutes that first day.  He was anxious, worried about making friends: scared of being alone and frightened of me leaving.  I held a Little One on my hip and clasped another toddler with my free hand.  Three little bodies stuck to me like crazy glue.  And while I tried to un-peel his little hands, I thought to myself, “There’s got to be a better way.”  It was awkward, and I knew there would be eyebrows raised. My child was the leech and I, his seemingly over-protective parent.  I felt that pressure to let go his hand, even as my mother instinct was telling me, “No!  We’re both not ready for this step.”  And yet, I let his hand slip first, turned and abruptly walked away.  Hoping for the best.

Each year got both easier and harder.  He began to distance himself emotionally from me, no more clinging.  But there were new worries to be had.  There were adaptations to classroom structure to fret over.  Homework routines to make and then stick to.   And the issue of his making and finding friendship to add to the mother lode.  Not to mention the usual childhood rite of on-going bullying to endure, a rite that helped to establish the playground pecking order and the seating arrangement on the bus. Somehow, he found himself on the bottom of that pile-up. Never the ring-leader, often the victim.

Woven into each additional year was the stress of performance anxiety he placed on himself.  He was not a behaviour challenge inside the school setting.  In fact, quite the opposite. His teachers raved about his smarts and his ability to focus. His quiet, calm demeanor.  But, there was something awry that I just couldn’t seem to put my finger on at the time.  It seemed to be the combination of his trying to find his place in this new world of norms, along with trying to please both his peers and the adults around him, along with the very high expectations he placed on himself.  All combined, becoming a triple threat of trouble.   Perhaps the most taxing of all these three was the pressure he placed on himself to stay in tip-top academic shape, as that was often the only area of schooling he was able to truly control, the only thing he felt really positive about in his school experience.

And so, school became difficult.  Tedious.  Even dreaded.

And although my son has succeeded academically (he is now in Grade 9), there are many ways in which I feel he has fallen through the cracks.  Because he is prone to performance anxiety on a personal level, but also because in a more general way, he is an introvert.  And sometimes introverts and school can make for a complicated combination.

Sure, everyone admires your child because they are GOOD. Agreeable and easy and compliant. But you wonder if that same child of yours is just kind of drifting through the years, classroom to classroom- never really known for who they truly are on the inside. Merely acknowledged for the ease at which they have put their teacher. For that is what seems to matter. The ease to which we are placed. When something or someone is easy, we give that thing or person less attention. Less time and thought. It makes perfect sense, to be honest. Why fret about something that isn’t a problem? Yes, it makes perfect sense. Except when it is your child you are talking about.

When it is your child falling through the cracks.

Truth: it is difficult by times to peer inside an introverted child’s world and really understand what that world is like. Difficult to really see that child for the package they are. And unless one is willing to take the time to see the children who are quiet and easy and compliant as needing of equal time and effort to everyone else in the class, one will never understand there is more to them than just a smiling face and quiet demeanor.

These children are equal in importance to everyone else in the room. Does this mean the same treatment? No. It just means that they too deserve their teacher’s time and attention, however that might play out in a given day.

All kids are deserving. And this child of mine is no exception.

Love,

The Mom

What No Test Can See

I wasn’t prepared for it really. Wasn’t prepared at all. When the results were unveiled and the cursor moved down the Smart Board showing individual achievement results and my child’s name slowly rolled by- I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. Wasn’t prepared for the label, the category she was pegged in. I wasn’t prepared at all really. And as much as I dislike standardized testing on my kindergarten students- having fought to have the richness of their stories brought to bear on the results of recent moderated student writing, it really hits close to home when your own child comes up having not met grade level expectations. It brings the dislike to a whole new level.

Thinking about students and standardized testing. These two quotes from Clandinin and Connelly (2000) really put things into perspective for me tonight.  Here’s the first quote:

“We take for granted that people, at any given point in time, are in a process of personal change and that from an educational point of view, it is important to be able to narrate the person in terms of the process. Knowing some of the immediate educational history of the child- for instance, the lessons recently taught, as well as the larger narrative history of each child as that child moves from what was, to what is, to what will be in the future- is central to narrative educational thinking” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30).

And this one as well:

“In narrative thinking, an action is seen as a narrative sign. In our case, we intended that curricular actions be interpreted as classroom expressions of teachers’ and students’ narrative histories. For example, a child’s performance at a certain level on an achievement test is a narrative sign of something. It is necessary to give a narrative interpretation of that sign before meaning can be attached to it. Without understanding the narrative history of the child, the significance or meaning of the performance, the sign, remains unknown. Student achievement on a test does not in and of itself tell the tester or the teacher much of anything until the narrative of the student’s learning history is brought to bear on the performance” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30-31).

So with that in mind, here’s what people who decide those expectations don’t know about my daughter.

Her smile can light up a room.

