Dear Next Year’s Teacher

Dear Next Year’s Teacher:

You are probably too tired to read this. I know I am too tired to write it. It has been mulling around in my brain for the last two weeks as I’ve tried to squeeze in every moment of learning between required assessments, data entry, evaluation reports, data analysis, meetings, and deadline after deadline. Well you know. But this is important and it worries me.

What will happen to my kids next year?

You see some of them they will soar. They will probably struggle with fractions, important American people in history and the explorers. But don’t hold that against them. We just ran out of time. There is so much to cover and though I could stand and present all the information there just isn’t enough time to actually learn and connect with all the required material. Like I said don’t hold that against them. They are ready to soar for you.

And then there are others who are not quite ready to soar but they are gaining momentum. They have worked hard and they are starting to believe in themselves and that belief is 95% of the way towards getting them ready to take off. Please hold that budding confidence gently and protect it. They are ready to take risks for you.

And there are those who are going to push every button you have. I know because they have pushed all of mine. I ask you to hold these the firmest and gentlest. These are the ones that have come the furthest but when they come to you in the fall they will be testing you. Can they trust you? Will you believe in them? Will you still care when they make bad choices? Do it. Do it all. They are ready for your guidance.

You see I worry because I love these children. I have poured my heart, soul and mind into them for the entire school year but that is not what is important or profound. They have made every moment of exhaustion, frustration, and yes even sometimes anger completely worth it because they have loved me right back. Together we have worked, grown, learned and made meaning in this world, a gift I am so grateful for.

This has been my best year as a teacher. And it started with changing me. So this is what I did each day. I showed up. I put the kids first. I did the next right thing. I went home and rested. And after doing this for a while I loved them. And that made it easier to show up and do the next right thing. And then a magical thing happened. At night when I laid my head on my pillow I was tired but not worried, because I knew that I had done everything I could do on that day as a teacher and a compassionate human being. And tomorrow I would have a chance to do it again. And if I had messed up some things I could go in the next day and do it differently. I could even ask for forgiveness because it would be OK. I loved them and they loved me. We were in it together. And we made it better together. Not perfect but better.

So you see it is so important that despite my exhaustion and yours that we know these things and that we remember these things because I only get to hold them in my hands for one year and then I have to pass on the torch. You will get to hold them next year and I need you to know how much they are going to give to you and how much you will learn from them. It won’t be be easy but it will be worth it.

Trees Know What Children Need

When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need. Brian Andreas

Every day I come home to see this.



I look out my windows and I am grateful. Grateful to be seeing something so beautiful. Grateful to be alive. Grateful that I don’t have to do anything. I just have to stop for a moment look and be present. I need that. I need to connect to something larger then myself, something so beautiful and free. It keeps me grounded. Often this leads me to think of others who cannot just look out their window and see this. I think of people who are like me and yet they are not me. People who are struggling, people who need connection, who need beauty, who need freedom.

Trees, just being in their presence, it brings me peace. Trees and water and solid ground under my bare feet. These things connect me. Thoughts of connection always bring me back to my classroom, to the invisible strands that connect me to my kids. And I wonder have they ever known the peace of just being with a tree? Because when I think of trees I think of childhood. I think of digging beneath trees and dreaming beneath trees. I think of napping and cool breezes and dappled sunlight. And those blissful moments, shouldn’t they be free to everyone? Most especially children. Shouldn’t they know those moments of wonder and loveliness? And so I am always thinking, how do I bring the trees to my kids? How do I connect them to a world larger then themselves? Because if there is anyone who should know loveliness and wonder it’s children. Our kids, they need more connecting, more wonder, more loveliness. They don’t need more tests, more homework, more rote routine. These things they don’t build amazing human beings.

So I am going to keep thinking and challenging myself every day to be grateful, to wonder, to connect and in that connecting I think about my kids and how I can help them be amazing human beings.  I will be thinking about things that children need.

Mr. How to Be Awesome

I struggle with perfectionism both as a writer and as a teacher. As a writer I worry that the words aren’t good enough. As a teacher I worry that for the kids I am not enough, not patient enough, not knowledgable enough, and on and on. As a writer this stops me from putting words on the page. I have lots of words swirling around in my head and I don’t know how to arrange them on the page. The voice in my head gets frenetic and I shut down. As a teacher I withdraw from my kids, I take my true self out of the classroom and put in place a teacher self, a self that I learned is what a teacher is suppose to be.

