A Teacher’s Daily Moment of Gratitude

I’m grateful for the way my seventh and eighth grade students smile back at me as I greet them at the door of my classroom. Many of them even ask how my day is going. Surprisingly few give me the stereotypical adolescent scowl that one might imagine on the faces of middle school students.

Lately I’ve being trying to be mindful of the fact that my students will generally reciprocate the same attitude that I project upon them. This is not the case for all of my students, but it honestly is the truth for the vast majority. Sometimes it’s easy for me to fixate on the negative behaviors and attitudes of a mere handful of students, when I should be focused on the overwhelming number of students I have who truly want to give their best effort.


Getting Started

I unlock my classroom door, and as always, the papers I didn’t finish grading the day before greet me. And as usual, I jog down the hall to make photo copies and my daily battle with my arch nemesis the copy machine ensues, as it devours and single handedly destroys my main copy, and then screams and beeps at me to fix the damage it has done. I’m annoyed; I’m tired. I get fed up with the never ending pile of papers. I want a copy machine that doesn’t break down every time I look at it, in a copy room where there isn’t a lineup of people waiting to use it. Needles to say, I’m not a morning person.

I have my coffee in hand as I greet my students at the door, and I sigh with annoyance when I hear, “Ms. C., I forgot my homework and my book, and also, can I borrow paper and a pencil?”

But then there is always that student who goes out of her way to ask how my morning is going and that student who has something that he wrote the evening before that he just can’t wait for me to read. Their genuine sincerity begins to rejuvenate my sleep deprived mind.

The majority of my students are eager to please and truly want to do well. They are emotional and passionate, and many of them are just finding their voices. They are kids in big bodies, often misunderstood by people who don’t have the privilege of working with them.

Class begins, and without fail, they have me laughing over some antic they’ve tried to get away with or some silly remark someone has made. There is so much humor to be found in each day when I allow myself to forget about the trivial things, like the pile of paperwork and the evil copy machine, and appreciate what a truly lucky position I’m in to work with middle school students. My students are used to hearing me say, “I could work with adults all day, but this is much better.”

Why We Shouldn’t Wait For Perfection To Let Our Voices Be Heard

For much of my adult life I have held back from expressing my voice. I thought that once I had refined my thoughts and written what I wanted to say in a precise and organized fashion that my voice would be worthy of sharing. The problem was that I could never get it right. My thoughts refused to come out exactly the way I wanted, so instead of risking vulnerability and criticism, I opted to silence myself, and I put my ideas on hold for a better time when they would come together in a more articulate, concise, and profound way.

I found myself particularly out of my comfort zone this week when I assumed a role that I had never undertaken: sports commentator. It was the much anticipated staff versus eighth grade boys’ basketball game, and I sat shoulder to shoulder on packed bleachers with my seventh grade students. To my left sat one of my students who has a visual impairment severe enough to prevent him from seeing a basketball game from the position of the courtside bleachers. He could experience the excitement in the air as hundreds of amped up middle school students stomped in sync, clapped, and cheered. He could hear the intermingled voices of his peers amidst all the chaos, and he could periodically catch a score update, but his limited eye vision could not capture the play-by-play action on the court.

Realizing that it would be difficult for my student to fully enjoy the game without some commentary, I clumsily and inarticulately began to string together a verbal account of the game as it unfolded before us. I messed up on technical terms many times along the way. I didn’t verbalize every play perfectly. During my hurried description, I missed a few ball fumbles here and a few passes there. I had to recruit one of the boys sitting in front of me to be a second set of eyes and double check my facts. “Who fouled whom?” I leaned over and shouted above the roar of excited students, my hands waving wildly in the air as I struggled to quickly and succinctly convey the back and forth action of the game to my student. I’m certain my loud voice and dramatic gestures must have pegged me as an over-aggressive sports enthusiast to the elementary teachers sitting on the other side of the court with their classes.

I stole a glance at my student from time to time, embarrassed by my inability to express the correct technical terms of the plays taking place on the court. When I saw the smile on his face, I knew that he was not concerned that my ability as a sports commentator was less than ESPN worthy. He was not judging me for misstating what type of foul Mr. M. just committed or for accidentally calling a Hook Shot a Jump Shot. My commentary was enough to paint an image in his mind of an experience that he would not have been able to fully engage in without my shaky, inarticulate words. When the game ended, we parted ways to our separate third period classes, but not before he expressed one of the sincerest thanks yous I have ever received from a seventh grade student.

