Category Archives: My Evolution as a Teacher

A Story about a Parent

Teaching can be a pretty thankless profession lots of times. It often feels like a job where you’re just a cog in a poorly functioning bureaucracy. We get fits of inspiration and gratitude from our students, passing – if any – encouragement from our beleaguered administrations, and an exhausting evening spent doing who knows what for tomorrow and the future.

In my career, the parents of my students have run the gamut. For every family with five daughters in college, there’s the family headed by a single alcoholic father who is unable to cope with his life’s tragedies. For every mother who sends the periodic note of gratitude, there’s the mother who picks up their child in the afternoon without even a glance at me.

I don’t doubt whether these parents all love and care about their children, of course. Nor am I in a position to cast judgement on them and their circumstances. It is simply the way things are.

This year, I have thought about one of my girls with whom I feel I haven’t made much of a connection. She’s not a troublemaker, nor does she distinguish herself with an insatiable desire to please. She doesn’t violate class procedures and routines, nor does she follow them with much consistency. She’s neither defiant nor does she appear at all driven.

She is, in truth, a talented artist. She loves all mediums of art. And while she doesn’t talk or write much or initiate conversation or focus for any significant length of time, there is a human being in there. So when she finds something to be too hard, she bangs the desk and groans. She becomes upset. She starts to give up.

Only in my class, giving up is not an option. We all signed a contract to that effect. Everyone needs to do their best and always try. It’s non-negotiable. So when she’s stressing an assignment too difficult for her, I tell her, “Come on, you have to try. Don’t give up. Do your best.” Past her giving it another attempt, there isn’t much acknowledgement toward me.


And so, back to parents. It turns out this particular girl’s mother found her way into my classroom this morning when the students were out.

“Are you Mr. Ray?”


She told me whose mother she is. She asked how her daughter is doing.

“Well, she’s really sweet and respectful. She’s a really nice girl. But she is having a lot of trouble focusing.”

The look says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

But then, the gratitude.

“Mr. Ray, last year, she came home every day and cried. She hated school. She didn’t want to come to school.”

My face says, “How horrible. That’s so sad.” Mom continues.

“But this year, she comes home happy. She says she likes school.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’m so glad.”

“And she says, ‘Mommy, I know I have some problems, but I’m going to try. I can do it.”

And I’m left speechless and touched. I thank mom so much for letting me know that. I feel less like a cog and more like the engine. Back at it tomorrow to figure out how to reach this special young lady.

Be True to Yourself

Some people are subject to the whims of the winds. They change positions like their underwear. They say one thing when they mean the other. They say they’ll do this and then they do that. They tell you what you want to hear while thinking what they know is what they should be saying. They seem to be more concerned with being popular than being right.

In a school, it can be hard to be principled and grounded, but it’s necessary. When we’re talking about children’s lives, the popular and easy opinion very often does not result in the best situation for them. So it becomes imperative to stick to one’s beliefs and stand one’s ground, regardless of who presents opposition.

Conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates should always be framed around what’s right, just, and sensical. When we compromise our values, so many stakeholders stand to lose so much.

We have to be able to remember what’s important. It’s not being popular or having an easy path to take. It’s about standing by your beliefs when you know, no matter what others say, that the less popular road less traveled is the one that makes all the difference.

How to Treat a Kid You Don’t Like

If you’re like me, you’re human. That means that as much as you profess to absolutely adore each and everyone of your students, realistically, you don’t. There are always kids that rub us the wrong way. No one should judge us for being human.

When we should be judged, however, is when we allow ourselves to single out the child we don’t like for particular scorn and humiliation.

Why does a young child deserve the ire of an adult who is trusted with his or her care? What message does this deliver to the child and the peers? The messages are clear: “You’re not worth my time,” “I don’t like you,” “You bother me,” “You make my day worse,” “You are a nuisance,” “You are not worthy of my kindness.”

Does this model appropriate interpersonal behavior? No. Does this create a low-stress, high-support environment? No. Does this help build self-esteem and motivation? No.

Does this allow the adult to unnecessarily exert an undue influence on the child? Yes. Does this ruin the child’s day? Yes. Does this make the child timid and fearful? Yes.

The only way to treat a child you don’t like is the same way you treat a child you do like: with love and respect. Children are children – developing, impressionable, fragile, and eager to please. Even if it hurts your face to smile at a child you don’t like, it’s necessary to do so.

Remind me again, why are we in this field?

Is it to nurture and help? Or is it to bully and squash?

Sadly, some people aren’t quite sure.

