A Caring Encounter

2015-08-08 20.47.42

It’s indoor recess. I am making the rounds, and uncharacteristically, having a fairly easy time of it. I head into each classroom, make some small chat and then move my way along to another room to do more of the same. I arrive in one room where a student sits at his desk, a scowl on his face. I crouch down beside him to chat.

“Go away,” he says forcefully.

Undeterred, I maintain a calm demeanor and persevere.

“I haven’t chatted with you for a while, how are things?” I ask, smiling hopefully.

“Go away,” he says again. “I don’t want to talk to you. LEAVE.”

I am a little taken aback, but still undeterred. I walk out of the room. Collecting my thoughts, I think of an idea, turn on my heels and then go back to him again. It is an idea that I hope connects.

Take two. I offer him an opportunity.


This time, I do.

In thinking of care, I am reminded that not all the ways I offer care will be accepted. In fact, I don’t always offer care that students may want right now…or even want later. Sometimes the best care you can give a student is to listen and learn. Not act, not do, not react, not offer. Just listen.

In listening that day, I realized that for the caring process to be completed, the student has to receive my care. Not return it: just receive it.

The best care I could give in the above scenario was to listen and give time for this student to return to a state of calm himself. Not pushing, not expecting. Not even offering judgement.

Just waiting.

Because waiting is a way to care when we don’t know what else to do.

Nel Noddings (2005) talks about care being reciprocal. That sounds like a mutual effort, in which I care for you and then you care back for me. But in caring relations, the reciprocal just simply means received. During caring encounters, Noddings (2005) describes the state of consciousness of the one-caring as characterized by attentive receptivity and a desire to respond in a way that furthers the cared-for’s purpose or requirement at hand. The cared-for’s consciousness is then characterized by reception, recognition and response. “The cared-for receives the caring and shows that it has been received” (Noddings, 2005, p. 16). Thus, the recognition that the one-caring gets in return from the one being cared-for is what completes the caring encounter, providing a completion of the encounter.

Care, according to Noddings (2005), is a relation, connection or encounter between two or more persons, with one person acting in the role of caregiver and the other (s) acting as the receivers of that care (p. 15). For this type of connection to be characterized as a caring one, the care given by the caregiver must be received by the cared-for; if this does not occur, the encounter cannot truly be called a caring relation.

Noddings (2005) continues:
When we care for others, we attend and respond as nearly as we can to expressed needs. When we have to refuse a request— because we lack the necessary resources, find the request unwise, or even evaluate it as morally wrong— we still try to support a caring relation. It can be very difficult, but our purpose is to connect with the other, to make both our lives ethically better— not to overcome, defeat, ostracize, or eliminate him (Noddings, 2005, p. xxv)

A request to ‘leave’ is an expressed need. So is the request to ‘go away’. I also perceived that this student needed time and patience from me as well. When I gave it, it was received.

And thus, a caring encounter had occured— regardless of the outcome.

This is NOT sweet talk

I received an interesting comment this week on my blog, with regards to my viral post on what students remember most about teachers:

“This is sweet talk about how important it is to relate to students’ lives. A certain amount of that is important or you can’t reach the students. It is also critical to actually teach in a way that assures students gain the best education possible based on their intelligence. Yes, everyone doesn’t have to be a doctor or an engineer, but some must or our society will suffer immensely. Teachers are not there to make friends of students, but learners. Whether they remember you, is irrelevant.”

To the commentator: I beg to differ, and to also call your bluff.

There are researchers around the globe who are putting forth scientific claims as to why care is vital inside classrooms. It’s not just sweet talk anymore—there is substantial theory and research underway existent to support both my sentiments as well as the premise behind care ethics.