My experience as a sports commentator reminded me that we can’t always wait for a time when point a and point b line up perfectly to let our voices be heard. Sometimes others need to hear our voices, even when we have not rehearsed what to say and our words come out in a jumbled mess. A scratchy, hoarse throat followed me throughout the rest of the day, reminding me of the power of voice, of language, and of words. Not necessarily the kind of words that are perfectly polished and refined, but words that grasp, claw, and struggle to convey ideas for the authentic purpose of helping another see, feel, and experience a moment.

Accepting Vulnerability As An Educator

I had one foot out the door, sunglasses and beach hat in tow (parka, umbrella, and rain boots would be more accurate in my neck of the woods). The relaxation and rejuvenation that spring break would bring rested lightly on my mind. That was right before I found out that the week following spring break, one of my lessons would be observed by an entourage of people, including: four of my fellow teachers, two school administrators, who knows how many people from the district office, and a formative assessment educator. I won’t hesitate to admit that I was (and still am) scared.

My first instinct was to find a way to get out of the whole thing. After all, it isn’t a required observation. Then my thought process shifted to the idea that if I couldn’t get out of the observation, how I might go about getting a different class period to be observed. There are always classes that function more smoothly than others for any given number of reasons, and the particular class that is scheduled to be observed is not—to put it bluntly— my most smoothly running class period of the day. I spent several days contemplating how I might better adjust circumstances to benefit me and shed the best light on my practice before I finally internalized and accepted the importance of vulnerability and transparency as an educator.

I am wracked with anxiety at the thought of having at least ten sets of eyes watch my every move. I feel like my students and I will be specimens in a fishbowl. It’s humbling to have your performance as an educator assessed. But at the same time, all of the professionals who will be observing me have valuable insights, wisdom, and feedback to give. If I am willing to be transparent, humble, and accepting of constructive criticism, I have the potential of improving my practice in ten different ways. And, by the same token, if putting myself out on the line for one class period means that other educators can benefit from what I do well in the classroom, as well as areas that I have yet to improve on, then my observation means that we can grow as a community of educators. This not only strengthens our skills as professionals, it benefits the students that we are responsible for educating. These professionals are there to help me, to support me, and to grow as educators themselves. We are a team with the best interests of students at heart.

Ultimately, I have decided to accept this position of vulnerability with good faith that to be vulnerable is to open myself up to becoming the best educator I can be. Am I afraid that I will trip over my own feet, become tongue tied, or look foolish in front of my colleagues? Yes, I am. The risk, however, is worth the potential outcome.

Mean Teacher Confronts The Desktop Graffiti Bandit

Five or six of my seventh grade students huddled around me, sweet expressions of sincere concern etched across their faces.  “You are definitely not a mean teacher, Ms. C.,” they chorused as we stood together examining the writing that had been scrawled across one of the desktops.

I’ve certainly seen harsher words than “mean teacher” written by middle school students, but still, my feelings were hurt.  My initial reaction was to have the office summon the student from the class that he was currently in so that I could interrogate him and make him confess to what he had done.  What was he thinking?  Did he not realize that I would easily be able to figure out who had written the offensive remark?  Seventh graders do not keep secrets.  Wasn’t he aware that his peers would immediately tell me?  My initial reaction was defensiveness. 

Realizing that my first reaction is not always the best one to act on, I stopped myself from responding immediately to my student’s negative behavior.  Instead, I casually wiped the desk clean, thanked my fourth period students for their expressions of support, and moved on with my lesson. 

I continued to think about what could have caused my student to react so negatively toward me.  As I worked to recollect my interactions with him during the previous class period, I remembered him bringing his writing sample to my desk, as all students were instructed to do when they had completed their final draft.  The school district that I work for requires middle school students to complete a writing sample of their best work, and they ask that teachers do not provide guidance so that the samples will be authentic assessments of the writing that students are capable of constructing independently. 

My student had brought his writing to me and wanted me to read it.  I told him that I could not give feedback on it until it was assessed by the district office, but he still insisted that I read it.  (It’s important for me to mention that I was simultaneously trying to reply to the email of a concerned parent, answer the questions of a small group of students who had gathered around my desk, and now read the writing sample of the afore mentioned Desktop Graffiti Bandit.)  I skimmed his writing sample without giving his writing the consideration that it deserved.  I don’t remember the exact comment that I made, but I am certain that it was not thoughtful or substantive enough to merit the time and care that he had put into his writing.  I was a mean teacher.

