The heartfelt and humorous. Saying goodbye is hard.
As my last days begin to tick away before I leave the classroom to begin a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve gotten rather introspective about my time as a teacher. I’ve chosen to block out those beginning days when I felt like the captain of a sinking ship (though just ask my mother and she can tell you about my twice daily tear-filled phone calls.). It’s really when I focus on this past year that I can see the results of my earlier toil and struggle. My students are still a huge distance away from perfect and in many cases, still just as far from being proficient in math or reading. But what has made the greatest impact on me this year is the way that my relationships with students have changed.
When you first start teaching, one of the most recommended strategies for classroom management is “get to know your students”. For me this is like the dreaded words “try harder”. You think yeah, I can do that, until you realize you have absolutely no idea what it means. To get to know my students as a first year teacher, I gave them each a survey about their favorite books on the first day of school. Then, I put the survey in a file folder and never looked at it again.
After 5 years, I’ve finally discovered exactly what “get to know your students” really means. And gosh darn it, it is THE BEST STRATEGY out there. Once a student gets that you not only know some things about them but want to know more, they are all yours. They will do almost anything for you when they know you would do the same for them.
Here’s how I get to know my students now:
1. Ask questions.
All day, every day, ask them questions about everything.
How was your weekend? Did you see your grandma? What do you have for lunch today? When do you get to see your dad again? Did you hear One Direction’s new song? What book did I see you reading in media? Not only will you get a better picture of their life you are also modeling appropriate social behaviors. The bonus comes when they start asking you questions in return. Ms. Cap, what did you do this weekend? Ms. Cap, did you see that Redskins game? Ms. Cap, what kind of cookies does your grandmother make? And soon, you’re not asking questions anymore; you’re having a conversation.
2. Surprise them.
Consciously choose to do something you normally wouldn’t do.
Today my students, having had a change in schedule and a busy few weeks, were loud, disruptive, and uncooperative when they came to me from another class. Only 6 of them had done their homework. Within 5 minutes of them being in my room, I was absolutely livid. “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you care about learning!?” I shouted in my head and nearly screamed the same out loud. I had 2 choices. If I chose to yell, I would be exhausted in a few short minutes and they still wouldn’t be ready to work. I chose to surprise them instead. “Get up!” I shouted, “NOW.” I marched them to the door and then whispered to the student at the front of the line, “Go get the kickball from the gym and meet us outside.” I played kickball in my dress shoes and skirt right along with them, cheering for a homerun, and basking in the sunshine. 10 minutes later, I had forgotten I was ever angry at all and we were back inside the classroom comparing 1/2 and 5/12 with every single student participating in the conversation.
3. Pick your battles.
This is similar to above and takes practice and restraint to master.
I was lucky enough to have a wonderful mentor for several years who gave me great advice and helped me to gain confidence in my own skills. But I would often see her in the hallway and be shocked that she wasn’t addressing a student’s bad behavior when I was ready to tear the student’s head off. At the time, though I respected her greatly, I thought, “Man, is this lady not seeing what I am? Did she not hear that student curse (or push, or walk out of line, etc.)” But here’s the thing, that student cursed because they heard it in a movie or from a parent or in a video game. They didn’t mean to be vindictive, only attention seeking. If I yell or try to punish them, I’ve given that student all the attention and power they wanted in the first place for a behavior that was ultimately harmless. The student would likely respond, “It wasn’t me! I didn’t do anything!” and then I’m in a full-blown argument. But, if I quietly whisper in their ear (maybe even a few minutes later), “We don’t talk that way here,” I’ve caught them by surprise (#2 again!). They know I’ve heard them and it’s not acceptable but I’ve averted a major disruption. This is how we both win.
4. Expect them to do and achieve.
All students face challenges, but they will always want to do better.
For this one, I don’t ask questions about what they can do, I tell them exactly what I expect to see them do. It might sound like this for math class, “When 10 minutes are up, you will have something on your paper that you have tried – a model, a question, or a solution. It is unacceptable to have a blank paper.” “You’ve worked hard, but there is still an error in your problem, I’d like you to find it and fix it.” “When you get stuck because you are still memorizing your multiplication facts, you must find a different strategy to finish the problem.” Or it could also sound like this in any classroom, “Clean up the trash you’ve left under the table, thank you.” “I know you didn’t sleep much last night, but while you are in my classroom, I need your head off your desk.”
Once you’ve hooked them with #1, students will want to do better for not only for themselves, but just because you asked them to.
5. Laugh together.
Usually together, but sometimes just at yourself.
One of the things that I heard again and again as a beginning teacher was, “Be tough from day one. Don’t let them think you are weak.” I took this quite literally and I often acted like I was on the warpath, policing student behaviors, yelling far too often, and sharing very little about myself with students.
In truth, you will be far more successful when you accomplish #1-4 above. And those really have nothing to do with being serious or stern or tough. They have to do with caring about kids, but also, interestingly enough, getting kids to care about you too. Part of getting students to care about you means that you have to be vulnerable with them sometimes – share something about your family, tell a bad joke, laugh when you make a mistake. When you’ve established with students that you are part of the same team, then you get the chance to laugh together, learn together, have fun together, and celebrate together as well.