She’s a loving friend, a loyal listener.

She loves to bake, invent, explore, create, move, dance, play and read.

She is wonderful with children.

She has an ear for music and is learning the trombone.

She loves to work with hair and can create braids that fall hopelessly apart in my hands.

She just made the volleyball team.

And what’s more: she might not have met expectations of some remote board who have determined that certain standards must be brought to bear, but I can say for fact that she liked that math class. She liked her teacher, loved her classmates, enjoyed the work and she never, ever complained.

She studied, worked hard, did her best and in the words of her teacher “did well’.  And confusingly, got great grades all year long.

And if her story were to be factored into those cold numbers that represent her on that isolated test representing one moment in time, there would be so much more to show for the amazing life that story of her’s represents.

She might not have met test expectations, but she will forever exceed those of her father and me.

We love her to the moon and back.  We always will.

And we’ll always be proud of our little girl.

What I Want To Teach This Year

I fill a bucket with water and soap. Bubbles slowly rise to the surface as the two substances combine into a froth of white foam. There is much to do today and little time to do it all in. I have my classroom sectioned off into centers, so today’s goal is to clean the computer station and the puzzle and games center.

It might look like I am cleaning, but what I am really doing is readying the classroom for the little bodies that will plunge through that door (at the bottom of the stairs- turn right) come Thursday morning of next week. I am readying things. Making sure all is clean, orderly and attractively arranged. It’s slow work, but I like the quiet.

Gives me time to think.

For while I clean shelves and wipe down cupboards, I ready my mind. Clean out the cobwebs, so to speak. I need my head to be in the game, need my thoughts to be organized. Need my mind to be clear. For when all is said and done, it’s not the classroom that houses the potential and possibility to make this year the best one ever for my incoming class: it’s me.

I’m the teacher.

With that in mind, I’ve been reflecting on what I plan to teach this year, along with the usual letters, numbers, reading and writing. And what I want to teach this year is how to love.

How to love, not how to hate.

How to care for one another. Reaching out beyond one’s own familiar world so as to make a difference in the life of another.

How to be compassionate. Showing concern for those going through hard times, displaying empathy for those with struggles and consideration for the needs of others. Above all, living a life marked by gentleness in one’s interactions toward all living things.

How to be grateful. Thankful for what we’ve been given. Appreciative of little gestures and small tokens of thoughtfulness. Pleasure for the gifts of life that are not transitory.

Because what I want to teach this year is the art of loving, not the vanishing pleasure of greed.

How to see that what we’ve been given is enough. Acknowledging that we have a responsibility to share the love, share the blessing. Spread the message of hope.

How to give from the heart, expecting nothing in return. How to live one day at a time.

How to strive for justice and freedom for all even in the midst of everyday living. Not just saying that we do- living it as well.

Yes, what I want to teach this year is love, not apathy.

How to see that indifference is the same as condoning the same behaviors we find offensive in society.

How to acknowledge that one’s lack of interest in speaking out about what they believe to be of value and of worth is weakness.  We need to find strength in our convictions.  Hopeful joy in our abilities.

How to see that one’s boredom and lethargy is the obstacle between self and understanding the world better.

For what I want to teach this year is that love is both the message and the outcome of a life lived well- for one’s own joy as well as for the joy of others. Not denying my place in history, but embracing it.

What we really need is love. It’s what I really need. Because it’s not the world I am trying to change:it’s me. And I know it will happen if I just take it one day at a time.  One sure foot placed securely in front of the other.

And starting with me as the student, that’s what I want to teach this year.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s love got to do with it, anyway? Got to do with education? Got to do with teaching?
What’s love got to do with it?

Everything. It’s got everything to do with it.

I am delivering a dynamic lesson on adding detail to writing. It has spanned two days of teaching, and I have covered the gamut. I have used mentored text. I have used my own illustrations. I have allowed more than enough time for the students to think through, talk through and share ideas. I have all the bells and whistles- anchor charts; word walls; alphabet and number charts; soft music. Nice sharp pencils, which I just barely finished sharpening this morning. In spite of the rush. The classroom has even been designed so as to be conducive to writing. We have a writing centre and various writing stations, but there are of course other spots in the room that a writer could settle down for a productive writing session. I can’t imagine what stone I have left unturned.

“Okay, everyone!” I urge. “Let’s get writing!”

And with that send-off, I see the students scatter into all four corners of the room, ready to write. And I think to myself…”what a wonderful—”

…wait a minute.

All but one has settled down for that intended writing session. There is always one.

In a matter of minutes, I can see that the best laid plans are still only plans. For this little writer has not been inspired to write today much more than a scribble. And when I approach and ask why, I am met with a bit of defiance. A little bit of defensiveness.

And some little feet propped up on the table.

This was not what I envisioned the writing session to be.

