Tag Archives: Education

Be Brave: Teaching Teenagers

I’m not sure when a room full of teenagers became as scary as giving birth. However, as I lay awake the other night, contemplating my decision to take a secondary sub job, childbirth somehow became my mantra.

You gave birth, you’ve got this.

Ironically, my fear didn’t just keep me awake, it also prevented me from powering up my cell phone to hit cancel on the automated sub page. I can’t stand the idea of letting my anxiety stop me from doing something I’ve always wondered about. In some alternate reality, I must be a high school teacher because I’m drawn like some poor insect to a flame.

The upside of fear-induced insomnia is it creates time for reflection. As I lay awake, I asked myself where all this anxiety was coming from– what is it about teenagers that is so darn scary? I find it necessary to interject that this particular population of teenagers is more on the side of something you’d see in a movie where the teacher is first reduced to tears and then toughens up, but the reality is that even private school teenagers have made me hesitate from pushing send on otherwise attractive job postings.

Which brings me back to my question. What’s the worst that could happen? Sure they might not listen to me, profess hatred, or pull some stupid prank, but even then, I’d only have to last through one period at a time for just one day. I’d weathered the same from 4th and 5th graders for entire years. Heck, I’d given birth, which used to be one of the scariest things on my list of probable life scenarios worth fearing.

Still, somehow, the older kids were much more intimidating. I’d seen them yell and scream profanities and not listen to their teachers on the same campus where I used to teach. I even shared a wall with a class that made me feel lucky to have students I didn’t have to climb onto the planters to talk over. And this was the very same school where I’d impulsively hit “accept” on the secondary sub posting…

So, when 5:50AM came around, I dragged myself out of bed and resisted the final opportunity to use my fussy, teething infant as my excuse for not showing up. As I put on my most drab teaching attire and pulled my hair into an austere bun, I practiced my game face. Despite my slight frame, I managed to look somewhat menacing if I scrunched my features just right. And, unlike prior days, where I’d filled my commute time with blue tooth banter, I quizzed myself on teaching techniques and played music that made me feel adequately tough.

Upon arrival, the Dean of Discipline armed me with positive incentives and detention slips. He also warned me they’d be challenging. Great. Maybe I already wasn’t exuding the toughness I’d hoped. As I set up shop in the front of the classroom, I let my eyes stop on the note from the previous day’s sub, cautious not to read so much as to psyche myself out. A quick glance revealed cursing, attitudes, help from admin.

What did I get myself into?

One day was regrettably not enough time to morph into Michelle Pfeiffer and build lasting relationships with these kids. Still, there was no getting off the ride now. First period, 11th grade. The oldest, and biggest of the kids for the day. Straight into the deep end.

I shook each of their hands as they entered the classroom and felt tiny looking up at 6-foot-tall man children. Still, most of them made eye contact and smiled. Maybe I could do this. As I started busting out my hard-won teaching strategies, I realized I didn’t need them. Sleepy eleventh graders came in and did their job with little prompting. I didn’t even have to finish a single countdown. What a relief. One period finished and nothing to report other than an hour of near-perfect silence.

Next up, three periods of 8th grade and at least thirty familiar faces from my year of resident teaching. Maybe that was part of the secret to my success. Many of the kids knew my name and some even remembered me fondly with warm hugs and excited faces. But that wasn’t entirely it. These were the kids the other sub had written such copious notes about.

Second period came into the room as a hot mess. Laughter, chairs squeaking to unassigned spots, backpacks flying across the counters. I doubted myself for a moment, although I’m certain they didn’t see it. A loud countdown did the trick and for the most part, the kids listened. Check marks and detention slips helped. A long period of silent work was achieved.

Third and fifth period repeated the same scene. The sixth graders at the end of the day were louder, but just as responsive to a strong voice and the promise of both negative and positive consequences. Sure some individual students required more interventions than others, but overall the classes were all right.

The worst that happened? Two boys handed me a hall pass dipped in toilet water, but I didn’t let them have the satisfaction of an emotional response. I calmly washed my hands in front of the class and asked them to go to the office. I’ve dealt with worse.

It turned out that teaching older kids wasn’t so different than teaching fourth and fifth graders. It wasn’t easy but I survived. I talked directly to teenagers and they (mostly) did what I asked. I used a strong voice and looked them in the eyes. I came home tired but triumphant. I’d let go of my fear.

