Every Student Needs a Champion

Something has been irking me for a while- gnawing away at my soul like it is a bone. Maybe it’s a sense. Certainly it is something I have tried to understand- this sense, this feeling. I have tried to figure out where it is coming from. And I think I wasn’t able to understand it completely until I watched Rita Pierson’s 2013 discussion on Ted Talks about teachers and students. A topic I hold close to my heart.

Watching her- I just knew what it was I believed in my heart.

Have you ever been there? Ever known deep down inside that something is philosophically not resonating but been unable to articulate it? That’s how I have felt about certain school reforms I have seen come and go and then come around again- certain propensities our schools have toward standardized testing and adhering to core curriculum concepts. We focus on the MIND as if that was all that mattered. As if the brain is the only part that made a human worthy. Yes, that’s how I have been feeling: confused about why these and other educational trends to institutionalize schools even more than they already are institutions bother me so much. That is, until today. But I now can see clearly. I know what it is I believe. And that is above all, I believe that for student success to become a reality, every student needs a champion that believes in them as a being- not just a cerebral brain.

Is this earth-shattering news? Something we’ve not heard before? A new revelation?

Not really. We’ve always known that students need someone to appreciate their worth- body, soul and mind. That they need someone to look up to/learn alongside who will fight for them, believe in them, vouch for them and care for them. All of them- not just the academic parts. But I wonder if we were truly to stop and ask ourselves- what is it students need most of all…what would our answer be?

Would it only concern that grey matter in their head?

Do students need most- capable, effective instructors who can deliver the goods- inputting them neatly into the empty receptacle of the brain?

Do students need experts in science? Math? Languages? Art? And music?

Do they need great orators who can entertain with stories and interesting trivia?

Or do they need talented curriculum guides to make study easy and exciting?

Or is it an organized, crafty designer to make the class room inviting and warm that they need?

A content specialist?

A well-educated scholar?

A parent, friend or a magician?

A babysitter?

What, of all these and many other positive and negative teacher attributes, do students then really need so as to find success inside the classroom and beyond? What is the one extrinsic factor that defines clearly the success of a student- the whole student?

It’s simpler than you might think. Students need more than anything teachers that care.

They need teachers that are willing to care enough to be a champion of the students- believing in them against the odds. Students need teachers that care about their intellect- but equally alongside that grey matter that contributes to the whole, students need teachers that care about their emotional development, social development, creative capacity, cognitive understanding and physical ability. Who care about their hearts.

This is not to say that teachers cannot care about the mind. Students need teachers who care enough about them as students to infuse passion into their science programs- their math classes and beyond. Need capable, effective instructors who can live out their calling. Students need teachers who love their content area, but they need even more than this effective teachers who don’t make subject material such a focus that the kids sitting there in front of them fade into the background. Need teachers who don’t make kids play second fiddle to the content. Students need teachers who know the curriculum in such a way that they can make it fit the students’ learning- along with needing teachers who are specialists in their area of interest and thus passionate enough to care that their students learn about the world around them. But do not underestimate that these teachers care only about the mind. These teachers are more than just skill and drill. Their curriculum is the heart.

It’s what students want. What students need most- teachers who care.

Students need teachers that care enough about them to ask questions, offer suggestions, take an interest, get to know them, nudge them, listen to them, move them, inspire them.

And students need teachers who believe in themselves enough to also see that their adult minds are also growing and developing too- because teachers never stop learning. It is our students sometimes that remind us of the importance of curiosity, wonder and imagination.

For within all of the various teacher types, when observed as already being effective and dynamic, there is one more thing they share in common: care. They are all defined by and characterized by the ability to compassionately, empahically care.

And that’s exactly what students need- what they want and remember most about the teachers who teach them.

That they care.

Because teachers who care about their subject, course material and content area also tend to care about what really matters most- the people they teach.  (At least they can and they should!).

What it really comes down to is this: students don’t want teachers to see them as hollow receptacles for knowledge, as empty buckets needing to be filled.  As problems and burdens and inconveniences and annoyances. They want us to see them as human beings. As people with potential and possibility. As capable and able to do the impossible.

And at the end of the day, what students want to see in us their teachers is a man or woman who is their champion.

Because every student deserves a champion.  Every single one of them.

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The Thing About Toddlers…

Toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergartners are so amazingly cute and adorable. Wise and witty. They are funny and insightful and precocious and downright wonderful, really. But when it comes to some things, I just have to shake my head in absolute perplexity. For one thing: why are toddlers/kindergartners/kids so distracted when you want them to do something (like eat their supper); but when they want you to do something, they cannot think about anything else for the next four hours, talking about that one thing INCESSANTLY so that you want to pull every strand of hair from your head and wind it around your ears to form makeshift ear plugs. WHY IS THIS (this unfair reality of life with a toddler)?