Towards a broader understanding of authority in student-teacher relationships,” is the title of an academic research paper written by Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) on the topic of authority utilized in school discipline, and the paper provides reason for a better understanding of “the student-teacher authority relationship” which is also central to understanding what goes on in classrooms; in particular, the authors of this article show how this idea of authority relates to school discipline (p. 494)

Authors Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) put forward in this research paper that the common approach to discipline that educators have traditionally held to, in that they have interpreted authority with relation to use of power and domination. Thus, the apparent meaning of authority in this view would be one which enables teachers to engage in forceful action (albeit, not necessarily physical) so as to coerce students into doing that behaviour which is desired; if students do not do what is expected, they run the risk of receiving consequences for their actions. This understanding in Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) view has led to a neglect of how teachers can use personal authority to elicit a more authentic, positive response to encouraging desired behaviours, doing so in caring, compassionate ways.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) quote Gewirtz (2000) as saying “that pupils continue to be seen as problems to be managed rather than as individuals capable of making decisions” (p. 497). Although Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) state that there have been positive shifts over the past decades in terms of how schools interpret discipline, doing so in a more positive light than in some previous eras of schooling, there still is a view to discipline that students must remain compliant if they are to avoid the teacher’s use of control to exercise authority. With the agenda of school boards and government departments geared at performance and output, it is no wonder that teachers believe that classroom control of some sort is necessary (at least this is the view of many teachers) if they are to get anything done inside their classrooms, so as to meet district-mandated benchmarks.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) quote Wrong (2002)’s research as being significant in contributing to the theory of authority.

Wrong (2002)’s view to authority is that it differs in terms of how dominating, persuasive, manipulative and forceful it is in manifestation, as well as it differs in terms of the motivation for the individual to submit to the authority (changes which depend on what form of power is being used). Wrong (2002) lists five forms of authority: coercive, legitimate, competent, personal and authority by inducement, and he maintains that each has application to the classroom setting. In particular, Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) take note of what Wrong (2002) says about personal authority, a form of authority based on a student’s compliance to complete teacher-directed tasks/do what is expected, and all because they genuinely like the teacher. This is a form of authority which Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) state “is something which school children are naturally predisposed to recognize and respond to” (p. 504). Thus, the personal qualities of teachers—their caring and compassion, their trustworthiness, their ability to form relationships with their students, their understanding, their patience and respectfulness…all work in tandem to form a teacher’s personal authority inside their classroom with students.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) claim that it is “in personal authority that teachers can find most optimism for their profession” and this because this form of authority lies directly within their means of influence. Teachers CAN decide how they will be when they show up to class each morning.

Will those teachers be fair?
Will they be respectful?
Will they be patient, compassionate, understanding and trustworthy?
Will they find ways in which to care?

If the answer to any of these lies in the affirmative, then the teacher’s ability to establish a positive, healthy presence of authority in the classroom is a hopeful possibility.

Both for the teacher AND the students.

What People Remember Most

We are standing together, even as the long line stretches out the door, snaking around one corner and then further back into the spacious funeral home chapel. Our feet ache from our high-heeled shoes, but we are both so intent on seeing each and every person that places their warm hand into ours so as to offer comfort that we hardly notice this minor inconvenience. These traditions are a beautiful way to honor a life, and we are both so touched by the heartfelt words we have just been privy to hearing. We are so moved by the many, many words: words of comfort, words of concern and words of joy at the ways in which lives have been touched by our own dear Loved One.

Words of hope.

He was a dear husband. A beloved father and grandfather. A brother, uncle, friend; Boss and co-worker, neighbor- among many other more diverse roles. But for today, he is just Loved. Our Loved One. Each person that comes through the processional line shares a different memory with the theme woven throughout each and every sentiment of the kindness he displayed as he lived out his life. Even the funny stories bring about a torrent of tears- we are bound together by our humanity, even in our baser moments. These words- they heal us. Words mean so much.

Harold Hazen Gard.

He was a humble man. A man of the land. A hard-working man. A family man. A man of faith in the God he served. Just an ordinary man. And yet, his story reveals a life lived out of a reserve of extraordinary love, patience, kindness and caring. This is no ordinary feat.

As I stand there absorbing the impact of all these heart-warming words, she leans toward my ear and whispers these additional profoundly moving words proffered about her father: “It doesn’t matter what you did for work, what line of employment you were in; it matters how you lived your life.”

It matters. It does indeed. And within our human connectedness, what matters the most is something so simple it can almost be overlooked. Something so ordinary in its application that its intense impact can be disregarded. It is simple, but not easy. Unpretentious, yet so difficult to maintain. That’s the thing about kindness: it seems basic. Yet its impact is astronomical. And the ways in which our interactions are affected by its absence are profound. In this life, amongst all our human relationships both intimate and otherwise, what matters beyond all else is that we are authentically kind to one another. Kind, in each and every encounter we undertake.