Now I just have to work up the courage to try Kindergarten…

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I’ve Got my Ticket for the Long Way ‘Round

I held it together when I read them my goodbye letter with each of their names remembered, I did not cry when I hugged them goodbye, I kept the tears in when I sat in my empty classroom, desks and chairs stacked, our two years in time gone. I even smiled when teacher after teacher asked me if I was alright at our end-of-year barbecue. Apparently, I’m not the only one who dreads goodbyes.

Yesterday, the first day of summer, I felt antsy. I could not put my finger on it. There is always the anxiety of not wasting a single second, because this too shall pass, but that wasn’t quite it. I woke up at 7AM wide awake, worked on my book, surfed the internet, did yoga, cleaned the house, and went on a date with my husband to a fancy restaurant, a perfect start to six weeks of freedom. Time passed slowly as it does in the beginning of a long break, each day accelerates a little more.

When we got home and snuggled up for a British show akin to House Hunters International, my husband brought over his iPad and pressed play. As the words washed over me, I could not hold back anymore. The tears flowed down my cheeks, a few sobs escaped, and my poor husband looked back at me like he had no idea what he had done. A group of girls in my class surprised us one day with this song at morning meeting, complete with cups thumping in rhythm against the desks and the a capella beauty of child voices singing in unison.

The words of their song did not hit me then. But now, they’re right. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone, the way they talk, the way they walk, I’m going to miss them when they’re gone. I keep telling myself it will be easier next time, that I won’t bond as much as I did with these first kids I kept for two whole years. Some teachers tell me it gets easier, some tell me they cry every single time. Who knows where I will fall, all I know is I managed to love these kids an awful lot. I’m not going to dwell, but last night it felt good to let it all out.

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Week 32: The Sweet Spot

Teaching always moves through ups and downs. Sometimes it feels like too much, sometimes it feels just right. This week, it feels like exactly where I need to be at exactly the right school with exactly the right children. I hope this is symptomatic of my personal growth over time, as opposed to the winding down of a school year or the change in weather, but whatever the cause, I’ll take it.

Too often Sundays feel anxious. Instead of a day of relaxation, they usually feel like the day before Monday, the day before my life shifts back into work mode. Lately, they’ve been different. They have felt untethered to the demands of the week. Likewise, where Friday used to feel like my saving grace, lately it has felt instead like an unexpected surprise at the end of the day, like I could keep going, like I still have more to do and do not mind.

I want to know what the difference is, so that I can make this how I always feel about my work. I know it’s not a change in the kids, they’re just as challenging and wonderful as ever. It has something to do with me.

Maybe I do better when the days are longer and the sun is out. Maybe the seven weeks until summer has me more relaxed or the promise of STAR testing being over soon is comforting. Perhaps it is the end of two years with the same kids and the knowledge of my real love for them as our days come to an end. Then again, it could be I have slowed down after work, making more time for nothing instead of cramming every moment with writing. Or, just maybe, I really did pick a profession I enjoy and this is the beginning of years of liking what I do.

Oh goodness, if I could only be so lucky. If to teach and write could be enough, my life would be full in a way I always dreamed but never expected.

Week 32 was test prep and our annual teacher appreciation days. I got sweet notes and gifts and words of encouragement. Smiles where sometimes there has been conflict. Little gestures of gratitude to show I am at the right place at the right time with the right kids. As I stood in front of parents yesterday for Saturday School, I thanked each family for giving me the honor of spending two years with their children. My eyes filled with tears. The right place.

Teacher Appreciation

It’s amazing how appreciation from families makes my job feel right.

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Fifth Grade: Big Dreams in Their Hearts

Today I sat at my back table during recess and listened. Three boys and three girls huddled around a group of desks and discussed their futures while they graded papers instead of going outside to play.

“Which college do you plan to attend?”

“What do you want to do when you grow up?”

I was just as amazed by their questions as I was by their answers. Children who will be the first in their families to go to college, some of whose parents work for minimum wage, answered in detail. They offered the names of obscure colleges, ones which require actual consideration instead of the obvious “Harvard because I’ve heard it’s the best” or “Sac State because it’s here.”

“I plan to be a lawyer,” said a boy who likes to argue. I often question whether he hears me when I tell him he is a born leader. He may not always act like one, but I see it in him. I also tell him he should grow up to be a lawyer. I guess he listens more than I realize.

“I plan to be a fashion designer or a doctor,” said a girl whose family does not speak English. She is undauntedly focused. Last year she wrote me a letter about how sad it makes her when other students disrupt and keep her from learning. If anyone deserves to succeed, it is this child.

I busied myself with the mess at my back desk and allowed their college talk to wash over me. Part of me was afraid that if I really listened I might cry. These are kids I have loved for nearly two years who will leave me in less than two months. Without realizing it, I am beginning to detach. Still, I am comforted to know they will leave my classroom with big dreams in their hearts. I hope they last.