Both my brother and I grew up as kids who could make fun anywhere we went. For me, this usually involved my red tape player that was glued to my hand and constantly belting out Raffi’s “Baby Beluga”. My brother’s thing was bouncing on the bed in a superman cape (sorry for outing you bro!). When we got a bit older, we created more elaborate play scenes, mostly outside, and sometimes involving hand-dug boobie traps. Our mom, who had a magical talent for making grocery store runs and doctor’s appointments almost as thrilling as a trip to Disney World, gets most of the credit for our ability to keep ourselves busy and happy with or without toys.
The most impressive of our games though was reserved only for visits to our grandparents’ house. Dubbed “the ball game”, it involved sitting on opposite sides of the tiny living room and rolling a small red and blue rubber ball back and forth between us. If you’re thinking that you missed part of the explanation for the game, don’t worry. Really, we sat and rolled the ball back and forth for hours, year after year. To the outsider, the game probably seemed as exciting as watching paint dry but we truly looked forward to a chance to play the ball game when we visited our grandparents. There may have been some variations involving bouncing, but the tried and true ball roll was our main event.
In the wake of Sandy Hook, I’ve been especially careful with my students, checking in more often and giving more opportunities for positive reinforcement and plain old fun. The week before winter break, I introduced them to an activity stolen from The Morning Meeting Book called “the ball toss greeting”. In short, while standing in a circle, each student greets another while tossing the ball to the other person. In the days since, for a quick break, we’ve added a reverse toss (the last person reverses the order until the ball gets back to the first person), the category ball toss (students must name a fruit or a state when they catch the ball), and the math facts ball toss (students say multiples or factors of a number).
And the strangest thing has happened. My kids are obsessed with the ball toss game. Obsessed like asking 10 times per class period to play. Obsessed like asking to play during recess. Obsessed like trying to play during 30 seconds of downtime. I’m embarrassed to admit that the ball we’ve been using is likely 5 years old and from the dollar store and when I think of the germs that must be covering it, I cringe.
But today during our somewhat grueling county formative assessments, the ball toss game was both our de-stresser and our energizer. We probably played for a total of 30 minutes during the course of the day. I imagine that the game will continue to be requested as the year goes on, just like my brother and I continued to play the ball game through our middle school years. And so, the ball game lives on in a slightly new form and will hopefully carry on for many years to come. Thank you brother for all the good times we had growing up. The ball game torch has officially been passed on.
Teacher-blogger Julie Conlon could not have been more accurate in her description of the experience of a teacher when sharing drinks and stories with her business and financial friends after work one day. In her must-read post for Ed Week, she resolves to spend less time making jokes about her job when patronized by her friends and more time bragging about her students and daily successes at school. When confronted with the favorite DC greeting, “So what do you do?”, I often find myself embarrassed, saying sheepishly, “Well, I’m a teacher… ” knowing that the response will be something like “Wow, that’s so good of you.” or “Oh, that must be tough.” I, like Julie described, usually joke around or make sure to clarify that I teach in a “high-needs” school which makes me sound tough and every so slightly cooler.
I’ve found though, that when I am sincere in sharing tidbits from class with my friends and family, their respect of the profession seems to grow. I’ve also found that the way to my heart (for all you eligible bachelors out there) is to call me an “educator” rather than a teacher and to ask me questions about public education policy rather than asking if I color at school. So if you will permit me, I resolve to brag more in 2013 as well. More kid stories, more laughs, and more triumphs. And next time I’m at the bar with my better paid friends, I resolve to let them buy the drinks while I talk about my kids.
I snuck to the mall early today for some last minute gifts. Within the crowd, I scooted by a dad and his two young kids. As I passed, the older son looked up at his dad through his green-rimmed glasses and said with incredible sincerity, “Dad, does Santa know what you’re thinking?”
The moment struck me hard, the wonder and magic bubbling up from a child was both a surprise and a welcome diversion. I stood for a moment after they passed, clutching my 30% off items, sobbing in the aisle.
With such a heavy heart today, the victims, students, teachers, and families of Sandy Hook firmly planted in my thoughts, I was thankful for this moment of levity and perspective. I am thankful for the opportunity I have each day to work with my wild and wonderful little guys. I am thankful for the joy, humor, honesty, and sometimes headaches that they give me. It is my most sincere Christmas wish that each one of my students continue to learn, grow, and know how much they are cared for while they are under my watch. And it is my hope that my fellow educators know how much I value and revere them for the commitment they have made.
Of reality: “Hey Ms. Cap, did you know that in prison they go to school? It’s like us except I think they have more homework.” (slowly, cautiously)”Wow, that’s quite interesting. Do you know someone who has been incarcerated?” “Yup, my dad has been in jail for 6 years.”
Of embarrassment: “Did you see Ms. Cap’s neck?” “Yeah, but who would give Ms. Cap a hickie? She is pretty but who would do that to her?” (Overheard in the hall in reference to my curling iron burn secured while prepping for a black tie event this weekend.)