He was clearly proud of what he had written or he would not have placed such importance on me reading it, especially since I wasn’t the one who would be assessing it.  It’s true that I couldn’t give him a list of suggestions for how to revise and edit his paper, but what my student wanted from me wasn’t feedback over how to improve his writing.  He wanted to know that I appreciated his work, his effort, and his voice.  Instead, I was distracted by trivial details that stopped me from being present for my student. 

The writing on the desktop was starting to make sense.  He was making a blatant statement that went something like: You don’t want to give my writing the consideration it deserves?  Then perhaps you will pay attention to the writing on this desk.  It was an intentional effort to grab my attention.  His negative behavior was most certainly his attempt to communicate a need, a need that I had clearly failed to meet.

He could have internalized his frustration at my insensitivity.  This is what the vast majority of students would have done; most would not have acted out in such an overtly defiant way. Of course I do not feel that students should regularly scrawl negative comments across desktops as a way to express their feelings.   However, his message was clearly one that I needed to receive and one that I might have failed to realize if it had not been presented to me in such an obvious way.

I mulled the incident over for much of the evening and came to school this morning prepared to handle the situation in a different way than I might have if I had reacted immediately after my discovery of the writing on the desktop.  I found my student in the hall before first period and brought him into my classroom for a one-one-one conversation.  I apologized for not taking the time to read his writing and give him the response that he deserved the previous day.  I told him that I had taken time to read his writing when I could focus on it in a quiet, distraction-free space and that I really appreciated the beautiful imagery and feeling that his words had evoked.  His countenance immediately lightened, and the sense of pride in his eyes was unmistakable.  I also reassured him that I wasn’t out for vengeance on the Desktop Graffiti Bandit but that I was more concerned about making sure that my students’ needs were being met so they wouldn’t feel inclined to write on my desktops.  Then I dropped it. 

Third period rolled around, and my student’s disposition had been completely altered.  He was more sunny and upbeat than I have seen him in months.  He was communicative and eager to assist me in any and every little task that I had on hand. 

This incident taught me several important lessons:  First, it’s easy to get caught up with rules, procedures, and trivial distractions and lose sight of what really matters—being present and available in the moment for the students who depend on me.  Second, the power of apology and attempting to rectify the situation when a student’s feelings have been hurt is huge.  Third, there are multiple ways to address a student’s negative behavior, and sometimes kindness, communication, and acknowledgement are more powerful than the administration of justice.


A Daily Moment of Clarity

The sun starts to rise, a fiery marmalade pink just perceivable behind a cracked cloud curtain in the eastern sky.  I talk myself through what I need to accomplish for the day as my brain fights to slip back to a numb bouncing board of unfiltered thought.  My drive to work is twenty-five miles one way. My fourteen-year-old son and I traverse much of the distance in silence, he contending with his thoughts and me with mine. The thick coastal fog envelopes the dense forest of trees on either side of the highway, and a sheet of moisture gathers on my windshield, creating an otherworldly feel.  It’s during these early morning drives when my mind wanders at will between thoughts of teaching, parenting, and writing.  All of my options are spread out before me, and anything seems possible.  It’s the moment before I enter the chaos and uncertainty of the day when my vision is the clearest.

I have moments of certainty as to how I will inspire my students to become lifelong readers and writers.  I set lofty personal writing goals to accomplish as inspiration flows freely, and the resonating themes of pieces I’ve been working on connect with such clarity.  I think about the uninterrupted quality moments that I will spend with my husband and children when we all get home for the evening, and everything seems possible in that single moment.

By the time my little Honda pulls into the parking lot of the middle school where I teach, the daylight has taken on a dull grayish hue, and the magic spell of the in-between hours wanes.  I am left with a dizzy, overwhelmed feeling as to the scope and magnitude of what I must accomplish, and fuzziness clouds my head.  The rest of the day is a mad dash to the finish line, a million goals, obligations, meetings, and duties to follow through with.  But still, I hold on to those initial moments of clarity (even when I can’t quite recall what they were) with ferocity because I know that everything in life is a process, and my morning moments of clarity are seeds of future aspiration germinating in my mind.