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When it’s hard, try harder.

When it's hard, try harder.

“This is too hard.” Those words make me cringe. I hear them daily. They might be the most common words in my professional life. I tried to ban them. It didn’t work. They still sneak their way into lessons, tests, discussions.

“When it’s hard, try harder.”

That’s my newest response. I wrote those words on the board today, before we took our reading benchmark. I also tried something else. The school psychologist slipped a book into my box, Teaching Meditation to Children. We closed our eyes and imagined ourselves on a beautiful spring day confronted with an enormous wall. Instead of turning around, we figured out a way over, through, under… We didn’t give up.

The irony does not go unnoticed. I teach kids to do their best, to not get discouraged by their mistakes or failures. Yet, sometimes in my personal life I want to give up. Lately writing has felt this way. At first I was unfazed by the rejection letters from my queries, but more than forty later, they are beginning to feel heavier as they pile up. The worst are those from agents who asked to see more but then weren’t interested. The others feel less real, less personal. They didn’t take the time to look.

I’m not sure what’s next. More querying, rewriting, beta readers, self-publishing, a different project, or some combination of it all. Today I realized the important part is that there is something next, that I follow my own words to try harder when it’s hard. After all, what good is a leader who does not believe her own words. Maybe a little meditation would not hurt either.

"Children experience feelings such as love, joy, fear, disappointment and anger with intensity they may never match in adult life." So true. I remember that intensity. I also remember the teachers who asked us to close our eyes and imagine.

“Children experience feelings such as love, joy, fear, disappointment and anger with intensity they may never match in adult life.” I remember that intensity. I also remember the teachers who asked us to close our eyes and imagine.

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My Golden Teaching Ticket: Residency & Doug Lemov

You know you’re a teacher nerd when you get asked to attend a Doug Lemov training and it’s like you hit the jackpot. For those of you who have no idea who Doug Lemov is, let’s just say he’s a rockstar in teacher land. In fact, in some circles, my excitement could even be misconstrued as bragging, (imagine that, bragging about work training, but it’s true, Lemov is the guru of effective teaching).

Lemov’s name caught my eye in a New York Times article about crafting effective teachers a few years ago, before I was even accepted to a teaching program. I thought I was ahead of the curve when I walked into my interview with it practically memorized. Little did I know, my entire teacher training program would be connected to Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion. Not to mention all the professional development meetings at my school to this day centered on his findings.

So, when I received an email this morning asking if I’d be willing to read his newest book, Practice Perfect, and attend a two day training down in the Bay, I enthusiastically said yes. That’s the thing, as hard as my job often feels, I am incredibly fortunate to work for an organization that is forward-thinking.

Just last night, I sat in a restaurant with representatives from a non-profit whose sole aim is to perpetuate the teacher residency model as the most effective way to train new teachers. Inspired by the medical field, residencies puts trainees to work side-by-side in the same classrooms as highly effective mentor teachers full-time, for an entire year. Instead of the usual student teacher label, residents are called co-teachers and treated accordingly.

The residency I participated in, which is also part of the organization I still work for, has proven to be one of the most successful in the nation. As I was interviewed about my second year in my own classroom, I was reminded of my passion for changing the way education looks in this country. I was also asked more than once about whether I got my strategies from Doug Lemov. I was happy to say yes.

Teacher or what-have-you, this book sounds intriguing!

Proud to be a teacher nerd.

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Week 20: It’s All About Heart

When I started teaching on my own, a year and a half ago, I counted every week as a fraction of the school year. I was not sure I could make it, so I had to think in tenths, and fifths, and halves. For the first couple months, each week was a victory.

In my second year, I still count the weeks, but mainly for planning purposes. Only the big fractions stand out. Today is the end of week 20, the school year is half way done. My biggest obstacle is exhaustion. I like teaching but it makes me tired. This week I realized that’s the one thing left that makes me question how long I can last.

It’s not like sitting in a cube and writing economic analysis all day, (which I did for almost three years). It’s standing on my feet, raising my voice, putting on a show, quickly responding to a million little cues all day long. The first week of school my body ached, my throat hurt, I went home each day and took a nap. Even now, by Friday afternoon, I’m drained.

However, the difference between a year ago and today is my heart. A year ago was about survival. Today is about love. I love my kids. I know they’re not mine. But I still love them. A year ago I was just getting to know them. I am so grateful for two years together. Even the most irritating behaviors often end in smiles now. I know which buttons to push, which tricks to use to make their anger dissolve into laughter.

