A Teacher’s Week in the Woods (part 1)

Slide1In early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a week of reflection, rejuvenation, and environmental education at Land Between the Lakes.  About 20 teachers and others involved in environmental education came together to spend time living in community detached from our digital lives. (We were somewhat shocked to realize that there was only one spot in the camp that had any cell service–and it wasn’t good service, at that.) We spent an entire week exploring nature, reconnecting with our artistic selves, and building relationships. The goal was rejuvenation so that we could return to our classrooms in the fall refreshed and ready to make a difference.  Here are a few of the lessons that I learned through this experience.

Knowledge, though important, is fleeting, but relationships last. This week was led by one of my former college professors from Murray State University.  While I’m not sure I can tell you any of the “facts” about education that I learned in his class 15 years ago, I do remember the relationship and the person.  Those memories are one of the reasons that I chose to attend this workshop. As I left the week, I wasn’t focusing on all of the knowledge that I’d learned through the week; I was celebrating the relationships that had been built. The knowledge from the week was important, but the relationships mattered the most. This same idea holds true in our classrooms.  What we teach is important (though students may not remember it past the test), but the relationships we develop are what last.

Ideas take time, and writing requires work.  Part of our workshop involved experienceing nature and place so that we could write. I’ve always sought to be a one-draft writiter. I don’t like revision, and the poems that I draft rarely get a second look from me. As an elementary teacher, that was not how I taught writing, but it was my personal method.  This week provided time to think about ideas and to revise written works. Through that, I realized that ideas take time to develop and often can’t be produced in final form in one quick draft. I realized that the more drafts I make of a poem the more likely I am to find the best version of that poem. Why hadn’t I realized this prior to camp? The answer lies mostly with time. In the life of a teacher, there is little time to sit around reflecting, writing, and revising.  However, in a camp setting, surrounded by nature (and removed from the distractions of cell phones), reflecting and revising were much easier to accomplish. I’m sure that if you take a couple of minutes to reflect on this, you’ll see how it applies to your classroom as well.

People remember stories. One of the highlights of the week was having Bob Valentine from Murray State University entertain us with stories around the campfire. What he taught us was that people remember story. If we can connect the important things we wish to teach to stories, then our students will remember them. I think we probably all learned this somewhere in undergraduate work, but hearing it again (as a story) reminded me of what I might have forgotten.


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The Many Faces of Teacher Leadership

When I was in college, there were a few of my peers whom I really admired.  They always seemed to be comfortable in any social setting.  They could talk to anyone, regardless of whether they had met before.  Their boisterous personalities exuded confidence, fun, and joy.  At that point in my life, I wasn’t familiar with the difference between introverts and extroverts, and I didn’t realize the value that each contributes.  I just wished I was more like these confident, exuberant friends.

Fast forward several years, I have embraced my introvert tendencies.  I have also noticed that I can have those extroverted qualities that I envied in college.  They appear when I’m “in my element” (i.e. around students).  I can be boisterous and welcoming, talking to students who know me and those I’ve never met.  I can cultivate a classroom full of this kind of exuberance.  (Sometimes I even forget to make a space for my introverted students, oops!)

Then there’s the teacher leadership world.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve been introduced to teacher leadership, and, at times, I’ve felt like I’m back in college.  I’ve watched those leaders who are extroverts.  They still exude that confidence and a fun spirit no matter where they are.  They are confident and able to talk with leaders from across the world like they are best friends.  I’m still an introvert, and outside of my familiar surroundings, I’m incredibly nervous.  Initially, my teacher leadership thoughts were summed up by a line from Echosmith, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids.”  They seemed to be connected to everything and they seemed to be making a world of difference.  I assumed that they were the face of teacher leadership, that I had to look like them to be a teacher leader.

How wrong I was.  In this past year and a half, I’ve learned that there are many faces of teacher leadership.  There are the uber-connected teacher leaders like MeMe Ratliff (@MeMe3Rat), Missy Calloway (@Calilypso), and Tricia Shelton (@TdiShelton) who work at an exhausting pace–one that I could never hope to emulate.  Thre are organizers like Jana Bryant (@JanaBryant14) who bring together groups of teacher leaders to leverage their collective power for change. There are teacher leaders who advocate tirelessly for their passion like Heidi Givens (@heidigasl) does for deaf education.  There are teacher leaders who are transforming teaching in their own classroom and leading ripple effects across their schools, districts, and beyond.  Tiffany Gruen is a good example of this (@GruenTiff).  There are policy advocates like Kip Hottman (@KipHottman).  Some teacher leaders see a larger picture and take their leadership to the next level like Brad Clark (@notbradclark) has done with the Hope Street Group.

