The Greatest Gifts

In the week before our winter holiday one of my students gave me this:

In case it’s hard to see, it is a small penguin ornament. I believe he made it when he was with the speech pathologist that day. This is a student who spends a significant portion of every day out of my classroom, in a special education classroom. He spends about two hours a day, max, with me. He’s also had some serious trauma in his short life.

I think it was an in-the-moment decision, not a plan, to give me the ornament. Regardless, it was exceptionally generous. He worked hard to create it and could have taken it home to share. Or given it to one of many other important people in his life. But he gave it to me. And that means so much to me.

As a teacher of young children I am often given gifts like this. Gifts that might seem, to the casual eye, to be small, insignificant. Gifts that are, in reality, absolutely beautiful and thoughtful and kind. I can point out many things in our home that came to me this way (to my husband’s chagrin, at times). Many of my students have very little in the way of material goods in their lives. That they choose to share with me is quite meaningful. It is an act of love for which I am honored.

On this particular day, when this little boy gave me the ornament, another boy was standing right there. We were in the hallway after lunch waiting for the chance to use the bathroom. This second boy is one I’ve known since kindergarten. He also has faced some astounding trauma in his life. He also spends quite a bit of his day in the same special education classroom.

He watched his friend give me the ornament and immediately pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket (I have no idea why he had it there). He handed it to me. I can’t remember what he said because I was so surprised. I tried to return the money to him, suggesting that he should take it home and give it to his mother (the person in his life about whom he speaks the most glowingly and with immense love). He would have none of it. He pushed the bill back to me. I took it because it was clearly important to him that I have it. I thanked him for it but I’m certain I did not fully convey my emotions.

I know I work hard for these students. I think about them all the time, try to figure out how to help them grow, consider their interests and what I can offer them to build on those. But there is no way I give them anywhere near what they give me.

Recognizing My Own Hypocrisy

It’s been over a week since I was last with my students. (These long winter breaks are lovely.*) That means I’ve had some time to slow down a bit and reflect on our time together. There are certainly things I think about that bring me great joy and make me proud of both them and me. But I am a teacher and that seems to mean I look extra hard at when we aren’t getting where I want us to be. Especially me.

One of the things that frustrates me most about my students (and my own children and other random children and adults, to be totally honest) is that so often they assume the worst about their classmates. They assume that another child is laughing at them, even when often that laughter has absolutely nothing to do with them. They assume another child bumped into them on purpose. They assume another child took a toy or crayon or book just because they wanted it. And so on.

Maybe this is a typical developmental thing as they are still at a pretty egocentric age. Maybe they make these assumptions because they still believe everything is about them. Others must be laughing at them or taking things to spite them or bumping them intentionally because the other option is that it really has nothing to do with them and that makes no sense at eight. I can see how that might be true. (Of course, even accepting that won’t stop me from working to get them to assume positive intentions.)

However, as frustrated as I get at my students for making negative assumptions, I am even more frustrated at myself for doing the same.

from hobvias sudoneighm’s flickr

I assume students are talking because they are disrespectful rather than because they’re excited about our learning. I assume students are goofing off because they are looking off into the distance rather than recognizing how often that is them thinking deeply. I assume students are trying to annoy each other rather than realizing they are playing together. I assume students are loud in the hallway because they don’t care about others around them rather than recognizing that they don’t realize how loud they are. I make negative assumptions all the time and respond in kind.

How can I expect my students to presume positive intentions if I’m not modeling that for them?


*When my youngest was in 1st grade I was also teaching first graders at the same school. As a result, she and I knew many of the same kiddos that year. We had a two week winter break and I can remember talking to her about some of her friends and asking about some of the kids who had been in her kindergarten class. At one point I said, “Oh yes, Brenda. Is Brenda in your class this year?” She looked at me incredulously and said, “Mom. Brenda is in your class.”
Maybe a two week break is too long for me.

Permission, Protection, and Policy Reduction

VASCD’s annual conference gave me much to think about. To get started I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the keynotes, listed as being by Kaleb Rashad, director of High Tech High in San Diego. Except it wasn’t just Kaleb. He spoke, but he was joined by two teachers and two students. It was a great way to wrap up the first day of the conference.

One of the things Kaleb said was that what leaders owe their faculty is “permission, protection, and policy reduction”. When I first heard it, the alliteration made it sort-of wash over me. It took a bit for me to really process. Once I did, it has stuck with me.

Permission – educators in your building or district need to know you are giving them permission to try, to stretch, and quite possibly to screw up. Notice I’m not saying they just need permission, but that they need to know you’re giving them permission. They need to be certain that if they do what they think is best for their students and it doesn’t go as planned they will still have your support.