No not at all.  Rather, I had pictures in my mind of children, heads bent low over papers, hands moving furiously. But never did I conjure up images of students sitting back, smug looks on their faces. Telling me “I’m done” after three minutes have barely passed since the send-off.
This is not what my ideal vision would be under any circumstance.

I approach the student quickly and ask how the story is unfolding, as we have spent considerable time developing the idea for this book that he is making. He points to a circle on the page. I ask what it represents. “A circle,” he says smugly.  I am not ready to admit defeat, so I probe further.

“What is it suppose to be?” I ask.

He looks at me and shrugs.

“A circle,” he repeats.

I know and he knows- that the story he had told me he would working on today was about a movie he had seen over March Break. He had left our gathering place on the blue rug with ‘next steps’ already in place. But here we are- with circles that look more like scribbles than they do circles. And these ‘circles’ are covering his page.

It’s easy to forget that teaching, like all of life, is not about us. It’s not always a rejection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts when plans fail to follow through. Sometimes, it’s just that people are different. Some of us enjoy writing. And some of us do not.

I later talk to this student’s mom about our writing session, and in the process I realize a few things.

I really like this boy. A lot. And the more I try to understand him, the more I realize I can accept him: just as he is.
• I need to work harder at helping this student see the value in writing. If what we are doing is not connecting, there needs to be another way. Another approach taken.
• This student is more than just a would-be writer. He is a comedian, a reader, a brother, a son. He is a strong personality with the ability to stand his ground. He isn’t easily persuaded. He has resolve. This child is going to be fine- so what if he decided this week to just draw circles? Next week might be a whole different ball game.

Which brings me back to my first question: what’s love got to do with it all?

There are many aspects of my job that I am required to do. I am required to deliver curriculum. I am required to teach certain skills and knowledges. I am required to prepare my students to enter the next grade- the next level. The next unit. I am required to look after my students in their parents’ absence. Overall, I am required to begin preparing them for life. Real life.

But in all the descriptors that I have been given, no one has ever required of me to love them. Interesting, really. Their parents have much the same job as mine, but love is always underlying the relationship. Why is this so? And why is it not something we think that we as educators should be compelled to feel as well?

In spite of this fact, I find that love happens anyway. We come to love our students, in spite of ourselves. In spite of the odds. They wrap themselves around our hearts and we are not easily able to let them go. We think about them after the buses pull out of the parking lot. We consider their needs as we prepare lessons for the next day. We care about their lives as we make after-hours phone calls. We enjoy when we run into them at Wal-mart on the weekend.

We end up loving them. We really do.

Because in the midst of teaching and facilitating and preparing and instructing, I find myself caring about the students I teach. In the midst of guiding and disciplining and leading my students in key areas of fundamental learning areas, I find myself empathizing with them. In offering to assist them during writing workshops, I find myself coming to understand them better. In watching them discover key math principles, I find myself delighting in their learning- appreciating the young wonder that is a five-year old mind. In listening to their stories- as told by them and by their families, by their parents: I find myself coming to love these children. As if they were my very own.

I can’t get them out of my heart. It’s about love, really.

And even though I am passionate about writing and reading and math and science- and passionate about learning in general: I am more passionate about people. And I have come to believe that my calling is relationship, not teaching. The teaching is secondary to my calling to connect and relate and commune with those little people who show up in my room every day. It’s about reaching my students through relationship so that I might later on influence them to use their learning to develop their own relationships with people they trust. So that they might come to see that getting an education is about finding ways to connect with people in the world around them. So that they can thrive and flourish in this wild and beautiful life we have been blessed to live.

It’s about using the learning of writing so that they can then encourage, persuade, inspire, motivate and compel.
It’s about using the learning of math so that they can then reason, problem solve, analyze and explain.
It’s about using science to wonder, imagine, discover, uncover, explore and investigate.
It’s about using social studies to remember, consider, understand, appreciate and recollect.
It’s about making school a place that we learn the art of relating to people so that we can use the knowledge and skills we learn there in that place we call school- so that we can then go out into the big, wide world we live in with other people, and use those skills to better the world around us.

So that we can transform the world through love.

Through LOVE.

So you see, love has everything to do with it. Without love as the basis for learning, how are students to then know that love underlies everything we do? Everything we learn? Everything in life?  Love is everything.

And love has everything to do with it. For without love, writing is just a subject. It’s just writing.  So is reading and math.  They are just a skeleton.  Love makes them whole.  Breathes life into them and makes them come alive.

We will have more writing sessions much like the one I have described above. I realize this. I am no naïve fool.
But what else I understand- what I know for sure about our future sessions is this: I teach people, not subjects.  I teach boys and girls, not writing.  I teach human beings full of potential and wonder and possibility.

So when we have those kinds of days, we’re going to get through them. Together.  And always through the power of love.