For another thing: why do these Delights of our Hearts have such selective hearing… when their young eardrums are at the prime of their life?  It doesn’t seemingly get any better with age, right?  So why in tarnation can’t they hear anything? WHY???  Let’s get real: I know they hear everything, I am positive they do. But I still must say everything at least TEN TIMES so as to get the desired result.  WHY, WHY, WHY???

And why in the name of time do toddlers/kindergarteners/kids up to age 7 know how to ask a bazillion questions at the absolute worst time- to which you have no answer and to which there may BE no answer (but to give them your i-phone and tell them to ask Siri); but when it comes time to pose a question to someone in a formal way, under pressure and on-the-spot, they draw a blank?
WHY IS THAT???? What is up with all this confusion, I ask you? WHAT???!!

The thing about kids and kindergarteners (and toddlers, for that matter) BLESS THEIR PRECIOUS HEARTS is they don’t yet know the rules.  They haven’t learned how to do things formally. They know how to do things informally- when the pressures is off. But when pressed to perform, everything breaks down.

Case in point.

So, we had a meet-the-new-RCMP-liasion PLUS Hallowe’en safety talk the other day in the library.  One month before the big day (don’t ask- it’s just when it was scheduled, okay?). Right off the get-go, one little girl took a quick first-glance at the “6’ plus many other inches” constable and promptly started crying. Shaky start. I don’t think the uniform/gun holster helped matters any, but everyone was really starting to warm up after we got Little Miss moved to the back. Phew. So, we got that all under control and started in on the safety talk.

Everything was going along swimmingly until the question and answer time. We explained that the children could now ask a question- which is to say, it was now OKAY for them to continue waving their hands like flags at a Canada Day celebration (which they had already been doing for the last 15 minutes anyway). So, the first little hand got picked to ask a question and she promptly said, “Don’t run across the road.”

Nice safety rule, but not a question.

So we tried another little waving hand.  Hand was up- that hand was picked…and then this (in a sweet little voice):

“Hold your mother’s hand.”

Okay…this isn’t working.


So, after a few of these more-than-valid insights, I stopped the show and explained what a question was, along with help from my cohort of other kindergarten teachers. We explained ‘who, what, when and where…” Gave examples. And then picked another hand.

“Always look both ways before crossing the road.”

So that was the end of that. No more question and answer with Constable Dave.  No more hand-picking.

Bless that poor man’s heart, I hope he will come back again in time for our Christmas safety lesson.

And in the meanwhile, we’ll be working on the 5 W’s.  Just in time for our next Q & A.

What I’m Learning Today

First, let me share with you some funnies:

Me (reading a Robert Munsch book called Class Clown to my students): “Boys and girls, the teacher in this story tells Leonardo that he can’t THINK anymore—isn’t that crazy!! Teachers can’t say that…”
Little Boy: “Well, I don’t think at school anyway…I only think at home…”

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Little Boy (playing Doctor/patient with me): “Open your mouth.”

Me (with my mouth wide open, tongue hanging out)

Little Boy: “You have two golden teeth. You’re going to die soon.”

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Little Boy (speaking of his parents who are about my age; which is to say- very, very young: “My Dad is older than my Mom. He’s going to die soon.”

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I am a teacher.

I write about love, care and compassion, among other topics of the heart. I teach real people- some of them ‘Littles’ with outrageous personalities and larger than life imaginations. Some of them ‘Olders’ who join in with our class for special times of painting, crafts and reading. I teach children with many abilities, talents, dreams, imaginations, wonders, fears, worries, questions, concerns, passions and joys.  Just like me.  So much like me.  And so, I teach to learn.  To learn about myself and how I relate to the world around me.

And here’s what I am learning about myself through teaching.

  1. You can’t have too much laughter in a day. There is never enough laughter. Never enough joy. We need to smile more, laugh more, find pleasure more in the everyday moments. There are times in my day where I find myself slipping into that all-too-familiar pattern of sense and sensibility. I call it teacher mode. It’s a way of thinking that calls to mind order, organization, structure and routine. And all this is well and good- even necessary. But at times, when I am in this mode of thinking, I find myself feeling a tightness in my center. A feeling of pressure right on my gut. Pulling me inward even as I grasp outward for something to ground me. This feeling is one brought on by stress- brought on by pressure. And there are many, many pressures in my line of work. Outcomes to be met, expectations to be exceeded, guidelines to be followed, programs to be delivered. So much to adhere to and so many rules to follow. It all comes together to a crest inside my inmost being causing me to feel panic, fear and desperation.