Protection – educators you lead need your protection. They need you to back them up with those above you, with families, with coworkers. They need you to stand between them and policies from above that make it harder for them to do the best job for students. They need you to be a bubble around them, ensuring they can do their job as well as possible.

Policy Reduction – I get that policies are (typically) created with the best of intentions. People in education (at least most of them) are doing all they can to serve children well. For some that means making policies and I truly believe policies are made to ensure that students have the best opportunities and support they can have. However, eventually there are many, many policies. Sometimes those policies conflict. Often those policies make significant demands on educators’ time. The more leaders can do to reduce the redundancy or paperwork of policies the more teachers can focus on their individual students.

I’m not certain that ‘permission, protection, and policy reduction’ covers everything teachers need from their leaders, but it is definitely a list that will get you started.

Student Shaming

As the semester enda I am seeing a lot of posts, mostly on FB, that seem like student shaming to me. I say seem like because I think it’s quite possible many of these folks don’t intend it that way or would not agree with me that it is student shaming. I have several issues with this and it is often tough for me to restrain myself on FB.

For one thing, no matter how we feel about our students I think it’s a bad idea to put these things out there in places like FB. I believe it is damaging to our profession for us to say negative things about our students to non-teachers. I recognize the need to vent frustration but I believe we should keep it within our world. As a parent it is hard for me to read these types of posts and think that some teacher may be saying that about my own children, even if they aren’t named there. As a teacher I can understand the reality, but many parents are not teachers and read these posts. I think it is harmful to the public perception of teachers. We want to be treated with respect and treated as professionals. I think talking about students in this way undermines that.

Secondly, I think there are a lot of assumptions made about students. When students don’t meet our expectations we tend to assume they don’t value the work we are asking them to do, they don’t appreciate what we are doing for them, or are just plain lazy. When we don’t meet someone else’s expectation (miss a deadline, do less than our best effort for something, request extra help or time) we have good reasons for it. Of course we do. Is it possible our students do too?

It is possible we have students who don’t value the work we are asking them to do, don’t appreciate what we are doing for them, or are just plain lazy. Quite possible. But…

First of all, isn’t it equally likely that some of our students have good reasons for their behavior? Just as we do when things are spot on. Is it possible that a deadline has been missed because of a significant issue happening in a student’s life? (I’m still grateful to a professor who gave me a serious break when I was late with a take home test when my engagement ended during my senior year of college. He could have assumed I was just making an excuse and held me to the deadline. He didn’t.) Is it possible that a student doesn’t seem to appreciate what we’re doing for them because they’re barely keeping their head above water? That they’re coping with school, family, personal things that we know nothing about?

We can immediately assume the worst about students because we know some students have behaved that way in the past. And sometimes we’ll be right. But I’d rather we assume the best. If we do and we’re right, then we’ve done well by our students. If we do and we’re wrong, a student will have gotten away with something. I’d rather we err on the side of generosity and kindness.


(It should be noted that I’m lucky to be married to another educator. That means we can bring our frustrations home, vent them to each other, and be able to move on.)

I Screwed Up

Yesterday afternoon I kept noticing a boy who seemed distracted during our independent reading time. He was on his computer, supposedly reading (they have several options for reading or listening to books online). Finally I walked over to check on him and he immediately minimized his browser.

One of my other kiddos enjoying his computer.

I responded poorly. I had him bring the browser back up, close it out, and log off. I made some comment about him wasting his reading time. And I walked away. The thing is, as he was closing the browser I noticed he was at our class website. He was reading it. That’s not something I want to discourage. As soon as he minimized his browser I made a decision about what was going to happen and I carried it out without any more thought. Had I paused long enough to talk to him I would have realized what he was doing. He clearly thought it wasn’t allowed, which I’ve now reinforced, but I could have talked to him about the fact that he was reading and that was exactly what we were doing at that time.

I haven’t yet gone back to this. I will. I need to talk to the entire class about the options they have on their computers during our reading time as my only expectation is that they are reading. (Of course, we may need to have some conversation about what sites they want to visit as, knowing my own children, I can already imagine some that I’m not sure I consider school-appropriate.) I also need to go back and talk with this specific child and apologize for my response.

I screwed this one up. Not only did I respond poorly and in frustration in the moment, but I also established an expectation that doesn’t fit what I believe. I sent a message that reading our class website isn’t acceptable. Good gracious. I know I don’t do as well when I am stressed and tired (which describes me pretty well in December) and should remember to give myself extra time to respond to kids.