When I look at this group of teacher leaders (and the many more I’ve left out), I wonder where my place is.  I wonder which of these leaders I’m most similar to.  What I’ve learned is that there is no one face of teacher leadership and that all of our voices are needed to lead education into the future.  Our kids deserve the best, and they’ll only get it when we bring our teaching and leadership skills together to continue moving education forward.  So, I’m carving out my own teacher leadership role that aligns with my strengths. Sometimes it’s a “quiet leadership,” and that’s okay.

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Troubles of a “former” librarian

First, you need to understand that I’m not really a “former” librarian.  I am a school librarian who is also a science teacher.  It just happens that for the immediate future, I’ve chosen to focus on the science teacher part by leaving the library to return to the classroom.  I made this change 3 years ago when a science position came open in my building.  While I have missed many of the aspects of the library, I love teaching science every day.

Now for the “trouble” part.  When I was in the library, I was focused on programming.  I wanted to make sure I was offering programming that would get students into the library.  I hosted before school and during school book clubs, genre lunches in the library, news crew, game club, and kept the library open before and after school every day.  When I left the library, I forgot to leave my focus on programming in the library.  I brought it with me.  Game club followed me to my classroom where it is held on a weekly basis.  I also continued working with a small group of students after school posting YouTube videos to highlight our school.  As a science teacher, I also found myself leading a rocket building team.  These activities allow so many students to feel connected to school beyond their classes.  They catered to students who are traditionally not served by extracurricular activities, but they left me in a time crunch.  During the weeks leading up to the rocket competition, I found that I was hosting something 4 afternoons each week.  The 5th afternoon was reserved for faculty and department meetings.

For a moment, I wondered if I might need to scale back.  I wondered if the things I was investing in were actually making a difference in student achievement, which should be the number one goal.  For a minute, I considered dropping these activities, but then I looked at the kids.  I saw kids who had a place to belong after school–kids who weren’t interested in being on a sports team but needed a place to hang out with their friends. Once I looked at the kids, I realized that there’s more to “student achievement” than test scores. I also remembered that there are more things that matter than what can be measured.

I still find myself wishing for more hours in my day.  I sometimes consider what I might do with those extra hours that I could gain by stepping down from my after school commitments, but I also find myself wishing I had more time each week to sponsor events to give even more kids a place to belong.  After all, who doesn’t want a place to belong?

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Sitting on the sidelines


In her poem, “Summer Day,” poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This quote has been hanging in my classroom this week to inspire my students, and it has caused me to stop and reflect as well, wondering if the investments I am making are worth the cost (minutes, hours, days of my “wild and precious life”).

If you know me very well, you know that I spend a considerable amount of time on the sidelines.  No, it’s not my lack of skill that relegates me to the sidelines.  I’m there as a spectator.  I’m not spectating because I love any of the sports that I watch; I’m there because I love the kids who are playing–my students.  Are those hours spent on Saturday at little league basketball, nights spent watching jv soccer, time spent running around a cross country event trying to cheer on the students several times in the races, ect. worth it?  Do they matter to the students, or are they just a way of passing my time?  Sometimes I wonder about this, especially at 8 am on a Saturday when I would love to be sleeping, but I find myself supporting several students at a game.

To gauge success, it is important to know what the goal is. Only after knowing the goal can one determine if it has been hit.  So what is the goal of my attendance at these games?  What messages am I trying to convey to my students?  Here’s a list of a few things:

  • You are more than a test score
  • You are important
  • You are loved
  • I’m your fan
  • We’re on the same team
  • School is important, but so are the other parts of your life
  • My support of you isn’t contingent on your behavior in my classroom, your grades, or the score of this game

Those are the messages that I’m sending, and I know they are being received because I continue to hear the following:

  • Mr. G, are you coming to my game this weekend?
  • We’re playing ___’s team tomorrow
  • Thanks for coming to my game
  • Did you see (insert specific highlight from the game)?

Even when my students are quiet, their smiles, high fives, and fist bumps let me know that they heard.

Will the innumerable hours I’ve spent on the sidelines of athletic events over the past 15 years of my career actually improve the lives of my students?  Will it help them grow into more successful adults (however you define success)?  Who knows.  What it will do is provide some assurance as they navigate some of the toughest times of their lives–middle school.  Perhaps my positive voice on the sidelines will prove to be a calm harbor in the stormy seas that students face every day.  Perhaps for some it might even be a lighthouse, helping students navigate away from danger and toward safety.  Perhaps one day, I’ll see some of those kids I cheered for cheering with me for a new group of kids.  I’ll see you on the sidelines.