Because, Friend: here’s the thing.  Someday someone will recall back to the time you offered them a caring shoulder to lean on; will recall that you saw the best in them when no one else could find the strength. They will recall that instead of acting in anger, you acted in love; will recall that you were tender, were compassionate and merciful. They will remember you for your genuine concern about their welfare. They will remember you for your caring.

Someday, someone will recall back to your connection with them. And they will recall that you reached out to them in their time of need. They will remember that you offered them hope when they were desolate. That you extended them a warm welcome when they felt estranged. They will remember that you placed them first above their own needs. Because someday: someone will recall you. And they will either remember you for your kindness- your caring, your love, your understanding, your compassion, your mercy. Or they will not.

It’s as simple as that.

I have come to the startling realization at forty-one years of age- with two degrees and a third nearly gained; with a full-time job and many professional recommendations. With a beautiful house and acreage- and the toys and trinkets to boot. I have come to realize: none of this really matters. Because it doesn’t matter a hill of beans how high you have climbed the ladder in the corporate world- how much you have acquired. Nor does it matter how simple your expectations might be in this life. It doesn’t matter what successes your have seen to or what failures you have been prone to. At the end of your life, when you lie on your own deathbed and your loved ones are gathered round, what matters is how you have lived your life. That’s it. And if you have lived life compassionately- with caring and kindness, you have done life well.

Everyone can be kind. It’s something we all can choose to do as we live this life. We all have that available option at our disposal: the choice to show kindness. To be kind with every part of our being. Radiating love to the people we meet.

At the end of the day, it’s what people will remember most about us when we’re gone.

It’s our kindness and caring that people remember more than anything.

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 Teacher

Pinterest quotes

Dear Teacher:

You called after me today, chasing me in circles after I had taken J.’s shoe and threw it in the mud puddle.  I wouldn’t come to you.  I ran away.  You followed me around and around the playground while I stomped my feet on silent ground.  As if by stomping there might be a noise to match my feelings.

I was frustrated.  Angry.  Tired and lonely.  And I didn’t want to hear someone tell me for the bazillionth time all that I had done wrong.  How I had been a bully.

The truth is: I know.  I know I am a bully.  I know what I did was wrong.  I know all that stuff.  I just wish the world knew the rest of the story.  The stuff I keep locked away inside my head.

Stuff about me- that are secrets.

That I feel alone most of the time.

That I have a hard time making friends.

That I am lonely and scared when it comes to free time. ‘Cause I sometimes don’t know what to do.  Where to go and who to turn to.

That sometimes I do things I don’t want to do.  And I don’t understand why.

That I wish people liked me more.

And I wish I could just run and play, like all the rest of them.

But I can’t.  Because I’m different.

You finally caught up to me.  You smiled and crouched down at my level.  You voice was soothing and calm. You didn’t even look angry.  But I was still afraid even though I tried to trust your words of hope anyway.

I told you then- when you reached for me by the swings- told you that I hated myself.  Told you that I know I am mean, know I am a bully.  And I couldn’t stop telling you ALL THE WORDS about myself.  Because those words are inside my head yelling at me, demanding to come out.

When you tell yourself something for long enough, you start to believe it. Start to think it is the really, trully-est truth.

The truth that I am stupid.

That I am mean.

That I am not good.  Not kind.  Not a nice person.

That truth.

And after I told it, you looked at me with your serious eyes and said, “No you are not.”  You are not all those things.

You are great- you are smart and wonderfully good.  You are more than what you think you are.

And you showed me with your eyes that you believed this other truth more than the one I was telling you.  Believed that I was more than what I thought of myself. I was BETTER.

And even though I wanted to stay by that swing forever and never let it go, you convinced me to turn around and face my fears.  To walk in that door and listen to the voice of truth telling me I was MORE.

And we walked into the school together.

And I carried on even when I thought I couldn’t.

And Teacher, even though the world isn’t perfect and sometimes I only see the truths that are angry and twisted, I will never forget the truth you made me believe in that moment.

Because you took the time.

Because you cared.

Thank you, Teacher, for believing in me even when I couldn’t.


That Student on the Playground


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.