This is where the story of Mr. How to Be Awesome comes to teach me a lesson that I need to learn over and over again.

We were learning to write informational text. I asked the kids to choose something they felt they were an expert on and then write about that to teach someone else. One of my guys wrote a piece called How to Be Awesome. On his story planning page he wrote and illustrated the following:

How to be awesome

First get good friends.
Get awesome clothes (Michael Jackson’s jacket)
Get a cool hair cut. (dye it blue)
Play soccer and be a goal keeper.
Awesome now you are.

I have to tell you that this little guy is awesome in so many ways and he struggles. He gets very upset when he doesn’t have the “right” answer or when he doesn’t win the game. He wants to always be perfect. We have been working through his quest for perfection because it holds him back from his own true awesomeness. He pulls back from the question he has no guaranteed right answer for because he is afraid, afraid of not appearing to be awesome.

One day he was really struggling during math. He was trying to play a math game with a friend. He spent the entire time micromanaging the game play and making both himself and his partner miserable. I took a deep breath and called him over for a private conversation.

I looked into his angry little face and with my most gentle voice said

You don’t have to always be right. You don’t always have to win. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be you. And what you are is great. Just be you and everyone will know how great you are.

And he burst into tears, he covered his face and he walked away. In that moment my heart broke a little because I know how he feels, what it is like to always be striving for perfection and then to find yourself crippled, unable to act because you are caught in the grip of fear, of someone finding out just who you are and how imperfect you are.

I have been sitting on this story for weeks unable to write it down. Unable to do the moment justice. I am giving up on that now. I am writing the story of Mr. How to Be Awesome because he is and so am I. We just need to be ourselves, to let people see us and know that that is enough.

I am putting uncertain words on paper and putting my real self back in the classroom, the self with all her doubts and questions and uncertainties. Each day I am letting the kids see me and I am seeing them so that we can discover all our awesomeness.

You Have to Get to Them

We just finished our third quarter of school. The kids and I have worked well over one hundred days together. We have spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We’ve created a loving, trusting community of learners. That doesn’t come easy and we have to come to it each day ready to challenge ourselves emotionally and intellectually. And I know that the work of getting to know each other is important because there is no learning without meaning and there is no meaning without connection. This makes our work of community and connecting essential to learning.

This week at a grade level team meeting we were told that some children were not progressing in their reading. Apparently these students need a reading intervention. The one thing according to the reading specialists that we have going for us is that we as teachers know our kids. There is the implication that we are somewhat lacking in other areas but congratulations, we do know our kids. So the people who are the experts at teaching reading are going to take those kids who are not progressing and they will give them intensive daily reading interventions. In theory the children will progress in their reading.

I was talking to a colleague about this and she said something that really struck me. “You have to get to them before you can teach them.” Yes, you do. You have to get to them. And I had an image of my kids bobbing in a treacherous ocean. As a teacher I have thrown them a life preserver by way of a snack, a winter coat, a smile, a listening ear, an encouragement, a refusal of anything less then their best. I have spent all year trying to get to them. I can tell you how every one of those children has progressed over the last one hundred days. I can tell you about the obstacles in their way. And I can tell you our plan to go farther. But for the powers that be it just isn’t fast enough. It doesn’t look good on paper.

Honestly I hope that someone has a magic that I don’t have. I hope that someone who better knows the ways of teaching reading will give them something I have not. But I don’t like sending my kids out into someone else’s ocean, someone who does not know them. I’ll be preparing them. I’ll be sending extra encouragement and smiles. I will be giving a little extra time with a listening ear. That’s what you do when someone is connected to you and they go out on a difficult journey. You send all your love and care in the best ways you know how and then you hope they come back stronger then when they left. There are so many things I want to tell those reading specialists about these children. If you push this one too hard she shuts down. You have to wait that guy out, patiently. She doesn’t have confidence and is always trying to please. You see I know them but all that knowing, it takes a lot of time. And we don’t have time for that. It doesn’t look good on paper.

Just Read the Story

The school counselor did a lesson with my kids about how to behave when they are bored. At the end of her lesson the kids left their notebooks open on their tables as we hurried to music class. When I returned to class I looked at the open notebooks, curious about what they had been doing. I saw the following in several student notebooks:

Times when I am bored

When the teacher is reading a story.