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Just “be”

As I sit like the two-faced Greek god Janus looking forward and backwards at the same time, the magic of the dawn of a new year isn’t lost on me.  While you could say that the changing from 11:59 pm to 12:00 am is just the passing of another 60 seconds, it also represents the miracle of a new beginning.  The chance to change.  It marks a time for reflection.  (Teachers are doubly blessed in this respect.  We can reflect and renew when school starts and then again at the dawn of the new calendar year.)

As I reflect on the past year and look forward to the year to come, I am drawn to the word “be” to drive my future.  It’s such a humble word, saying what it needs to say in only 2 letters, yet those two letters hold the key to actually living life.

In today’s fast-paced world, it is tempting to live the life of a multi-tasker.  We all know what it’s like to attempt several things at once.  It becomes difficult to sit down and engage with one person without constantly checking the social media stream or having the television on in the background.

The same thing happens in the classroom.  In a well-meaning way, we don’t give Johnny the direct attention he craves as he tells about his latest adventure because we’re constantly scanning the classroom for behaviors we need to correct.  Two years ago when I surveyed my students, they pointed out this behavior.  They reminded me that they wanted (and expected) my attention when they were speaking to me.  They wanted my undivided attention.

That’s where my word for this year comes in.  I want to “be” fully immersed in the moment–whatever the moment is.  If I’m engrossed in a conversation with a student, then that’s where I’m going to “be.” If I’m standing in line with a buddy for a roller coaster then I’m going to be in that moment.  If I’m dining with friends, then I’m going to be in that moment.  It will be hard, at first, not to reach for the phone and the social media experience.  It will be hard to focus on one student when there’s a whole class working.  It may feel awkward when a conversation lags at dinner (a place where I could take a peek at my phone).  But I am resolved to live every moment of this year.

This year will never come again.  I may teach the same content next year, but the moments of this year will never be repeated.  The students will be different.  Even if I move to 8th grade and have the same students next year, they won’t be the same.  They’ll be a year older and a year wiser.  The same is true of my family members,  the students I work with at church, and the kids I mentor.  That’s why I must “be” present always this year.

An old proverb says, “Time and tide wait for no man.” This year, this man is going to enjoy the time and the tide and just “be.”

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A Holiday Reminder

These next few days will be the last most of us will see of our students until 2016.  When we enter our classrooms this week, we’ll find students who are anxious.  Many are anxious for a time of holiday celebration. Many are anxious for a break from school and time to relax.  Mixed with these emotions for many will be an anxiety of another kind.  For two weeks, many of our students will be away from a trustworthy source of daily meals–the school lunch program.  The certainty of teacher responses throughout the day may be replaced with uncertain responses from parents for whom the holidays mean extra stress.  The comfort of a daily routine may be replaced with the stress of hectic holiday schedules.

While we as teachers cannot ameliorate every need or anxiety that  our students have, we can make the next few days something to remember.  The love and care that we show our students this week can carry them through the rest of 2015.  The memories made this week will color our students’ holiday breaks and affect their view of school as they return after the new year.

So, during this week that often brings added stress to teachers, let us remember that students are facing added anxiety as well.  We may find that a quote I’ve seen on social media plays out in our classrooms this week: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”  In our classrooms this week, let’s chose love, let’s chose kindness, and let’s chose to make sure our students, individually, know how important they are to us.  For some, it may make a whole world of difference.

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“Hey, Mr. G, tomorrow’s my last day.”

“Your last day before fall break?” I asked to clarify.

“No, my last day here.  I’m moving.” was the reply I received.

This was the second time in as many weeks that I’d heard from a student who was moving out of our district.  And twice in two weeks that my heart sank.  So many times, as educators, we get caught up in the test scores, district, initiatives, state initiatives, interventions, differentiation, gap closing, etc., that we forget that teaching is about so much more.  We all know it because it is a large part of the reason that we got into teaching.  We didn’t start in this field to increase test scores; we chose this field to make a difference.  Making a difference is accomplished through developing relationships.  I guess we know that we’re doing that right when our hearts sink when we hear that a student is moving.

In the grand scheme of things, we have no control over how long a student is in our care.  Some students spend their entire academic careers in one school district.  Some students hardly seem to spend one whole year in a school district before moving on.  Some students leave and then return.  As we look across our classes, we can’t know for sure which students belong in which category.  That type of categorizing is a waste of time anyway–all of our students need our best selves every day (a phrase I learned from Marva Collins).  Each day may be the last day we have with any of our students.  What will you do today to show your students how much you care?  Will you be like Linda Cliatt-Wayman, reminding your students every day, “If no one told you today that they love you, remember I do and I always will.”  Maybe you won’t say it quite that way.  Will you live it out so that your students know you love them?


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