This morning I woke up and realized I am three fourths done being their teacher. Fifth grade teachers think in fractions. The separation is already beginning. Their fifth grade, hormonal selves are becoming more social, less attached to me. Today we all ate lunch in the classroom to celebrate our academic success and instead of huddling around me like they did a year ago, they sat in little groups and ate. Occasionally one would stop by and chat, then move on.

I didn’t mind, though. I’m excited for what comes next, for them and me. I’m excited to see whether the next batch feels the same or different. Today I wrote in their morning message that we are half way done with fifth grade. I told them I will cry when I have to say goodbye, because I care. I made a few cry prematurely with that statement. Teaching is definitely about heart. Now if only I could figure out how to keep it from making me so darn tired.

Only fitting that we're studying the heart this week.

Only fitting that we’re studying the heart this week.


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Right Action & Overwhelming Goodness

My sister orchestrated a coat drive at her school over the holidays to benefit my students. I didn’t ask her to, it was part of her “right action” project. On Sunday night, two huge bins of jackets were loaded into the back of my car. Each included a carefully drawn flyer reminding others of the importance of right action. I felt mighty proud of my kid sister.

Yesterday, I got a thank you letter in the mail to give to our student council. Our food drive, organized by the kids in December, contributed nearly 2,000 meals. The first load alone weighed more than 300 lbs.

Today a parent set up a schedule to work in my classroom. She plans to spend an hour in my room four days a week working with a student who is special to her, my very own Maniac Magee. Her husband is scheduled to volunteer a couple days a week too, on his days off. They do not even have a kid in my class. They also spend significant time at my school in other rooms, art and their own children’s. They are just that kind.

Last week, a good friend came in on her hard-earned day off to talk to my class about being a journalist and going to grad school. This month my dad plans to volunteer as well. My mom sent healthy snacks for the kids in December and was so excited by their gratitude she just ordered more…

Sometimes when my job feels like a lot to carry, I am blown away by how others are willing to share the load. I am most humbled when this help comes out of nowhere. Just when it seems like I could not possibly ask for anything more, someone else reaches out and makes a difference, reinvigorating my dedication to my work and my faith in people.

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Week 19: Calm & Peace

The completion of week 19 feels momentous. 40 weeks in a school year. Practically half way done. In a blink, fifth grade will be over and I’ll be starting again with a room full of fourth graders.

Week 19 is 2013. As one apologetic behavior letter from a student reminded me, it’s a fresh start. It’s the frozen activities field beneath a thin blanket of fog and the backdrop of a rising sun, that one forgotten soccer ball settling into the icy mud. It’s smiling faces and getting called Mrs. Mac by that one kid who never opened up until now… Mrs. Mac, a softer, truncated nickname filled with more love than I can communicate.

It’s four kids receiving random acts of kindness, confused hugs for the extra attention. It’s my principal walking in to observe in the first hour on the first day back at school and me smiling unapologetically at the imperfection in my room, pure embrace of sleepy kids and calm.

It’s book reports that have blown me away. The girl with the purple guitar. The boy whose name should be Maniac Magee, who pretended to be the protagonist in Spiderwick Chronicles, much to the delight of all the other kids. Fifteen minutes of wild impersonation, jokes, energy, charisma. A cheer he taught the class, tugging on both ears, “Boggarts, boggarts, boggarts!” His joy in success and fame.

It’s also the intervention teacher’s compliment that I seemed so at peace watching his sometimes frenetic performance, a room of 29 other kids just seconds from bouncing off the walls. That edge where control could be lost, me more calm and centered than ever before. A friend who visited just in time to walk through all the other classrooms and take a peak at all the book report creations, recognizing the strength in my patience, sharing her grad school stories with my kids.

Week 19 gives me hope. Hope I can be calm almost all the time. Hope all this yoga and meditation are paying off. Hope I have found a sweet spot in my love and knowledge of my students. Week 19 is peace.


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My Humble Thoughts on Education (Did I mention I’m a teacher?)

As I drove to work this morning, NPR played a piece about standardized testing in California. Try as I might, I can’t find the link to the story, so I’ll give you a similar link from the Mercury News. Basically, California plans to phase out standardized testing and use a computer-based test that attempts to measure critical thinking instead. This is all part of the adoption of the National Common Core Standards.

Students will enter their responses into the computer, typing in what they think instead of selecting from a list of choices. On the surface, this may sound better than multiple choice. However, low income kids often do not have access to computers at home, while their wealthier counterparts often have personal devices at their disposal. The same goes at school. Some schools in California have a laptop for every kid, then there are schools like mine, with one computer lab shared by grades K-12.