My heart was broken (and my ego as well.) Some of the children who wrote this were students who I felt were the most attentive and interactive during read aloud lessons. I was crushed. Obviously something was not working. I needed to have an honest discussion with the class about what was going on with our read aloud lessons. The next day I just put it out there. I explained that after the counselors lesson I noticed that some of them had written that they were bored during our read together time. I explained that I wanted them to be interested and thinking about the book. If they were bored I wanted to know why. They all just stared as if I had read their personal diaries.

Finally one brave soul offered “We don’t want to hurt your feelings.” I explained that just like them I had a lot to learn and that they would be helping me and all of us by sharing. One by one they began to open up.

“It’s just that you keep stoping and talking and then it gets boring.”

“I like when you just read it like a movie.”

“It’s just like it takes a long time and gets boring.”

I thanked them for being honest and for sharing and explained that I would think about what they had said and how I could make our reading together better.

And so my world of the carefully crafted interactive read aloud lesson was shattered. You see there is no time to just read a story for enjoyment, no time to just get lost in that world of story. We have to front load vocabulary. We have to look at story elements, character traits, inferring, talk about problem and solution and on and on and on. Each time we read a story together there is an agenda.

This has turned reading together into a task, not at all the experience the author intended it to be. Does any author build all those elements into a story to be picked apart by small children and analyzed? No! Authors use these things to get you to enter their world, sink into their words, to experience the magic and power of story. As a writer I know that with all my heart. The craft of writing a story is to draw the reader in and fill them with the thoughts, feelings, ideas and places of your story. I wanted my kids to know that experience.

The next time we read a book together I vowed to read it all the way through, just as the author had written it without stopping to discuss (or have the kids discuss) any given teaching point.

I was sitting in my chair waiting for the kids to settle in and I hear Diva Girl whisper, “Please read it like a movie.”

I start and on page 3, there is a tricky word. I stop to explain. Mr. How to Be Awesome mumbles, “You are stopping.” I quickly recover and manage to read the rest of the story with no commentary. The children clap and cheer. The magic of the story is revealed.

So this is my struggle, What are we doing when we focus on teaching seven year olds to analyze text so minutely and specifically? What are we accomplishing? Are we teaching them to think deeply about stories or are we driving them away from reading?

Listening and Choosing

Spring break has brought me a taste of summer. I am yearning for long days strung together where I can write, read, dream and live inside my head. I live in two places. One place is inside my head and one place is out in the world. I love being inside my head until I hate being inside my head. I love being in the world until I hate being in the world. The greatest luxury is when I can make the choice to live inside my head or to live in the world.

Tomorrow I head back to school for a teacher work day. I don’t like being in my classroom without the children. I miss their voices. They have so many questions and stories, sorrows and joys. Every moment I am with them I am connected. There is an invisible thread that tethers them to me, me to them and all of us to each other. Being in their world it helps me to create, to make sense of things, to understand.

Tomorrow will be meetings and me alone in the classroom, two events that send me to places in my head where I do not want to be. This is when I hate being inside my head.

On this last day of spring break I am restless. I walk outside and feel a gentle breeze on my cheek, I hear the wind chimes singing. Spring is coming. I can feel the connection.

I hear some children as they walk down the sidewalk. I miss the voices of children. It is time to come out of my head and reconnect.

Your soul I’ve heard knows where it is suppose to be, everything you need you already have within you. You just have to listen. I am listening. I am choosing. I will listen to the children.

The Diva and the Queen

Diva Girl steps on my toes all the time. I try to keep my ego in check. I am always asking myself when and how to address her sassy ways. I am the adult and I have all the tools to build a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. I am finding that is a hard thing to create between a 7 year old Diva and her teacher.

You know those wise sayings you read and you think wow that is profound. And you think how the world would be a better place if people could just learn that lesson. Then one day it comes back to bite you and you think crap, this is one of those things I have to learn. That is me and Diva Girl. Everything that annoys me about her is a thing that is in me. I read a wise quote about that once. Something about whatever you see in others that gets you the most riled up, it’s probably because it is something that is in the core of you that you need to examine. Yep, Diva Girl is putting me through my paces. She gets me all riled up. She talks when I am talking. She says the opposite of everything I say. She seems to find me completely boring and inadequate. And she does this very loudly. When I give her THE LOOK she gives it right back.

One day after school I decide that our two inner Diva’s need to come to an agreement. So I sit her down for a private talk. What’s going on I ask her. What’s with the bad attitude. You always seem angry. She looks me straight in the eye and says, you don’t listen to me. My mind races and my mouth opens to make a dozen excuses and then I shut my mouth, and look deep inside. She’s right. I don’t listen to her. And she is not going to just sit around and be unheard. She is important and what she has to say, it needs to be heard.