I’m Finished with “I’m Finished”

My intriguing mix of students this year includes a bunch of boys who feel it absolutely necessary to complete a task and then announce it to the class.

As such, throughout the first few months, nearly every task – from the mundane act of taking out a book to the serious work of completing a math test – has been punctuated by these boys with a loud, “I’m finished!*”

*Or, “I did it!” or “I’m done!”

To be frank, it’s annoying. I told them (maybe not in the most sensitive or kindhearted way) that it really wasn’t necessary to say “I’m finished!” every time they were finished. In fact, I eventually told them, “I don’t want to hear you say ‘I’m finished!’ anymore!!*” Yeah, it definitely got my goat.

**I said this while standing on a chair. I wasn’t sure how to make it any clearer.

The night of the day during which I climbed upon a chair to announce in my own way that was finished with “I’m finished!,” I contacted my para. I told her this nonsense needed to stop. It was bothering me and in turn making me angry at the kids.

Of course, I knew they were doing it because they were excited to accomplish something properly and they wanted validation. But they weren’t understanding that calling out, “I’m finished!” all day long was not the way to go about things.

With this in mind, I asked my para to talk to each of the offenders and figure out some kind of secret signal among them. When they gave her the signal, it would be like saying, “I’m finished!” only it would be quiet and not interfere with the other students*.

***Or with dear old teacher’s sanity.

The next day, unbeknownst to me (wink, wink), my para did have a conversation with the boys. She told them she thought them calling out like that was bothering me, so that maybe they should just tell her when they’re finished. But instead of saying it, they should just make a checkmark in the air. (She told me the plan privately and said the kids were pumped about it. So was I).

As the day went on, I noticed a quieter room when tasks were completed. I pretended not to notice the “air checks,” but all the same I did remark, “Wow, I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I’m finished!’ today. That’s great.”

It went on like that all day, until finally, one boy couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to tell me that it was a secret they had with their para that they were keeping from me, but that they all agreed on a signal to use instead of saying, “I’m finished!”

I feigned amazement. “You mean you’ve been keeping a secret from me all day?” They had, they said. “Hmm,” I said. “Wellllll, it is working, and it seems like you’re still saying you’re finished even if you’re not saying the words, so I think maybe you should keep doing it.” And so they did.

Last week, my quietest girl raised her hand to tell me something. When I went over to her, she said, “I’m finished.” And wouldn’t you know it, the formerly loudest boy, the leader of the “I’m finished!” movement, said, “No! You’re not supposed to say, ‘I’m finished!'”

When kids say it now though, it’s okay because it isn’t incessant. It’s only for the major tasks – like publishing a writing piece or indicating their ready for me to collect their tests. The verbal, “I’m finished!” has stopped, and so has the silent one.

Finally, we’re finished with “I’m finished!”


Don’t Fail Kids With First Impressions

“First impressions count,” or so they say. But should they?

In my career, I’ve encountered many types of children. They’ve been funny, studious, shy, noisy, sad, boisterous, unmotivated, driven, intelligent, average, overweight, generous…

Most of us are drawn to a particular type of person. If that person doesn’t fit our vision of an ideal individual, we may be less inclined to want to get to know them. In our heads, we will form a series of incontrovertible beliefs and convince ourselves that every last one of them is accurate.

I know I have made the mistake of assuming the worst of others based on my initial impressions. You probably have done the same, maybe of your colleagues or other peers.

The great fault is not in having first impressions. The mistake is holding onto those impressions and convincing yourself they’re right.

Have you done this with students? I have. There have been kids I’ve had – and even have now – that I made my mind up about before giving them enough of a chance. I’ve written them off as lazy, rude, or beyond help.

And I’ve never been right.

We need to be sure not to hold on to the first impressions kids give us. Even if it takes months to be revealed, there is always more than meets the eye. Every child wants to learn, be successful, feel proud and have others be proud. If we understand this, then we can work past our first impressions and work toward figuring out who the child really is, instead of assuming the worst.

When we give our students a chance to let us get to know them and show us who they really are, only then do they have their chance to shine and be valued. We need to let kids show us who they are before we decide.

My Eyes Are Opened

This weekend, a colleague texted me to say she just discovered a bunch of my old posts and was reading and enjoying them. She figured those were the only ones she ever missed. Then I told her there were close to 500 posts on this site and she’s probably missed many more than she realized. I chuckled at her reply: “Great, now I’m going to be up all night.”

I am always touched when a real-world colleague makes it a point to talk to me about my blog. Considering that this space was once underground and only one person in school knew I was writing it, it’s still something of a surprise when the blog is referenced at school or by a colleague. Most every time, people have something nice and supportive to say, and I appreciate it.

