Category Archives: My Evolution as a Teacher

What it Takes


What does it take to be a teacher? Many know. Many think they know. I’m not above admitting that, seven years in, I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I’ve learned this year:

Consistency is key. My students, like many others, need a lot of repetition to internalize ideas and concepts. That means they need the work in a given unit modeled for them in a certain way. Then they need to practice with guidance in that same way. Then they need to practice independently in that same way (and be held accountable when they don’t).

Here’s some real world application. We are coming to the end of a unit on 2-digit addition, which at times requires regrouping. There are several strategies to demonstrate two-digit addition, all of which require several steps. One of my big takeaways this year is just how difficult it is for my students to remember steps to math problems. That means lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

The language given to the students has to be consistent. The procedures and thought processes have to be, too (steps written on a chart help). When drawing pictures to represent numbers, I’m learning the placement of each ten and one has to be consistent, too, down to the number of ones I will allow in each column. When we all speak, write, and draw in a common language, everyone has a better chance to succeed.

Just throwing material at the class and hoping it sticks is a fool’s errand. Sadly, there are people who haven’t yet learned this.

Students want to be challenged, and even more so than they realize. Not until last year did my principal observe that my lessons were up to the “rigorous” standards we are expected to uphold. She also told me I need to push the students more and expect they could do more. I always felt I had high expectations, but this year I have really ratcheted them up.

They’re only in second grade, but a colleague and I began teaching our classes how to use outline templates to prepare to write an opinion piece. The outline is such that they have to look at abbreviations and remember what to do in each section. They have to remember that solid lines are meant for full sentences and dotted lines are for key words. Then, they have to transfer their work to paragraph form.

You’d be amazed at how they’re doing.

With all the consistency mentioned above – repetition, common language, practice – tomorrow the class will write their own outline about something they want, as independently as they have in the last two weeks. It’s exciting to see them using a tool that I probably didn’t know about until fifth grade. They love the structure and predictability of it, and they understand that their work is improving.

I know more than I knew, but there’s still more to know. Maybe once I was a brash, cocky, 24-year old know-it-all who rode into my school thinking my graduate studies and natural genius had me prepared to teach at a level yet to be seen. Nearly 7 years later, having been humbled many times by administrators and colleagues, but most importantly, by my students, I know that it’s on me to work my fanny off to make sure they’re receiving the full benefit of their education (and that I’m meeting the demands of my job).

While I’m happy to offer suggestions to others and share “what works,” I also am happy to take a colleague’s great idea and make it my own. I’m not beneath running across the hall or next door and saying, “I need help with this.” I’ve learned that teaching is an infinitely humbling experience, and there’s no room for cockiness. No matter how well things might be going at any given time, there often seems to be something that will come along and make me rethink, reassess, reevaluate and ultimately, regroup. It keeps me fresh, energized, and motivated.

Kids need to be challenged and stimulated, but they need to be able to do it without being chained to their seats and desks. I’ve always believed it is perfectly okay for students, without asking, to get up to access materials in the room, get a better view of the board or demonstration, stand while working, lay on the floor while working, whatever. Too often, kids think the classroom is the teacher’s, not theirs. I think it’s important to make it clear to them they don’t have to feel restricted to their designated spot.

To go with this, it’s okay with me that kids need breaks. I mean, hey, they’re seven. (Perhaps when my parents read this they can let me know if they think I could have sat the way kids are expected to now when I was that age.) Sometimes, my students put down their pencils and I say, “What’s up?” “I need to rest a little.” “Okay, no problem. Is a minute good? I’ll let you know when a minute’s up.” A minute later, if I say the minute’s passed and the child says they’re still not ready, I have no problem saying, “That’s fine, take another 30 seconds.” By then they’re ready to go again.

I do have a lovely little tool I like to bring out at least once every morning and afternoon, and I’m going to insist you go sign up (for free) so your class can benefit, too. There’s a brain break site called GoNoodle, and we love it. The kids get a movement/singing/dancing break through Zumba and other interactive videos. It’s always a highlight of their day. A few great things about GoNoodle: 1) the kids love it, 2) it’s very fun to watch them enjoying it, and 3) they get themselves right back to business after a break.

That’s about the sum of what I’ve got for tonight. It’s been a good year so far, with lots of learning experiences (only a few of which are listed here). It’s the learning that helps me continually strive to improve.

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.

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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?”

“Yes.”

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!