In that moment I realize that there is only one thing to say . I am sorry. I will try harder to listen. Do you forgive me? She smiles with the big spirit that is inside her. I bask in her pure Diva.

It can still be pretty rocky between us. We both have our passion, and a voice that demands to be heard but we are working on it.

Recently the class was getting ready for closing meeting and most of the kids were waiting at our meeting spot. I was checking in with stragglers and heading over when I hear Diva Girl commanding the class. “Shhh, the Queen is coming!”

Nice to know she has my back.

My Turtle Love

My Turtle Love is a complicated kid. When he first came to me he had the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Anytime he came across anything slightly challenging he slumped in his chair and stared at the table, silent and immovable. I tried to get him to speak or even look at me. Not a word or even a nod in response. I encouraged, cajoled, demanded and lastly ignored. Nothing.

One day during guided reading he came to a word he did not know and he shut down. He bent his head and stared unseeing at the page. I said nothing, I waited. I just waited. I sat without saying a word while still focusing all my attention on him. I sat beside him and just waited. My mind raced and I thought of all the precious moments of instruction time slipping away. Yet somehow I knew that this was the moment when we decided this thing. Would I give up on him?

I have no idea how long I waited, and waiting patiently and quietly is not my forte. I get to the demanding part of my repertoire pretty quickly. But I waited, And he did it. He sounded out the word. Once he began he put the pieces together without much difficulty. And I crowed, You did it. I knew you could do it. I told you you could do it. I poked him in the ribs until he laughed.

Then I looked him straight in the eyes and said don’t give up on me. I’m not giving up on you.

My turtle love, he hides in his shell when he is afraid. He won’t be hurt. That day I waited quietly, long enough for him to poke out his head, long enough for him to take one small step away from his fear.

These days he is smiling. He is reading and he is writing. This is a a poem he wrote about himself.

I have black eyes.
I have short hands.
I like spaghetti.
I have to be myself.

He is a complicated kid. I wouldn’t want him to be anyone else.

Kids and Data

Let me tell you what my kids know about data, real data that matters to a seven year old. They know how many teeth their classmates have lost. Losing teeth, that is a big deal to a 2nd grader. On some days it consumes their focus. And they know how many teeth 2nd graders in other classes have lost. How do they know this data? Because they collected it, organized it, created representations of it, analyzed it and compared it. And when I say they know about data I mean they know those words and those concepts. I am certain I did not know those words or concepts as a second grader. I am not even certain that I understood them until I had to teach them to kids.

You know what else they know? They know THE KIDS that that data came from. They spend most of their daylight hours with those kids. Those kids are the ones who play tag with them on the playground, poke them while waiting in line, share their crayons, listen to their stories, cheer them on to do hard things, help them when they are hurt and moan with them when we have yet another indoor recess.

So what if one kid lost 14 teeth and one kid lost 2 teeth, what does that tell us about the kids? Is one better then the other? Of course not. That would be silly. There is a whole lot to know about who a person is and what they contribute beyond how many teeth they have lost. Each kid looses teeth at their own pace, in their own time. Why would you decide anything about which kid is good and which one is bad based on one piece of data collected on any one day? Like I said, that would just be silly.

So the next time the experts come knocking at our school doors with THEIR data I think my kids could teach them a lot and some of it might even be about data.

I Am Not a Super Hero

I spend my entire day wrapping my mind around what children are thinking and how I can get them thinking more. This makes me feel like a super hero. The kids make me feel like I have super human powers.

But I’m not a super hero. And some days I get really confused and tired, soul tired. It starts when I try to wrap my mind around what the adults in education are thinking and then I try to mesh the needs of the children with the demands of the adults and well, quite plainly I feel like my soul is slipping away from me. I can not please both masters.
I read this tonight
“standards describe the past, not the future” and reflect the notion that children must “fit into the worlds as it is. We forget that our children are the creators and owners of the future.”
Yong Zhao, professor of education and author

In my soul I know that if for one moment our adult minds could comprehend the thinking, wisdom and creativity of children’s minds we would know that the future is theirs to build. We only limit them with our standards and tests. They are the real super heroes and we are their kryptonite.
To see the full article on Yong Zhao’s perspective on educational standards