At my most sentimental and honest, I write about my educational values in very clear terms. Or, I write about certain anecdotes about students that have made a mark on me.

I realized yesterday why this blog speaks to so many colleagues in the real world and in the virtual world.

It’s because so many feel the same way I do about certain ideals. This blog is a way for them to connect emotionally when they otherwise might not. I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who believes in ideals such as the importance of respecting our students and believing in their abilities. But I may be the only one articulating these ideals in writing in a way that inspires people.

I’m glad my colleagues feel a connection here. In the past, I wrote many of them off as passionless, disinterested, and out just for the paycheck. As I’ve gotten to know them better, and as they’ve talked to me about this blog, I’ve learned that quite the opposite is true. They’re more passionate and interested in their work than I ever gave them credit for.

People may be thanking me for my blog, but I’m thanking them for opening my eyes.

Related: I Inspire Others, and That Inspires Me

Collaborating through the Challenges

At my school, we are using, by my count, three brand new programs – one each in literacy, math, and phonics. To say it is overwhelming is something of an understatement. Each of my colleagues has something to say, some of it positive and some negative, about the new materials.

As we try to figure out the most effective ways to use the shiny new products, I am experiencing more collaboration with grade level colleagues than I have in the past. There is a steady exchange of graphic organizers, lesson plans, and ideas. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that – despite being the only one in the group teaching self-contained special ed – the island I’m usually on is not so far from the mainland anymore.

I’m in my fifth year of teaching now and am first taking steps now to collaborate with a broad range of colleagues. Part of what makes it so rewarding is that it is totally grassroots. The ones who began the collaborative push did so of their own volition and on their own time. I was a little late to the dance and have to find ways to contribute more.

I don’t use every material passed along to me. However, if nothing else, a seed is planted in my head to help me consider my own next steps. Perhaps we use different formats – or write with a different degree of detail – for our lesson plans, but being provided a basic framework means I have a starting point. There is less work for everyone involved, and all that’s left to do is adjust plans to meet student needs.

I think it’s a tremendous step that this group has taken it upon itself to work together to lessen the burden and challenge of a wholesale change from what we’ve always known. There’s definitely a benefit to my students and colleagues.

Why I Choose to Be Positive

I choose to be positive because that means I’m around positive people.

I choose to be positive because I’m just fine not being around negativity.

I choose to be positive because it impacts others for the better.

I choose to be positive because it’s nicer to think of what can happen instead of what can’t.

I choose to be positive because positive thinking begets possibilities while negative thinking begets roadblocks.

I choose to be positive because I don’t want to be someone who complains about everything and anything.

I choose to be positive because negativity is overwhelming while positivity is uplifting.

I choose to be positive because I work with people, both children and adults, who deserve some sunshine.

I choose to be positive because the other option stinks.

My “Sit Where You Want” Policy

Last year, one of my dear colleagues in the Twitterverse inspired me to surrender some control in the classroom. With baby steps throughout the year, I did. Coming from someone who used to pick up kids’ desks and move them while they were out of the room because I couldn’t take the chatter anymore (“Surprise, kiddies!”), this was not insignificant.

Why do I mention the desks? I’ll tell you. Last year, I boldly went where I had never gone before. I told my class on day one that they could pick their seats. I figured I don’t know them yet, anyway, so there’s no guarantee I’m not creating a toxic grouping (despite my inability to ever do wrong). But more importantly, I reasoned that, perhaps if I gave them the responsibility, they’d come to understand that me allowing them to choose their seats was a privilege not to be taken lightly.

I’ll explain. I didn’t just say, “Sit wherever you want.” I said, “I’m willing to make a deal with you.” The deal was simple enough. The kids could choose where to sit – which I knew meant chatty BFFs would be congregating together – and we would see how conducive their choices were to productive work. If it turned out they weren’t and there were too many distractions that came from sitting with one’s homeboys, then we’d have to go ahead and consider a change in seating.

Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have to change a seat for chattiness until January? We were ready for a change by then, anyway, so it worked perfectly.

If you’re someone who is embarking upon this year as I did last year, saying, “I actually don‘t need to be in control of everything in my classroom,” then I suggest you start with seating. See if it works for you. It will definitely work for the kids!

This Year’s Classroom: Swimming to Success

I’m not sure why I didn’t have a theme for my room the first three years of my career. Themes promote cohesion, interest, excitement, and pride. They offer an anchor for a year’s worth of studies and warrant an infusion of creativity on the teacher’s part in an effort to provide cross-curricular learning opportunities pertaining to the theme.