Causing me to lose my joy.

So I have taken to reading Robert Munsch in the middle of my day- every day. I love Bob. I once wrote him and he responded back- writing me at least twice. He is a hero of children’s imaginations and my class knows him by name- we look at his picture, name his line of work and talk about his job every day before we read his stories. What Bob has done for me and my kids is make us smile- on more than one occasion. Sometimes, he even makes me laugh. I know one thing for sure- he makes the kids laugh. He’s just that kind of guy.

We can’t ever have enough of this kind of stress-release. We need more laughter, more silly and more release from our uptight, tense and edgy state of being induced by too many mandates and protocols. We all need a little more Munsch in our lives. A little more silly.

  1. You can’t ever have too much love in your heart. There is no reason why teachers cannot love their students. No reason at all. Who dictates the ways of the heart or tells a soul not to love? Our hearts are wide enough, deep enough and capable of enough- why can we not then allow love in freedom to flow?

I am always amazed when students wrap their little arms around my waist and declare their love. I was on duty today and I had a circle of little girls that clung to my hands as I walked around. I could feel their love for me as palpably as I could feel the balmy autumn breezes. If a child can be open to love, why not us too?

The other day, I met a former student of mine in the hallway. I asked him for a hug and he responded with the biggest bear hug I could imagine. Nearly knocking me off of my feet. And while this might seem commonplace for many teachers, for me- knowing the child who gave this hug and knowing their story, it meant so much more than just a gesture. What I felt in that hug was a connection- a bond. Built on layer and layers of shared experiences, trusts and understandings. What this little boy with the absence of speech told me in that moment was this: I love you. And I felt that love with every fibre of my being.

  1. There is not enough time in this world to devote to listening. And by listening, I mean from the heart. I told my students by way of the morning message this morning that they were great listeners. And by that, I meant to inspire them to become more and more the great listeners I know they have the potential to be. Listening to each other, the world and its many voices- but most of all, listening to that voice that speaks to them from within. Listening is a learned art. A valuable asset. Through listening, we can understand ourselves and others around us. We can come to know ourselves better and know others more intimately. And through listening, we can come to find out that as people, we are more alike than different. When we find common ground, we are less likely to find fault with others. Listening is not a passive thing. It is perhaps the strongest thing we might ever choose to do with our minds.
  2. There is always tomorrow. There are days I drop the ball completely. Days that still haunt me for the ignorance I displayed, the callous I showed to those I hold most dear. I am still troubled by past mistakes at times, as we all can be when we choose to focus on the negative. But there is always another day. Always another opportunity. When we fail or disappoint ourselves, we always have tomorrow to try again. This is the grace we’ve been given- the grace of second chances. And when we offer second and third and more chances to others, we show them that grace is full and free. It is wide and open. Just as we desire it to be with our own situation. Just as we need it to be in our own lives. That there is tomorrow is a clear sign of hope. And classrooms without hope are among the most dismal places on earth. May we never forget: there is always room for grace.

At least, that’s what I am learning in my journey today.

What No Test Can See

I wasn’t prepared for it really. Wasn’t prepared at all. When the results were unveiled and the cursor moved down the Smart Board showing individual achievement results and my child’s name slowly rolled by- I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. Wasn’t prepared for the label, the category she was pegged in. I wasn’t prepared at all really. And as much as I dislike standardized testing on my kindergarten students- having fought to have the richness of their stories brought to bear on the results of recent moderated student writing, it really hits close to home when your own child comes up having not met grade level expectations. It brings the dislike to a whole new level.

Thinking about students and standardized testing. These two quotes from Clandinin and Connelly (2000) really put things into perspective for me tonight.  Here’s the first quote:

“We take for granted that people, at any given point in time, are in a process of personal change and that from an educational point of view, it is important to be able to narrate the person in terms of the process. Knowing some of the immediate educational history of the child- for instance, the lessons recently taught, as well as the larger narrative history of each child as that child moves from what was, to what is, to what will be in the future- is central to narrative educational thinking” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30).

And this one as well:

“In narrative thinking, an action is seen as a narrative sign. In our case, we intended that curricular actions be interpreted as classroom expressions of teachers’ and students’ narrative histories. For example, a child’s performance at a certain level on an achievement test is a narrative sign of something. It is necessary to give a narrative interpretation of that sign before meaning can be attached to it. Without understanding the narrative history of the child, the significance or meaning of the performance, the sign, remains unknown. Student achievement on a test does not in and of itself tell the tester or the teacher much of anything until the narrative of the student’s learning history is brought to bear on the performance” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30-31).

