April 30, 2008

Tell Your Stories?

Kids love it when their teachers share stories about their lives. I’m not exactly sure why, but I can remember being a young student and loving to hear about the experiences of my teachers, the mistakes they made, and the lessons they learned. Taking advantage of an “educational moment” and sharing how a certain event changed our lives can sometimes have a larger impact on the lives of our students then when we teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I remember Bob Farley, my high school algebra and geometry teacher. Mr. Farley was a veteran of World War 2 where he served as a tail gunner. Bob loved to share his adventurous stories about the war and other experiences from his long life. When I was a student in Bob’s classroom he was self-described, “older than dirt.” On days when we students didn’t want to work it was relatively easy to side track our beloved instructor by asking him to tell us about his life. Mr. Farley had a sense of humor too; and I loved to test it. One day he began class by saying, “Class, who was the world’s first stupid woman?” Being unable to stop my immature self, I stood up and responded, “Your wife!” The class was silent in anticipation of what would follow. I knew what was coming next (it hadn’t been the first time I had spoken out of turn) so I picked up my backpack and head towards the principal’s office. I was shocked when Mr. Farley started to chuckle, then instructed me to sit down. I did. Bob then began again, “Class, who was the world’s second stupid woman?” A classic moment.

Bob Farley was a classic, sophisticated, caring, sometimes charming teacher and male role model in my early development who not only taught me how to calculate, but also how to be a human being. Bob respect his students enough to want to share his lifetime of experience with them and “teach them something.” And I learned a lot from him. I learned that I never wanted to stand in the back of a flying aircraft behind a wall of glass shooting at other flying aircrafts. He once told us that he was sent to the back of a plane that did not have a machine gun. His commanding officer handed him a broomstick and told him to act like he was firing at the enemy planes. What an amazing man.

Mr. Farley wasn’t the only teacher who devoted a part of his lesson plan to the lessons of life. I have been fortunate to have many teachers throughout my scholastic career willing to share their wisdom with the students. There was the English teacher who was also a published author, the band instructor who had played in the USC marching band, and I’ll never forget the college economics instructor who literally “wrote the book.”

At an early age I learned to listen to the adults in my life and glean understanding from the experiences they had. I’ve always tried to use these lessons to avoid making the same mistakes as others. I regret to report that I’m not very successful in my endeavor. But this approach to life is worthwhile and worth teaching to our pupils along with the “three r’s.” I hope the days of “don’t trust anyone over 30” are dead and buried and that today’s educators can make a concerted effort to not just educated the young, but impart wisdom to our future leaders as well. How do we make our students wise? We share the wisdom that we have gathered by explaining how we got wise: we tell our stories.

Perhaps hearing about our lives reassures our students that their lives will turn out ok. These are turbulent times and it’s brutally difficult to be young. In fact, it’s downright scary. Many children feel alone and lost in the world. The family structure is being warped and twisted as our society struggles to find and redefine itself. Violence, drugs, and predatory adults are invading the solemn ground of our campuses at an alarming rate. Where can our young people turn for security and a protective wing? Kids today are hungry, starving for the undivided attention of the adults in their world. They covet our time and are in need of our guidance. It’s kind of difficult to impart wisdom when explaining sentence structure. We need a different medium. I suggest taking a break from the standards from time to time to explain why standards are important and how your personal standards have changed your life.

There is no doubt that one generation inherits both the successes and failures of the previous generation. I want to make sure that the generation that I teach not only receives a well-rounded academic education, but also a strategy for living that includes wise decision-making. We are always standing on the shoulders of giants. We stand upon our mother and father’s shoulders just as they stood upon our grandparent’s. So far this metaphorical human pyramid is pretty secure. I want make sure it stays that way.

So I tell stories. I share my life’s experience with my students. Not everyday, but from time to time I pause to share a lesson that I’ve learned and the experience that produced the lesson. I try to use humor as much as possible and share age-appropriate antidotes when they fit. Nothing gets the attention of a sleepy group of youngsters quicker then an amusing recollection of someone who they admire concluding in a fable-like ending that clears up their foggy world, if only for a moment.

It may not be included in the scope and sequence, and there may not be a standardized test designed to measure the wisdom that you impart to your students, but in my opinion, sharing your wisdom (and teachers are very wise indeed) is at the very core of our call to educate the future leaders of our world.