On the plus side, I realized I screwed up. I know there were many years of my teaching career in which I wouldn’t have questioned what I did there. That’s a step forward. The more years I teach the better I get but the higher I raise the bar as well. I’ll never be perfect, but the kids deserve me doing my best. That means I have to question myself and recognize my mistakes. Then own them and improve. It’s just so dang hard in December.

Breakfast, Books, and Conversation


I caught this video one morning during breakfast. When I went back to look at it (eventually, as by the time I had time that day I’d totally forgotten it) I found so much that makes me smile.

  1. This is what my students are choosing to do during breakfast. They may have eaten and then grabbed the book or not eaten breakfast at school that morning. I don’t recall. However books and breakfast are a common combination. At least one girl has a book while she eats each morning. Others read while their friends eat and many grab books as soon as they finish breakfast. I love that they are so into reading.
  2. I love this series of books, True or False. There are a bunch of different titles and they are fantastic nonfiction books, both for reading and using as mentor texts for writing. The book they have is the one about planets, but I’ve seen kids interacting in similar ways during breakfast with many books from this series. (The right-hand page has a statement and asks if it is true or false. The next left-hand page tells if it is true or false and gives more information about that idea.)
  3. The independent talk they are doing makes my heart sing. When I recorded them I thought they might just be guessing if it was true or false, confirming, and then moving on to the next page. But they’re actually explaining their thinking to each other here. I also love that they are engaging with the book together rather than on their own. They didn’t have to do so, but talking about it is clearly adding to the experience.
  4. They aren’t just following each other. They have their own ideas and they stick with them, even if it means they’re disagreeing. They have confidence in their own thinking.
  5. This is small, but I love how the girl looks up at me and my phone early on and just goes right back to what she’s doing. They’re used to me taking pictures and video so they don’t care the way they might if it were novel. Also, the book is way more interesting than me and my camera could possibly be.

It’s amazing how a minute and a half of watching my students can make me so happy. I give them books, time to read, time to talk, and they can do anything.

Feeling Thankful

Thanksgiving weekend is a typical time to feel thankful but I’m not going to let being cliched stop me. I have far too much for which to be thankful for that.

  • We spent this Thanksgiving weekend with my husband’s family. From the first time I met them they welcomed me and that hasn’t changed in the more than twenty years he and I have been together. His parents, his siblings, and their significant others (all of whom joined the family after I did) are wonderful and the next generation of family (our kids’ cousins) are awesome. Marrying into a family isn’t always easy but I got really lucky.
  • Not being with my family this holiday is tough. I’d spend time with them every week if they were close enough. But my folks were able to be with my grandparents (who are 90 and 91 and live in their own home still) and other family. My sister and her significant other were able to be in Hawaii for a relaxing holiday. I’m thankful they all got something they needed this holiday.
  • I’m thankful for my current school, colleagues, students, and families. I spent a brief time in a toxic school many years ago so I am quite aware of how lucky I am to be where I am. My school is as far on the spectrum from toxic as it can possibly be.

    Of course I’m thankful to work with these awesome kiddos!

  • I’m thankful for the school in which I truly began my teaching career. A friend and former colleague referred to it as the think tank. That was definitely true. It was also a family. I am the teacher I am today because of that school and those colleagues. Many of whom are still my closest friends and forever mentors.
  • This online educational world is amazing to me. I have grown and learned and continue to do so because of the amazingly thoughtful people who take the time, energy, and risk to share themselves and their work here. I am grateful to be in this profession at this time.
  • My in-real-life educational world beyond my school is also phenomenal. I’ve been so lucky to get to know educators from around my area and around the world through the Northern Virginia Writing Project, Virginia ASCD, ASCD, and other organizations. There is so much wonderful work happening in education and I’m thankful I get to be a part of it.
  • I’ve just spent multiple nights in a hotel and hours in the car with my husband and daughters and I am still enjoying being with them. They are brilliant, caring, and hilarious. They encourage me and support me and bring me so much joy.

There are many things beyond family and work for which I’m thankful, but that’s a significant percentage of my life so I’ll stick with that at the moment.

Kids Are Quite Capable

One of the things I dread as a parent is taking my children for shots. In case you don’t know, my children are 10 and 14. I really thought it would be easier by now. I may some day get over the trauma of what it took to get our flu shots several times. I can’t judge them though, as I’m certain I put my mom through the same, if not worse.