So with that in mind, here’s what people who decide those expectations don’t know about my daughter.

Her smile can light up a room.

She’s a loving friend, a loyal listener.

She loves to bake, invent, explore, create, move, dance, play and read.

She is wonderful with children.

She has an ear for music and is learning the trombone.

She loves to work with hair and can create braids that fall hopelessly apart in my hands.

She just made the volleyball team.

And what’s more: she might not have met expectations of some remote board who have determined that certain standards must be brought to bear, but I can say for fact that she liked that math class. She liked her teacher, loved her classmates, enjoyed the work and she never, ever complained.

She studied, worked hard, did her best and in the words of her teacher “did well’.  And confusingly, got great grades all year long.

And if her story were to be factored into those cold numbers that represent her on that isolated test representing one moment in time, there would be so much more to show for the amazing life that story of her’s represents.

She might not have met test expectations, but she will forever exceed those of her father and me.

We love her to the moon and back.  We always will.

And we’ll always be proud of our little girl.

On Intelligence

Someone asked me once whether I felt a certain child we both knew had intelligence. Not a question I get asked every day. Not a question I appreciate, to be honest.  Needless to say, this question was alarming to me on many levels, not the least of which was that it was asked of me by another educator, another teacher. Someone who should know better than to ask. A person that should have known: intelligence is only part of the picture. One piece of the puzzle.  And thus known that there are many, many intelligences to consider when discussing intellect. Truth be told: a child’s intelligence is not a topic two professional educators should be discussing when there are hosts of other issues more deserving of their time and thought. More deserving of their endeavors.  For each student who shows up in our classrooms is capable and intelligent. And each has an intellect, having been endowed with God-given gifts, talent and ability.

Call that what you may; I call it intelligence. Because every child is able.  Every child CAN. And every child has capacity- ability, clarity and certain aptitudes- certain leanings toward learning and understanding. And every child has an interest in varying topics and knowledge that serves their particular intellect. When teachers make judgments about students in this way- as we often do when comparing one student to another student for purposes of understanding, assessment and evaluation, we quite often fail to see the best in these individuals. And thus fail to see these same students’ potential. The possibility that lies in their ability. Because here’s what we miss in these situations: the fact that everyone has intelligence- it’s just that we’ve been given different kinds.

Intelligence is obviously not the same in everyone.  Thank goodness for that.  What a boring world this would be.

Because intelligence has traditionally been measured by narrowly defined standards- standards that accept commonly accepted academic goals in subject areas like language and math as being the most important criteria by which to measure a person’s smarts, we often don’t recognize intelligence as being varied.  And by that, I should add: we don’t appreciate and value those variations. We do recognize intelligence as being widely interpreted, but we only favor certain interpretations. For the standards that prepare students for the workforce are what we typically equate with intelligence- those academic pursuits associated with our school system. These are the standards that prepare students for a life of employment and labour. Standards which are measured and compared and found wanting, but nevertheless- still pursued.  That’s the intelligence we value.  Not the wide breadth and depth and extent of what intelligence CAN be.

It’s time we saw intelligence for what it truly is: diverse and wholly worthy in it’s variation.  It’s time we remembered that everyone has intelligence.

That student with the blank stare in your history class- they are a gifted sketch artist.

That child who is only approaching math expectations on the standardized test you just issued- she is a brilliant gymnast.

That boy who never answers a question in class and seems to fade into the woodwork- he’s a fabulous piano player.

And that bubbly girl who talks unceasingly every time you turn your back- she’s someday going to blow your mind with how she’ll end up changing the world.

We can’t believe fully in our students and simultaneously feel pity for them. Care is not pity. It isn’t weak-spined, sympathy that reaches out to the less-thans- the weak and deficient. No, that’s not care. Care is strong enough to surmount the odds. Care calls us to believe in the best each child has to offer- and it requires of us a new way of thinking.  And care knows better than to feel sorry for anyone when believing in them is so much better.

It’s time for a renewal of sorts.

We must care enough for our students to see their ingrained intelligences, whatever form those intelligences might take. We must care enough to care to change our own narrow forms of thinking.  And care enough to be open-minded, gracious, loving and hopeful in our perspectives.  We simply must care enough.  The rest will take care of itself.

After all, when we believe that all children are intelligent, we offer hope and future to our students beyond the narrowly-defined futures that await them within traditional understandings about intelligence.  All students have intelligence. It’s up to us to help them discover how.

And it’s up to them to use their varying gifts and talents, knowledge and understanding…to make this world a better place.

Believe

They showed up one morning. Could have been any morning, really. And there they were. Bright eyes, smiling. Hello, Mrs. Gard and then the pause. Waiting for my response. Their faces searching mine for that encouraging smile.