This is the second straight year I’ve created a theme-based classroom. Last year’s was a lot of fun. Motivated by a desire to make my students prove the naysayers wrong, our classroom was a “Field of Dreams,” based on a community of hopes and beliefs (with a touch of New York Mets love).

This year’s theme developed by – well, I don’t know how. It was partly born of necessity and partly born of my lack of inspiration! I had few ideas until I decided the theme would be something along the lines of, “Under the Sea.” As I collected decorations and mental notes, the theme that emerged left me with one foot on the sandy beach and one in the salty ocean. So I decided I’d incorporate elements of both. Needing to hang something on the door, and knowing I had to incorporate this with academics and expectations, I decided to call this theme, “Swimming to Success.”

With these fish, our class is the coolest school in school!

The door sets a positive tone for all who enter, and also presents an expectation of success, which is necessary!

Now, onto the inside of the room. To put it the way a custodian did when he saw the progress in the room last week, “Man, you just don’t want vacation to end!” There is truth to that. But I also think having such a bright and sunny theme will help all of us through our winter weather doldrums and test prep tedium when those times come. As one colleague told me, she knows where she’s heading when the winter blues set in!

In keeping with the beach and ocean theme, kids will hang their coats and bags on hooks that are numbered with Finding Nemo stickers.

When we gather to meet in the morning or for lessons, we won’t go to the meeting area. Instead, we’ll go to the beach. Kids can choose to sit on bright green or blue mats, tubes, beach chairs, or a boogie board. They’ll sit under a palm tree while they use the SMART Board and attend to lessons on the easel.

It is so much more fun to go to the beach than the meeting area.

In case anyone forgets where they are, here’s a reminder.

I love the ocean backing paper I picked up at Lakeshore. It is ridiculously soothing. (This board is nearly complete).

Beautiful ocean-themed paper with an iguana and fish hanging out.

I am returning to the “You Matter” theme again this year, only the message is being emphasized by me and this fabric fish that I found for a measly $1. We will name him within the first week.

I also finally found a use for that broken clock up there. And hey, what’s that? Another palm tree? YOU BET!

One of my new initiatives is a modified version of the STARFISH program, which I loved when I worked at camp. It really helped kids become good citizens. The premise is the kids learn that the STARFISH values and traits are ones they should aspire to have.

I modified STARFISH’s meaning to make it more relevant to school. I am really excited about this. Also, look on top. The picture says, “Be a hero, not a bully.”

When a student does something “STARFISHy” or in a “STARFISH” way, they will receive a raffle indicating the value or trait they demonstrated and what they did. At the end of the week, I will choose one raffle from all the ones we’ve accumulated, and the winner will be my “Chief Mate,” or “right hand man/woman” for the week. I love recognizing kids for being awesome! This is also great for those kids who will never get academic recognition. It shows them that grades and reading levels aren’t all that matter. I will send a note home on the first day so parents can get on board, too.

You rock! And not just because this raffle ticket says so!

Another one of my exciting character-builders this year is this, “Have You Filled a Bucket?” idea, which I found on Pinterest. I still have to label each “bucket,” but the premise is that, when a student does something nice that makes me or someone else happy and “fills someone’s bucket,” they will get a pom pom in their bucket. After all, filling someone else’s bucket means filling one’s own! As a happy and wonderful coincidence, this is a school-wide initiative this year.

We’re going to be a class full of bucket fillers!

To encourage independence, I’m launching two other Pinterest ideas. First, a chart with students’ names on clothespins so everyone knows what they need to do during reading.

Where do you go? I’m not sure. Go check the chart.

To encourage patience and discourage demanding my attention at every possible junction, I’m instituting a, “Take a Number” system. It is color-coded for odd and even, too, just as a bonus. I’ll also couple this with charts about steps to take before asking the teacher and what students should do when finished working.

No, I’m not a butcher. But if I’m working with someone and you need me, I need you to take a number.

Finally, here is my own personal oasis, my desk. It is nudged into a corner and opened up so much more space than there was last year. You can see it’s already a bit of a mess…

When I’m stressed, at least I can always sit at my desk and relax under a palm tree! Now, where can I hang a hammock?

That’s a brief tour of my room. My goal is for it to be fun, welcoming, and functional. I won’t know if it’s functional until the kids are in there, but I think it’s both of the other things. My hope is that when they set foot in their new room for the first time Thursday, the kids will embrace the challenges of swimming to success and be excited for a wonderful year!