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.

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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.

It Matters That We Remember Our Students

I recently ran into a former professor of mine from my undergrad days at U.P.E.I. I actually had been invited to attend a talk that he was presenting to a small group of people in his home- thus the reason for our paths crossing. As I was re-introduced to him by my friend (after a fourteen year hiatus from studies at the same university where I had first met him), I had already convinced myself that he wouldn’t remember me. After all, the class had been held in an amphitheater-style classroom- I was just a face in the crowd. A number on a spreadsheet.

Why would he remember me?

Why that mattered to me that he remembered me, is an interesting thought. Does it matter that teachers remember their students? As his student, I certainly remembered him- his style of teaching, his topic of interest- even some of the things he had said. But for some strange reason, it mattered to me- in that moment- that he remember me.

As pleasantries were exchanged, he assured me that he did indeed remember me. And he paused to talk to me about my life, work and writing. As we reacquainted, I remember feeling honored that a teacher at the university level would remember a former student from many years prior and thus take the time to talk to that student, me- showing an interest in who I had become.

It mattered that he remembered. It mattered that he was that kind of teacher that remembered. And I am of the opinion that it matters that we care enough for our students to remember them. To remember the essence of who they were when we were a part of their lives.

Can we always remember their names? Regrettably, no. This is a grief of mine. Can we remember all their likes and dislikes? Not likely. All the ins and outs of their lives? The ideas and beliefs they espouse? Their dreams and ambitions? Hardly.

We can’t remember everything, but we can remember something. And that something essentially is that we can remember the person.

It matters that we care enough about our students to remember them, that we care enough to remember the person.

I have students whom I still remember from my student teaching days fifteen years ago. Do I remember everything? Again, this is an unreasonable expectation. I sometimes find myself forgetting details as the years go by. Yes, I forget details at times, but I still remember the person. And I believe I do so in part because I challenged myself to take the time in the classrooms I was blessed to be part of, to be in the moment. To really make what I was doing an experience that I was present for, not just something I put my time into so as to make a buck. So as to do a job, fulfil a mandate or complete a task.

I remember because I made it a priority.

Caring for people requires investment. And when we invest our time- using that same time to open up discussion, opportunity, possibility and conversation, we have more of a chance of remembering. More of a chance of keeping connection. And it’s worth it to ourselves to remember the people who’ve touched our lives, our students. It’s worth it. Because those same students we remember, for better or for worse, are the very reason we do what we do.

They are the reason we are in this profession. The reason we teach.

So in thinking about remembering people who’ve changed my life, I wanted to share with you some students I remember:

That boy in my third grade class who brought his favorite CD in for me to listen to

That girl who loved to figure-skate, whom I drove forty-five minutes to watch practice

That boy in my high school history class who always fell asleep because he had worked at the fish plant until 11:00 p.m. the night before

That boy who I eventually won over- even after I caught him starting a fire in the school gazebo

That girl I wrote a letter to and read to her class after I watch her being bullied

That boy I would have followed to the moon and back after he shared with me what had happened to him that morning before he’d even made it to the bus

That little girl I knew needed extra love- and her parents too

That boy in my tenth grade law class who scribbled words I can’t even describe- whom I knew needed to be read by someone with more authority than me

That girl whom I nominated for a music award

That boy I sang a duet with at the school variety concert

These students I remember, these students I will never forget- for they are blessings in my life, even though I may not have known it at the time. Little graces that I have known along the path. People who have touched my life in this journey of mine as an educator.

True- sometimes my memory fail me. The details become a little fuzzy. The faces might even lose their defining features in my mind. But the person behind that face is forever etched in my heart.

I will always remember these students- their stories of hope, resilience, determination and sheer grit have made me the teacher I am today.

May I never forget the reason for why I chose to be a teacher. For why I am who I am.

It’s because of my students.

A Teacher’s To-Do List

The air has that familiar chill that reminds us fall is nigh. A beautiful maple I noticed just this past week has already turned golden and ruby in color. The gardens are brimming with produce while the sun sets earlier on these late-summer nights. And for those of us in the public school system north of the 49th parallel (metaphorically and physically), school is just around the corner.

School is on my mind.

And if I had to write out my to-do list of what I need to remember this year, it would unfold as follows:

Don’t forget this year to take pleasure in each and every day. Make each school day an adventure of learning, discovery and fun. Start out the morning determined that you will not let impersonal mandates, formal goals and distant rules and protocol rob you of seeing the personal joys found in each new day.  Rob you of seeing the people who have been placed in your path. Welcome your students. Smile at them. Say hello and ask them about their evening. Look into their eyes when they answer- make sure to hold their gaze for those few brief moments that you have their undivided attention.  Listen.  And don’t rush these precious, tender conversations.  Relish the moments, both small and great that define your day.

Show your students you care about them.

Don’t forget this year to enjoy what you are teaching. See the topics, themes, courses and curriculum as the resource they are. Let the resource work for you. Choose to see the opportunity rather than the limitations. Begin each day with the mindset that there is something worthwhile learning and let that mindset transfer to your students. Infuse your classroom with positivity, creativity, possibility, curiosity and hope. Welcome questions- don’t turn them away. Greet the inquisitive mind as a delight and honor the questions that come your way. Each moment that you are given is a gift- hold those brief moments in your hands with care.

Show students that you care about the subjects you teach.

Don’t forget to reach out to the others in your workplace. See the various people that cross your path as blessings, even if that might be in disguise! Treat everyone the exact same way you expect to be treated back- with honor, integrity, compassion, grace and love. Let the golden rule be your guide. Welcome parents, volunteers, visitors and likewise into your school and classroom. Accept the ones you’ve been blessed to call co-workers. And respect each person as the unique individual they are withholding judgment and opinions that are based on unfair, impartial reasoning.

Show people you care.

And never forget to take care of yourself. Look after yourself this year. Be kind to yourself- don’t hold yourself to ridiculous standards. Try not to stress about the little things that no one will remember anyway. Get more rest. Go for walks. Exercise. Recharge. And although it might be unreasonable to ask that you leave your work troubles at your desk, try not to become a slave to your work. Set it all aside at times so as to connect with the people who are really what your work’s all about.  What life’s all about. Determine this year that you will set work aside at times so as to refocus. That you will set work aside to rejuvenate. And when you are ready, determine that you will come back to your work with a renewed frame of mind- ready to give it your best self.

Show YOU that you care.

And above all, let your care for your students, your work and the people in your life be the one thing that defines you as a teacher this year.

 

picture courtesy of thenextfamily.com

And may this year be your best one ever.