When We Care for One Another

My two kiddos are playing a game of catch in the small space that is our camping site. We are sandwiched in between two large R.V.’s causing our own hardtop to dwarf in comparison. As I sit by a dwindling campfire chatting with my parents, I watch the baseball they are throwing inch ever closer to the couple sitting out by their fire pit right next to our site. As luck would have it, the ball bounces and flies past Son rolling along until it hits ‘said camper-neighbors’ fire pit. “Thank goodness that is all that was hit” is my first thought immediately followed up by “get that darn ball out of here.” I am instantly horrified, as I am sure is Son (who hates any attention drawn to himself). I get up and make the immediate suggestion (order) that the kids can move their game somewhere else.

They quickly oblige with nary an argument.

Strangely, the couple laugh the whole incident off. “Let the kids play,” says the gentleman, his wife adding the little tidbit that this reminds her of her own children when they were young. While I am comforted by the fact that no offence has been taken to this close call, I still use my good judgement and gently shoo the kids along. Later, I take them to an area at our campground better suited to throwing around baseballs: a wide, open field. We make it a whole family event and no one is left worse for the wear: emotionally or physically.

On my way back from the latter game (which we ended up playing until it was too dark to see the ball), I am walking back on my own down a darkened road when I hear the excited voices of children on bicycles behind me. It becomes immediately clear that I am about to be overtaken by some fast-riding bikers. I don’t dare turn or make any sudden movement lest I am knocked off my feet. Sure enough: three young boys come right up to my back and one after the other, zoom past me coming within inches of my frame. Not a word is spoken by either them or me, no warnings- nothing, and I am a little shaken as I realize: had I stepped over an inch or so in either direction, somebody would have been seriously hurt.

And that ‘someone’ would not just have been me either.

Teaching kids about care means more than just happy-go-lucky feelings on a summer’s afternoon. It’s not just about living life the PollyAnna way. Why caring and its counterparts- compassion, concern, interest and responsibility matter in everyday life is because people like to be treated as if they matter. As if they are worth the while thinking about and considering.

When children, kids and young people are taught and mentored to look out for other people, treating everyone as if they are someone of value, everyone benefits. Not the least of which- them. Because what goes around, comes around eventually. Besides, people who look out for others are just plain easier to live with, kinder, nicer and more thoughtful. It matters that kids learn to care- because lessons of caring spill into their lives at large, influencing little and big decisions they make each and every moment of the day.

I do not tell these stories to point fingers at others nor to gloat about my own offspring. Actually, I tell these stories to myself as proof that teaching the young to care is of utmost importance to me as an adult. Someday my world will be greatly influenced by the very ones I am educating today. How that world ends up- what it will look like- depends largely on the lessons those same little and big people learned today.

I want to share a story that a reader named Shirley wrote recently on my blog:

I had a favorite teacher, Mrs. Stewart 6th grade. There were so many life lessons that year. The greatest one was probably not really a part of the curriculum. Mrs. Stewart taught us about ice safety especially when it came to skating on lakes & ponds. Not really something most teachers would add to the class day. My neighbors did not receive the same lessons. One day the neighbors whole family went ice skating with my family. The girls skated too close to the area where the geese were swimming. The ice broke under my friend, there were no adults close by. They were on the other side of the pond, at least a football field away. What to do, what to do?! Thank you Mrs. Stewart! That day you saved from friend. It was only because you cared enough to teach us about ice safety and how to react. I laid down on the ice like you taught us, than reached out my arms as far as they would go. My friend stopped going under water and started to climb out of the ice water. You see Mrs. Stewart cared about us as people and taught us life lessons.

I share that particular story to illustrate the following point: teaching kids to care about life and the others who are part of those ‘lives’ actually takes the focus off the individual- the “I” (so that they are not always looking out primarily for ‘number one’) and places that attention and concern on the others who inhabit their world. We are not islands; learning to care about others helps us to realize that we need one another. And at times, we need to put our own interests on the back-burner so as to look after each other. So as to protect one another and care for our neighbor. In the end, learning to care for others can accomplish great things- not the least of which is saving a person from small and great injury.

It has actually even be proven to save lives.

