Tag Archives: inspiration

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.

Come Together

The play each class in my school is required to present is draining. There always seems to be something else that needs to be done. Every year, we wonder how we’re going to pull it off, and every year we marvel that we did.

This year’s play was extra special. In my two previous years teaching self-contained special ed, I sought out colleagues in the same position. My reasons were these: 1) two or three small classes combine to make a stageful of kids, so that’s good, and 2) birds of a feather have a propensity for flocking together.

When the play wrapped last year, I found myself thinking it was time for my birds to fly a little higher. So I reached out to my co-teaching colleagues across the hall and asked if they might consider our classes working together on the play this year. To my delight, they said yes.

Why did I seek them out? I like the idea of inclusion in a classroom, but even better is the idea of inclusion in a school. I thought it would be a rewarding experience for everyone involved if my kids had the chance to work with students with disabilities in a less restrictive environment as well as their general ed peers. Turns out I was right.

This play featured 42 students, three teachers, and two paraprofessionals. It was an amazing collaborative effort for me and my students. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • Originally, I asked my class who wanted to speak in the play and who didn’t. I thought back to my days in elementary school, when the shyest kids appeared on stage but didn’t speak or acted as grips, stagehands, and gophers. I wasn’t planning to push the point with the kids who didn’t want to speak, but my partners persuaded me to look at it differently. As I wrote the play, they said they wanted all of their kids to have at least one line – one chance to shine – and I realized I should want the same, even if it meant a push outside a student’s comfort zone. Rewriting the script to include everyone became a challenge I enjoyed. It meant changing the story, adding characters, and finding group speaking parts for the kids who really would have been mortified to have all eyes on them even if for only one word. The end result: everyone had a chance on the microphone and everyone was an important contributor to the play.
  • This play brought out the best in kids who rarely have the chance to shine. It turns out that one of my students has been in my plays for three consecutive years now. I experienced great joy watching him grow from someone who, in first grade, just stood on stage and, in second, was removed from the play because he refused to practice and threw a punch when his space was violated. His growth? In third grade, not only did he practice with us every time, he danced, sang, smiled, and said his line with clarity and confidence.
  • He wasn’t the biggest story. That distinction goes a boy who has been my major project for the year. Picture a boy screaming, crying, saying things that don’t make sense, rolling on the floor, hopping, and showing no inclination toward socialization or schoolwork. Picture a boy crying on stage during rehearsals because the music was too loud, the prospect too scary. No way he would ever sit for the play or participate for it, right? Now picture him smiling, dancing, singing his face off, and posing for pictures with his mom, friend, and class after the play ended. During the course of rehearsals, as my colleagues and I determined the stage was a bit overwhelming for him, we asked him if he could sit there and then come off stage to dance. Boy did he ever. He had a starring role as a dancer and showed more confidence than I can remember seeing from him all year. The untrained eye wouldn’t know he was “special”.

That brings me to my final point. My parents attended the play. My dad has time to do such things now that he’s retired from his dedicated service to the city. My mom is a retired District 75 principal (the severest disabilities). They both said you couldn’t tell the students without disabilities from the students with disabilities.

And that’s why I did this. It was an opportunity for my kids to be seen as kids and kids alone – never mind their low reading levels and other issues. To their credit, they had the administration smiling, the audience laughing, and their teachers beaming.

Kids are kids, no matter the label. Today my students made that point loud and clear.


I’m no worker of grand miracles. In fact, when it comes to schools, declarations of grand miracles accomplished are best left for the propagandists, movie makers, and politicians.

So with that logic, you’d likely derive that nothing miraculous happens in my classroom.

And I’d derive that you’re wrong.

It’s a miracle when the light goes on in a student’s head and she says, after doing a math procedure the wrong way 5 times, “Ohhhhh, nowwww I get ittttt!” (And she does).

It’s a miracle when a student stares at an addition question blankly, oblivious to its meaning, clueless to the steps needed to solve it, and comes in the next day willing to try again.

It’s a miracle when, two days later, he gets the procedure down perfectly and answers all his remaining questions correctly.

It’s a miracle when the student who seemed to know no high-frequency words at the beginning of the year seems to know all of them in February.

It’s a miracle when the student who ran around the room, crawled on the floor, stomped his feet, and screamed for no readily apparent reason and seemingly incessantly, drastically reduces the frequency of these behaviors.

It’s a miracle when a student who entered in December and never called anyone by their name suddenly knows the name of the teacher, the para, and everyone at his table.

It’s a miracle when people walk by the classroom and don’t think, “Oh, there’s a self-contained class,” but rather, “What a diligent, hard-working class.”

And it will be a miracle when people with misguided opinions and loud voices finally realize what matters.

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.

Welcome to Your New Class

Teaching 12:1:1 special ed means having to be flexible with who is in one’s classroom. Aside from a steady stream of pull-out and push-in services, there is frequent movement across rosters for a variety of reasons. Just this year, I have moved one student into an inclusion class full-time, had another start attending math lessons in inclusion, had one switched out and switched back in, and had another one moved to another 12:1:1 with a different make up of students.

As often as kids seem to be going out of my class, it usually seems more are coming in. Last year, two came in. The year before, one came in. And today, for the first time all year, one came in.

Luckily, the transition was made simpler by the fact that this girl had spent a few days in my class for math already. She reported back to her other teacher that she felt comfortable and able to learn in my class, so she was certainly eager to join full time. When she arrived with her desk midway through the morning, I was just a touch surprised that a change was already happening, but we made space quickly and welcomed our new student.

Of course, she is learning our routines on the fly, which is difficult for her. I’ve got kids and support in the classroom who can help her with that, and in time she’ll pick everything up to the point that our procedures will be second nature.