Last year I managed to get both girls and myself inoculated but it was not a pretty experience. My younger one wanted to wait, she said she wasn’t ready. I was convinced she wouldn’t be ready, maybe ever, so we had to just get it done.

from NIAID’s flickr

Luckily, every once a while, I manage to make a smart parenting decision. Later, long past the trauma of the shots, I sat down with them both and talked about how best to go about this in the future. My younger daughter told me she wanted to be warned, to have time to prepare. The older one said, no way, don’t tell her until it’s happening. This year that’s what we did.

My oldest got her shot at her annual physical. She had very little warning. It wasn’t easy for her, but she did it. I told the younger one in the morning earlier this week that we were going to get our flu shots after school. When she got home we headed out. She never tried to delay. As we sat there filling out the paperwork and waiting for the nurse to call us, she was definitely anxious and dreading it, but she didn’t complain. In the moment she was tense and stressed, but again, there were no complaints or delaying tactics.

When given the opportunity, both of my girls knew exactly what they needed to make this process less awful for them. I was skeptical, especially of the little one. But they were spot on.

For the nth time (I’ve lost count long ago) I am reminded that asking kids is the smartest choice. Ask what they need. Ask how they’re feeling. Ask what works best for them. Ask how you can help. When in doubt, ask them.

I realize that children are not little adults and have things they need from us. However, too often, I believe, we are unwilling to trust them, to give them the opportunity to make their own choices. I think children struggle to make their own choices because they so rarely have the opportunity. This isn’t to say they won’t make mistakes. Of course, so do we adults. It’s an important part of our learning and growing. It should be for them too. It can be. We have to ask them and trust them.

Inspiring Writers

At the end of our language arts block (our reading/writing workshop time) yesterday, a couple of my 3rd graders came up to tell me how they were proud of themselves for something they had done as writers. So when we were all gathered on the carpet to wrap up our day, I asked all of them if they wanted to share something they’d done as readers or writers they were proud of. Their responses made my day.

  • I tried writing a sad story. (She doesn’t usually write sad things so this was her stretching herself as a writer.)
  • A (the student above) inspired me and I wrote a sad story too.
  • I’m proud of my creative ideas.
  • My words all made sense. (When asked how he knew that he talked about rereading his writing.)
  • In 2nd grade I wrote short things but now I’m writing a chapter book. I’m on chapter 5.
  • K (the student above) inspired me and I’m starting a chapter book too.

The fact that they inspired each other practically lifted me off the ground. What a beautiful community of writers they are.

Also, this was a brilliant way to end our day. Of course it was inspired and led by them.

Deep Down

It’s November, late November really, and that means things are tough. It means teachers have gotten through the anticipation phase of the year, right there at the beginning, all the excitement and high energy from both us and the kids. The endless possibilities, the new faces and names, the potential.

Then it was survival, just trying to check things off the list each day. Did all that critical paperwork get turned in to the office? Did I follow up with that student about a missing library book? Did I contact that parent to say how awesome their kid was in math today? Did I send my teammates that poem we talked about?

By November we’re in a groove. It may not be a comfortable one or smooth one or even one we like, but we’re rolling along. So this means we’ve likely hit the disillusionment phase. We’re tired. The days are getting shorter and shorter. The holidays are coming and our to do lists are absurd. We’re checking those boxes every day, every week, but we aren’t feeling good about it.

I am certain of this because I’m living it. Not for the first time, but somehow it always feels like the first time. I am surprised every year when I hit this point. When I am so deep in this trench, this ditch, that I can’t see a way forward.

from Andy Rogers’ flickr

Conversations with my teammates last week helped.  Not because they had ways to get me out of this spot, but because they’re there with me. They are feeling the way I am feeling. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Not doing or being for our students what we want to do and be. I am not alone. How powerful that is. And how do I manage to forget that every year as well?

Then I spoke with a teacher in another school and learned she was right there with us. Not only am I not alone but it’s not just my school. This lovely teacher has no idea how much she lifted me by sharing her struggles. It sounds absurd, but not being alone is such a relief.

I’m still overwhelmed. I’m still exhausted. I’m still not the teacher I want to be. But I’m feeling a bit like I do every year in late December, when I know the days are far too short but they’ll be longer soon. I know I’m in this trench, this ditch, and it feels impossible to get out, it feels like we’ll be stuck for the rest of the year. But I have some confidence now that we won’t be. We’ve been here before and got out. We’ve been here before and made it to better places as the year went on. We’ve been here before.

If you’re here with me, with us, hello. If you’re a hugger, as I am, here’s a virtual hug. I won’t tell you that you shouldn’t be overwhelmed and exhausted and feeling a bit like a failure, I’m feeling it too. I’ll just remind you that it won’t last. You won’t feel this way forever. Please keep reminding me too.