This is What Teachers Must Remember Most About Their Students


Dear Counselor Down the Hall:

In December, before the busy rush of Christmas, before the calm of early January (after the seasonal chaos), before the press of semester changes and reporting periods and term-end assessments and all that entails: I wrote a letter. My letter was written to a young teacher and it was concerning what students remember most about teachers. I said in that letter that I believe students will remember mostly that we cared for them. They will remember us for our empathy and consideration. They’ll remember us for all the little and big ways in which we’ve touched their lives. Most of all, I urged teachers everywhere to consider their calling to ‘being’ over the compulsion to constantly ‘do’ all the time. For I believe that this work of teaching is a calling- not a job. As such, I said in that letter that teachers who were available, kind, compassionate, transparent, real, and thoughtful- teachers who were true to themselves- were the kinds of teachers we need more of in this world.

Since that quiet evening in December, when I tapped that letter out on a wobbly keyboard in my den, that same letter has been viewed by teachers and educators all over the world. Indeed, I have been completely humbled with the response. Humility has not been hard to manage because dozens of people found a spelling mistake in the letter right off the bat. We don’t look passed the mistakes of our students- we look past them. Who knew? What has really touched me as I have read the comments on this letter are the stories that have been shared. Stories are so powerful- they touch our lives in memorable ways. I feel blessed for having read so many peoples’ stories. I have also felt a sincere desire to connect with the people behind the comments written to me on my blog. One of those comments was from you- the counselor down the hall. Permit me to reiterate what you said to me in that letter:

It may be what students will remember most, however being authentic and caring in today’s classroom is not enough for the teacher to keep their job. I’m in a 95%+ high poverty school. Many of my students live in substandard housing (shelters, their cars, garages, even rest stops). Many are hungry, stressed, sad, angry. Many are not ready to learn or to access what their teachers have to offer because their basic needs are not being met. Common Core Standards are holding teachers accountable for learners’ growth and meeting benchmarks. That’s where all the focus is, if you want to stay employed as a teacher today. Oft times, children with significant and sometimes severe behavioral problems are included in general education settings but with no additional supports. The young teacher down the hall is carrying stress that experienced, seasoned teachers who’ve been in the field for years did not contend with in the beginning of their careers. Of course, being patient, kind and available to students is paramount, but we have to be forgiving and offer more support to teachers in the trenches. Platitudes on what students will remember most are not enough.From the counselor down the hall

I appreciate your thoughtful, careful response. I am really trying to listen hard to what you are saying- I am attempting to understand what that would be like to have those particular pressures weighing down on me, as do you- to be teaching students facing such overwhelming obstacles. You have incredible insight into the students you teach and counsel, and I applaud your tireless work. Know that what you do matters. Incredibly.

You allude to the fact that being patient, kind and available are not enough to make up for what is missing in supports for our young teachers just starting out: I agree. We need more supports and quickly. This need to support one another is something I feel with a sense of urgency. I hear your frustration, I hear your cry for help. But I do feel that there is still possibility for our students living in the direst of circumstances and that possibility is found in offering a curriculum of caring. Considering the lack of supports our young teachers in the trenches are dealing with, caring must begin with us- the seasoned teachers. And from there, it will be felt in waves as if radiating from a light source.

I still hold out hope that what students need from us most is care: relationship, empathy, time and love. And I also believe that this curriculum of care- this curriculum of the heart can be infused in our everyday classroom experience no matter how challenging that situation might be.

When I think of students dealing with issues of poverty, hunger, and stress brought on by many varied causes, I think we’d both agree that these are the students who need this curriculum of care the most urgently. These are the students who need teachers like you- teachers who can see through to the heart of the matter- that know what their students are up against and can meet them where they are at. Whom students need most are teachers that understand: students bring their best selves to school with them everyday. The ‘self‘ that left the house that morning without breakfast on the table (if there is indeed a table). The ‘self‘ that left the house that morning having just watched mom get pinned to the wall by dad. The ‘self‘ that got on the bus that morning wondering if anyone is even going to be there for them when they get home. Because life is that unpredictable. And that scary. So when I consider the teachers teaching students for whom life is lived in such fragile, difficult worlds, I think that those are the teachers given one of life’s greatest challenges, to be sure. For these teachers are teaching students who crave the security of the human touch. Because students want to feel safe. Want to feel cared for. Because students need the basic necessities of life, as you have indicated- and they need them before literacy and numeracy goals are ever going to be their central preoccupation.

It’s about the curriculum of the heart- first and foremost. That’s what lays the foundation for the rest.