Of triumph: “Man Ms. Cap, you sure are on the cutting edge of technology.” (While road testing our brand new set of i-clickers to become the classroom version of Jeopardy. I didn’t want to tell the student who was holding the clicker up to his ear like a cell phone that he probably wouldn’t be able to call anyone as it might seriously damage my street cred.)
Last week my school held its annual “Academic Night”, the goal of which is to have parents learn about the curriculum and do some reading and math activities with their kids. Two of my students arrived promptly at 5:30 escorted by an older brother. The brother whom I had never met strolled straight up to me and said, “So, when should I pick them up?”
Me, awkwardly, “Umm, well the event is for parents and kids, so these guys need to be with a parent.”
“Yeah ok, so what time do I come back?”
“Well see, you can’t leave them here by themselves, it’s not that kind of thing.”
“So, I should come back at 7?”
At this point, I flashback to a million times in my life when my grandmother says, “So, what kind of ice cream do you want with your pie?” after I have repeatedly and emphatically stated that I don’t want pie. I know the drill and just like with the pie (vanilla ice cream on the side), I give in.
“Yeah, you can come back to pick them up at 7. I’ll take care of them, but don’t be late!”
The boys are already gone, off and down the hall to meet a friend and his mom. These two students happen to be ones who other teachers might call “troublemakers” and I just vouched for them, so I’m off down the hall chasing after them. “Guys, you have to do the activities, OK? Come back and check in with me in a little bit. Got it?”
After an hour, I found them in the midst of playing a math card game. I let them be and went on my rounds. After the second hour, most parents and students were heading out the door and again, I went looking for my boys. Unable to find them at first, I asked a few teachers if they had seen the kids. Each teacher I passed said the same thing, the boys had stopped by, said hello, and completed all the activities. They were polite, engaged, and lingered at the activity as long as they could.
Finally, I found them in the cafeteria as a teacher was cleaning up. There were my boys, stacking up all the chairs. “I asked them to help, and they just kinda did it all,” the other teacher said.
Unsurprisingly, the brother was late to pick them up by about 20 minutes. I didn’t mind it at all since it gave me a chance to sit with the two and catch up a bit. What I found out from our waiting time was just enough to give me a new perspective. One boy who lives with his mom said that she was at work, so he was hanging out with his friend. The friend said, his dad was at work, so his brother was taking care of them. The brother is 15 and walked to and from home to pick them up.
When I saw them come in at the beginning of the night, I was confused. Why would two kids who show moderate interest in school during the day want to come at night? And how dare they show up without a parent!
The thing is, those two boys showed up because they needed to. They needed somewhere to be and something to do. They needed people to engage with and people to keep an eye on them.
I read an article the other day summarizing current research on the effects of childhood adversity. It ‘s thesis was that “good experiences, like nurturing parents and rich early-child-care environments, help build and reinforce neural connections in areas such as language development and self-control, while adversity weakens those connections. Over time, the connections, good or bad, stabilize, “and you can’t go back and rewire; you have to adapt”. I don’t know quite enough about either boy’s home life to draw any conclusions, but I do know that those boys showed up to school, at night, because they were doing their best to adapt. They went in search of something they couldn’t find elsewhere.
And with a parent, or not, I’m so glad that they showed up.
It’s true, I’ve got no excuse for not keeping up with my writing. I can’t even say I’ve been busy teaching, we’ve had so many days off it’s unreal. Regardless, I personally have been feeling in need of a little pick me up and when I came across the “Just Dance Kids” videos by way of Differentiation Daily, it was just the ticket. This dance break might be a nice change up from teaching my kids yoga poses and trying to explain to them how to breathe through their eyelids like I do on many days. In conclusion, we are absolutely trying this tomorrow.
While walking home from the grocery store tonight, I saw a girl heading to her car with her mother. She was almost leaping through the air as she shouted, “Mom, mom, look at all the birds!” I glanced up and saw the same giant flock. “Mom, mom!” she yelled again. Pushing her cart, the mom didn’t turn back. Finally on third attempt, crying, “All those birds!” the little girl moved her mother to respond with a grunted “Yep.”
Realizing that I’ve officially become the embodiment of a nerdy math teacher, I thought about what a missed opportunity this was for the mother to engage her daughter in thinking about the shape and size of the world. I wanted desperately to follow them. I imagined in my head how it would go. “Wow honey, that is a lot of birds! How many do you think it might be? Could there be 100 birds? 50 birds?” I might even follow with, “How far away do you think they are? Would we measure in inches or feet?”
We often have parents who meet with us worry that they aren’t able to help their students with homework because they don’t understand the skills or don’t know how to explain them. How I see it, it’s a child’s job to answer the questions not a parent’s. But where I worry that parents often miss chances to help their students is in the asking of the questions.
I coach parents that these questions can be simple (I mean super simple) and can be repeated no matter what the context. For reading some good starters are: Can you tell me about what you read? What did you think about it? For math: Can you show me how you found your answer? Can you guess how much or how many? Can you show me another way you could solve it?
Helping students to learn is never about telling them what to know, its letting them figure out what they do know, what they don’t, and how to connect the two. It’s about asking the right questions and patiently waiting while they discover the answers.