Do I believe in them?

He fell asleep every single day in my history class. The room was dark and calming, a glow from the overhead bulb the only light. His long hours at the fish plant gave him little time to sleep. Little time to be the teenager he should have been.  Little time to care about facts and dates.

Did I believe in him then?

The boy and his mother walk the halls. It’s his first day of school ever, coming up this Thursday. There are fears and worries, but mostly just excitement. Everything is new and inviting. School is cool when you’re four.

Do I believe in him?

Do I believe… in them?

Teachers: we have children who will walk into our lives, into our halls and into our classrooms in the days ahead. They will have stories and experiences, expectations and worries- hopes and fears. They will have dreams. Dreams they believe in.

Do I believe in them?

We have children coming who will challenge our patience, try our tolerance, question our leading, test our resolve. Children coming who will make us laugh and make us cry. And some who will make us want to shelter them with everything we’ve got. These children- they will work their way into our hearts. Will work their way into our world. We will come to love them like our very own. We will teach them, listen to them, care for them, nurture them, inspire them, learn from them, hope for them. And when we have to, we will fight for them.

And all because we believe in them. Because we care.

Do you believe?

Do you believe in them?

For if you do, they will believe in themselves too. They will believe they can.

And because they can, they will:

Learn.

Grow.

Understand.

Discover.           

Mature.

Develop.

Into the amazing, creative human beings they were meant to be. And they too will inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves. To believe that they too CAN.  And all this because YOU believed. Because we as teachers believed in them.

Believe.

Because that’s one small step we teachers can take to make the incredible happen.

Dear Parents

Dear Parents,

The last days of summer are already upon us. Where did the time go? School supplies have been purchased and tucked away, ‘first-day-back’ clothes folded and lain out on dressers in anticipation of the big day. Lunchbox items stocked up in the pantry. New sneakers, new lunch bags, new backpacks, new schedules. Newness. Everything just seems new and fresh when school arrives again in the fall. And while all this freshness and novelty can seem exciting, I am sure that the newly formed jitters and fidgety butterflies which already are surfacing in both little and big tummies can at times be an unwelcome addition to the arrival of fall.

{Disclosure: don’t tell anyone… but even teachers get butterflies. :)}

With all those little anxieties and worries at the front of my mind, I want you to know, Mom: I am going to do my best to watch over your precious child while they are in my care. I’ve got your back, Dad. Your child is in good hands. I am going to be there for your child this year- you have my word. Because while these children I have been given are in my class, they are my kids. They are my little brood. I will be there to help them find their way, learn the ropes, discover new and exciting things as well as to watch them develop and grow.

Your child is already special to me.

Let me assure you- we will make this time spent at school worthwhile. For I believe these little bodies and souls are full of possibility. Full of potential. And I want you to know that I see this- I know this to be true within my heart. I know that your child is a capable, gifted, clever little person with a unique personality, mind and body. Your child is special. I want you to know that I will recognize this in your child- it will be my mission. And I will work on your behalf so that your son or daughter never forgets what you have taught them from the very start: how precious and valued they truly are.

My role in their life this year will in no way undermine your most important role as their first and most influential teacher. I have said before and I will say it again:

You are the very best teacher your child can come to know. You have taught your child well — taught them about life and love and joy and sorrow. Taught them to be honest and kind. Taught them to be thoughtful and generous. Taught them to care for others. You have taught them. And my hope is that your life continues to be the living textbook that your child reads the most avidly. May it be among the most inspiring books they ever open!

As a teacher, I view the children in my class- indeed, in our school, as if they were my very own. Your child is my child while under my watch. I take that responsibility seriously- much the same as I do raising my own four children. There is a trust in passing one’s child over to another adult- a trust based on mutual understanding. The understanding is this: you give me your most precious treasure to look after all day long, and I will care for your treasure while they are in my care.

I will be there for them.

So when you place your precious loved one on the bus in the morning or drop them off at my classroom door, I want you to know that I do not take this responsibility I’ve been given lightly. And might I add- when those dear ones are returned to you again, when those precious children arrive home at the end of the day, I won’t stop caring. They are still in my heart. They are still on my mind. They are important to me. And they will always have a place in my heart. Please never forget: I will strive to care for your child this year in the best ways I know how.

Tenderly.
Gently.
Lovingly.
Compassionately.
Truthfully.
Deliberately.
Relevantly.
Patiently.

Parents, thank you for trusting me with this responsibility; it is my honor and privilege to be your child’s teacher this year. May it be for us all a year of wonder, nurture and discovery.