It worked out that, at the end of the day, we had about 15 minutes left. I took the opportunity to do something fun with the class. Typically, it’s a great first day of school activity, but it makes sense to do it anytime a new student joins.

The premise: everyone sits around a large piece of paper, with their names in front of them, holding a marker. You go around the circle and each person says something about themselves, such as, “My favorite thing about school is lunch.” Everyone who agrees with the statement draws a line from their name to the speaker’s. In the end, you wind up with a web showing the ways everyone in the room is connected.

It’s always fun to listen to students react as the suspense is lifted as to what everyone will say. When one student said, “I like puppies,” a collective “Aww” arose and markers drew lines without haste. When my para said, “I love to read books,” an exciting “Ooooh!” rose from the collective voices and kids jockeyed for position to get their lines drawn.

And when I, speaking last and seated next to the new student, said, “I am so thrilled our new student is in our class!” everyone said, “OOOOOOH!” and drew their lines with wide smiles.

And who was the last to draw her line? Our new student, feeling like she belongs, even after only one day.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m Thankful For…

The education edition of the traditional, “I’m Thankful For…” game:

I’m thankful for…

…having a job.

…having a class of sweet kids even though there are only 10 of them and it sometimes feels like there are 30.

…having an awesome para who “gets it” and is totally committed to the job.

…having great people around me who are both good friends and good colleagues. They share resources, ideas, and laughs.

…being part of a staff that raised over $3,000 in a week to support staff members in need following Hurricane Sandy.

…those precious early morning minutes before anyone else arrives, when I’m the only one on my floor, when all is quiet and still and I can be as productive as I planned to be.

…the steady stream of “Good mornings” that begins soon thereafter.

…the group of students from last year who make it a point to stop by my room most every morning even though their classroom is two floors up and they really have no reason to be on my floor.

…the fact that when I walk into their classrooms (or the classrooms of other former students), everyone screams my name, work pretty much stops, and their teachers only smile, never complain.

…the fact that I have this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday break to spend with family and friends, doing what I feel like doing, enjoying the season.

…the fact that you read my blog and support me through it. Thanks to all of you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

After Sandy, A School Community Comes Together for Its Own

It’s amazing the way people come together for good when the chips are truly down. Community is, indeed, an incredible force.

Having now distributed the cash we collected for staff members affected by Hurricane Sandy – people who lost so so much – I am able to look back at the whirlwind experience it was to collect the donations and give them out.

I was knocked speechless when I took the first donation: a crisp $100 bill. Donations continued to come in on a steady basis with people showing similar generosity. Some asked sheepishly what others were giving, and expressed disappointment that they couldn’t give more than they did. My answer was the same each time: “This is a beautiful donation.” And they all were.

We had a group of folks we planned to give the money to. It was all supposed to be a surprise, but eventually word got around to me that some people on the list were planning to decline the money. They felt there was no reason for them to accept it when others were dealing with much more than they were.

As incredible as it was for colleagues to come up to me all week with envelopes of cash and checks, I was perhaps most moved by the gestures of those who said, “Others need it more than me.” And try as I did to convince them that people wanted them to have it, they wouldn’t budge. They passed on their cut so that others could get more. It’s hard for me to even express how touched I was by that. To be sure, when they first told me they wouldn’t take the money, I was disappointed and bordering on indignant, but the more I thought about it, I totally understood why. Needless to say, I gained plenty of respect for them.

I’m proud to say we raised more than $3,000 from the staff. The recipients were overwhelmed with gratitude and shock when I presented them their portions. You always wish you can do more, but my colleagues should be proud for having done what they did. We all hope it helps people start moving forward.

Related: Sandy Left Tons of Destruction. Now What Can I Do About It?


Driving off from work yesterday, I spotted a goofy looking teenager waving excitedly through my passenger window. I recognized immediately who it was – one of my favorite students from four years ago – and waved back. I was trying to enter traffic so I couldn’t stop, but the fleeting greeting gave me a chance to reflect on that year with what is certainly one of the most special classes I’ve had.

That brings me to today. What a horrible day for parking. I was marooned on a street several blocks away. At the end of the day, trudging to my car under the weight of a chest cold that had my students asking me, “Are you OKAY???” after every cough, I was a mite exhausted. I approached my vehicle, and who should I see bounding down the street shoveling pizza in his face but that same bespectacled teenager from yesterday.

He obviously hadn’t lost his wry sense of humor. An anecdote from the past: when he interviewed me for a project in fifth grade, he dramatically pulled out a pen and pad and opened with, “Sooooo, can I call you Matthew?” That still cracks me up and it’s one of my favorite stories!

Taken aback today by how tall he’s become, I said, “Man, you’re almost as tall as me!”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Well, I am 13.” Classic.

Much to by amazement, he is looking at prospective high schools for entrance next year. He’s a great kid and I certainly hope and expect he will become something special.

After our brief chat (13-year olds are terribly awkward sometimes), I got in my car all excited to have seen one of my old charges making good. And then, a rapping came upon my passenger window. My instinct was to tense up, but I figured it could be someone looking for help – or telling me to move – so I loosened the grip on my steering wheel and looked. And what do you know? It was another student from that same amazing class!

This was one of my success stories, in fact: a boy who was embarrassed by his Chinese lineage in an overwhelmingly non-Chinese neighborhood and school. His English was markedly improved by the time he left my class – and my Chinese was markedly improved as well. (May I say again, by the by, “Xie xie” for that!) He’s doing well, too. Also heading to high school next year. He filled me in on some other kids from that awesome class and made me laugh when I told him something about one of his former teachers. His response: “Who?”

I’m grateful that’s not the response these two superstars have when they think of me.

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.