I would be remiss if I failed to speak to our responsibility as educators to teach. I am no idler in my own calling to teach, often taking weekends and evenings to work in quiet classrooms in a vacant school, preparing lessons. But as much as I love teaching language arts, social studies, science and math (among other areas of inquiry) to my young group of learners, I am constantly cognizant of these same students’ readiness to learn- along with the more pressing realities of their everyday lives. I get that sense you might be compelled in similar ways. I am also aware that everyday life issues sometimes are more pressing an area of need than is core curriculum. I am aware that, to the child who hasn’t eaten breakfast, teaching math concepts is not really going to deliver. Nor is a guided reading lesson the salve for an injury that inflicts the soul.

I am aware. For I read the room constantly to see if there is anything more pressing, any issue of greater concern that might need more attention than the subject of the hour. For as much as I am passionate about what I teach, I am more passionate about the people I teach. I am more interested that they are content and happy- that they are not under undue duress or strain; what is the point of spouting out facts and figures, as important as they might be, if the students’ heart is not in it? If their belly is empty? If their mind is consumed with images they cannot erase? What is the point of pushing through lessons if what the students are needing in the moment is a caring, attentive ear? I believe that we as teachers know this to be true with every fiber of our being. We must remain true to our students and to our original calling.

What matters to the students is how we care.

And what our students need above all is empathic, devoted teachers like you that know when to teach- and know when to listen. Who realize that curriculum from the heart is more influential than any core curriculum can ever hope to offer. And while platitudes on what students need might not be enough to change the system, it has been enough to change the hearts of teachers.

One person at a time.

All the best my friend,

The Teacher Down the Hall

Teach with Heart

To teach with heart- formidable task as that might be with the outcomes and core curricular goals driving our attention.  But teaching with heart is the one, sure way through;  it is the one way forward and the only way out for some of our students.  Halted as they might be by circumstances, events, issues and concerns which lie far beyond their control.  Deterred: they are not all lost forever.  For teaching with heart is often the roadmap that draws these students back on track.  That keeps them focused.

It’s what leads them home.

I recently wrote a letter.  December 2013, to be exact.  It was an unassuming note, really.  And I wrote it and lost track of it over the Christmas holidays.   That attempt of mine to move myself beyond stagnancy.  To reach out.   To propel myself forward- up and out.  It was not for nothing- for I had written that letter so as to connect.  That letter was meant for an audience of one.  But it came to be written for many.  It came to be read by many.  And as I have sat and read comment after comment here on this blog responding to that one particular letter I wrote that wintery December evening, I have also come to realize this: people long for love.   Long to be cared for.  Long to be noticed.  Because we all want to be recognized for the unique individuals we truly are.  We want to be challenged- inspired, motivated and stirred to greatness.  We want to learn the subject of love- to study it, absorb it, reflect it.  We crave it with every fibre of our being. For above all things- at the very essence of our core being is a desire to be cherished. And we want that cherishing- that love: to be compassionate and gentle at times, tough and accountable at others.  Firm yet tender.  Understanding, patient and intentional.  Perfect in its scope. We want love to be everything, yet limited to nothing.  And while we know that love is such a very small word, we also know that it holds meaning of gigantic proportions.

Love is…

And yet we realize that all too often, love is so misunderstood.  Talked about romantically, familial-ly, intimately.  Adored and abhorred.  But still it remains- it is what we crave.

The kind of love of which I wrote that December day was a love that roots- that champions.  That stands beside and cheers.  That moves people.  That expects much and receives much.  That inspires.  I was looking for it.  Looking for ways to love, even within a profession that at times has become bewildered with expectations to demand and require.  We are asked sometimes to do anything but love.  Writing that letter was my attempt, humble as that attempt might be, to find love- indeed to understand love in its most encompassing definition.  It was what I had come to expect from my parents, spouse- family and friends.  And yet, I had also come to presume this kind of love should also emanate from our professionals.  And since I am one: from our teachers.

But of course it should.  For love at its purest, most fragile form is that which is completely focused on the other.  Love is about serving. Love is about people.

There is within my heart a longing.  And that longing might soon be realized.  For I believe that we are on the precipice.  We are at a turning.  There is coming a pivotal moment in our educational history when we will see what learning was and what learning will become.  And it will be founded on love.  For when we love, we are empowered.  When we love, tides start to turn.  Love is the answer.