As an added layer, English learners (ELs) communicate differently than their English-only peers, making their responses hard to compare. Even if the tests adjust for ELs, many families of ELs are afraid to identify as non-English speaking at home, making it impossible for schools to legally designate countless students who would benefit from the modifications.

As much as standardized testing may get under my skin, it is a way to measure students in all socioeconomic groups with less favor given to more privileged populations. Sure, there are still disparities in accessing the content on the test, as an EL fifth grader reading at a first grade level may not be able to accurately demonstrate his ability to think through problems he cannot 100% read, but at least he does not also have to hunt and peck his way through the test on a keyboard. Instead, he can pick an option that verbalizes what he may not be able to write on his own.

My two cents. If we want to fix education, open-ended testing on computers is not the answer. I hope I am proven wrong, (especially if the state actually goes through with it and I have to give these tests to my students). However, my initial impression is that a shift of this nature gives unfair advantage to students with wealthier backgrounds. True assessment of understanding requires different modes of input/output for different students. Traditional standardized tests may not fit the bill, but the solution seems worse.

I worry that our desperation for education reform is creating outcomes that do not reflect the realities of teaching students with different learning needs. I’ll leave you with a link to a Huffington Post article that illustrates some of the other attempts at education reform underway. I’d comment but that would be a whole different 500+ word entry, (and this teacher is a little on the tired side already).

Instead, I’ll just say that my school is part of a huge trial evaluation program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the next five years to increase teacher effectiveness. I was also trained through a residency program funded by these same grants. As weird as it is to think about, I am one of those data points that will shape the debate on reform. So far my little dot is more effective than expected, but also a little wary of the implications.

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Week 18: Gingerbread & Rainbows

I did not expect the world to end today. However, it did feel different this morning. The sunrise was spectacular. A full rainbow danced across the sky. Happy laughter floated through the halls, a sweet friend and coworker newly engaged. Kids with sticky fingers and smiles as they constructed gingerbread houses. So much excited energy for winter break.

I was presented with a lesson today. Sometimes we need to embrace things as they are instead of fighting for control. I forget this when I teach sometimes, expecting students to act a certain way instead of gently guiding them in a mutually agreeable direction. I’m learning.

12/21/12 will go down as a good day in my book. Struggles, messes, laughter, and beautiful skies.

“Please Mrs. M, can’t you stay just ten minutes longer?”

Those after school words mattered most of all.




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Teaching: An End to Week 16

Here is a little secret about teachers, or at least the ones I know. We number the school weeks from 1 to 40 as we plan. Week 16 just ended, reminding me we are almost halfway done. Still so much to learn. All those fractions, to decimals, to percents driving my kids crazy. Winter break just two weeks off. Gingerbread houses dangling over their heads like the promise of Santa watching to reward those who are naughty and those who are nice.

When I think of all the weeks I have already survived, I see a bumpy road of highs and lows. This week, thank goodness, was a high. My students worked hard, behavior was good. Only one student went to the office. Consistent behavior management is paying off, even if sometimes it feels painful. I get it though. When you let things slip, each slip gains momentum until suddenly you find yourself in the middle of disaster. Better to be consistently firm.

Week 16 was bittersweet. One of my students rapped in front of the school on Friday for our weekly Town Hall, telling the students “We don’t be rude, we be polite,” teaching assertiveness with four hundred little pairs of hands waving along with him. Still, his friend sat in the bleachers sulking because he lost his chance on the mic. Consistency is hard sometimes, even if it means you care enough about someone to recognize the long-term benefit.

It is strange how two years with the same kids makes you care about them so deeply. I know it goes both ways. They often call me Mom by mistake, the familiarity sometimes confusing when they’re not paying attention. I always respond in a syrupy voice, “Yes, darling?” Then we laugh. That’s the thing. When you spend more than six hours a day directly interacting in one small room, day in and day out, you really do become a family. Even my toughest kids, the ones who would never crack last year, can be made to smile in the middle of their fits.

So, as week 16 ends, I am reflective. I worked so hard to get this little motley crew to care about each other, and now they do, but soon enough they’ll be off to middle school and I’ll be left to start over again. I know this is teaching and I’m not sad exactly, just reflective. We have grown so much and I am grateful to be at a high point instead of a dip.

I leave you with my teaching team’s idea of a good joke. Our Napoleon Dynamite inspired snack day, a quesa-dila bar. Amazing how a little laughter at work makes the day better.

You're invited!

Teacher's Lounge


Quesadilla Bar

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