We have come to expect that our job is about transfer of knowledge and skills, but teachers want more than this; we must remember: teaching at it’s purest essence is about learning to love.  Learning to love ourselves, love each other and love the world.  Teachers, we must gain freedom from our curricular encroachment so as to learn to love again.  We seek release from the bondage that shackles us in chains.  We want to take flight once again- to soar high above where open skies welcome us with promise.  Where we see our potential as agents for change. We do not wish to be enslaved any longer.

It is for the good of our students that we stand united.  It is for love.

Because love is what we crave.

After I sent that letter, I received dozens of letters back.  The one that caught my eye was hers.  It was honest, open and heartfelt.  I sensed from within her a longing to be that kind of teacher.  And longing stemming from great depths of care.  From a heart of love.  Through several exchanges, her letter came to the surface as well.  And her message that we must not stifle our brightest and our best was not lost on me either.  We must remember- from the newest teacher through to the veteran.  To teach with heart.

It is the only way home.

Parents: remember this (you are your child’s most influential teacher)


Parents, you are your children’s most important, most influential teachers. May you never forget this truth.

I was sitting watching my own daughters at an athletic event recently. I had a text book in my lap, so you might say, I was killing two birds with one stone. It was one of those rare, lazy afternoons when one could have just as easily drifted off for an afternoon siesta for a minute or two. But instead of relaxing — after a while, it became impossible for me to ignore a conversation going on behind me. The voices were loud enough that anyone within earshot could clearly hear the details of a very private conversation, unpacking the sordid events of local domestic abuse. Someone this person knew intimately. Disturbing details jumped out at me — and I became increasingly uncomfortable listening in.

I continued to follow the conversation — hard not to, it was unfolding right behind me — and the part that I couldn’t shake was an image of the children described in conversation. Children caught up in adult problems, left to deal with the aftermath of something no child should ever have to see, experience or know.

I shifted my attention for a moment and watched my own beautiful children go by — looking at me every so often so as to make sure I was aware they were there: ensuring that both my eyes were solely on them. And I thought to myself- you have no idea, my precious babies. None. No idea what some children are going through at this very instant. What some babies have to listen to before they go to bed. What some little girls have to hear, have to feel. No idea what some little boys must see before they are old enough to even realize what is happening. You have no idea. My beautiful, innocent children. You move past me like angels — full of hope. Full of joy. May you never have to know the difference.

As a teacher, I view the children in my class- indeed, in our school, as if they were my very own. They are my kids while under my watch. I take that responsibility as seriously as I do raising my own four children. There is a trust in passing one’s child over to another adult- a trust based on mutual understanding. The understanding is this: parents give me their most precious treasures to look after all day long, and it is understood that I will care for that treasure in the best ways I know how.


Parents, when you pass the baton to us at 8:25 a.m. each and every morning, it is understood that the primary teacher is you. We know that those children have just spent their sleeping and then waking hours at home. We understand that you are giving us your best. Your beloved offspring- and you give them over to us to look after for the next eight hours. We do not take this responsibility lightly. Might I also say that when we return those precious children home again at the end of the day, we don’t stop caring? They are still in our hearts? They are still on our minds? We love them.

So when we are out in public and we hear stories of children who have been hurt or harmed in irreparable ways in the care of their parents, it gives us pause as teachers to examine our role in relation to yours. And to suggest, to you parents: you are not alone in this. We support you. We are there for you. We want to help you. We love your babies, your precious boys. Your beautiful little girls. And we recognize that your child is learning lessons about life from you that they will not soon forget: so parents, make those life lessons unforgettable in positive, beautiful ways. Let your child see that you can raise your head in pride for the lessons you’ve passed on to them. Let their first teacher — YOU — be their best teacher ever.

Parents, as teachers we are here for you. We know that this parenting gig is a tough one. We know that life happens, things go on in our everyday lives which we can’t control. But parents, know this: you can be amazing at something — and that’s being you child’s number one teacher.

Teach your children well — teach them about life and love and joy and sorrow. Teach them to be honest and kind. Teach them to be thoughtful and generous. Teach your children to care for others. Let your own life be the living textbook that your children read. May it be among the most inspiring books they ever open!

Parents, we can do this together. You’re amazing! And you are the very best teacher your child can come to know.