April 23, 2008

For Love of Teaching?

It is generally believed that teachers are supposed to love what they do and sacrifice for their job. We teachers are asked to spend our days educating other people’s children in everything from letters and numbers to Latin and neurons. We wipe noses, tie shoelaces, replace forgotten lunch money, and even console youngsters when they are faced with the harsh realties of the world. We share our wisdom and our wit, we entertain and we enlighten. Teachers are Homo Universalis or the Renaissance Men and Women of our times. And for some children we are the only responsible adults they will ever know. Our job is a diverse and complicated one for which we are expected to volunteer our extra time and dedicate our passion for learning while working at a “cost of living” wage.

Most teachers I know do not teach for the paycheck, the benefits, or the schedule. They teach for the love of teaching. They love working with students, they love spending their days in the classroom and not the office, and they love how they sleep so well at night knowing that their days’ efforts were not spent in vain.

Yet there are days and times when I reflect on this job and career that I love and all I want to do is pick up my ball and just go home. If it weren’t for my families need for food, clothing, and housing, I might even just outright quit. What makes me so frustrated are the sometimes bizarre ways that schools are run, and the many times backwards, inefficient, and illogical way education itself operates.

What I most resent is the attitude of some people that teachers should just do what we are told and love what we do just because we get to do it. The ignorance of non-educators about the depth and complexity of teaching others is mind-boggling. The attitude that any adult who has ever held the hand of a child can teach them to read, write, sing or even calculus is insulting. But we the teachers all know better.

The fact is that we are willing to sacrifice for our jobs because we do love teaching. We know the joys of those moments when we realize that in a small but significant way we have changed the lives of our students. Sometimes it through teaching a fact or equation that opens the door for further understanding for a student. Other times it in sharing a life experience that ensures the child that things really will be Ok. Every once in a while it is having our own lives changed by the sincerity or honesty and caring of one of our pupils.

A law enforcement officer recently complimented me for being a teacher. He shared that he couldn’t understand how high school teachers put up with those little darlings day in and day out and that given his experience with some of today’s youth he respected my endurance. I responded that high school kids were really a lot of fun to spend time with, and that most of the students I taught were very well behaved in my classroom. I suggested that the individual cases that he interacted with were in fact the exception.

What I most love about teaching is being in the daily presence of the developing individual. I get to see students grow intellectually, emotional, and even physically over the course of four years. Most start out as frightened mush-headed knuckleheads. When they graduate they are young adults with their eyes wide open ready to take on the world. And I get to not only share but also participate in their optimism and hope for the future. It’s awesome.

One of my former students who recently finished his AA is applying to a handful of universities. He had an interview this week with UCLA for one of their high-profile programs. He came to see me before the interview for advice on everything from dress to facial hair (I told him to shave.) I also passed along this little gem: eat an apple 15 minutes before the interview. It helps to calm the stomach and will prevent dry mouth. Plus I think its just good eating. Anyway, my cell phone rang during class right after lunch on Friday. My former pupil had just completed the interview and wanted to share the results. Now tell me, in what other job does someone get to enjoy this type of mentorship?

Oh course, mentorship also means that you endure your pupils’ hardships as well. Life is difficult for everyone. People struggle. It’s brutal to have to watch those you care about muddle through the challenges in their lives. Sometimes growing up is a painful experience. It’s painful for the child, and its painful for their supporters. And the more students that you teach in your career, the greater the chance that you will be affected by the difficulties of some of the lives of those you educate. It’s inevitable, difficult, and yet somehow comforting to know that from time to time you will participate in and positively contribute to the maturity of another individual.

There is just something cool about participating in the improvement of others. Much like doctors, pastors and therapists, teachers get to see individuals grow right before our eyes; and not just one or two but whole classrooms full of them. Not only that, but we get to guide and influence that growth. It’s amazing when you sit and think about it. If we are the pebble and our students are the ripples in the pond then just think about how far our influence will go in their lives. I still reflect on the influence of my schoolteachers and that was a VERY long time ago.

So when you consider that huge impact that teachers have on their students, and by extension the world, then maybe we should just simply be thankful to have the privilege of being teachers.

April 19, 2008


The single most important element of a successful classroom is a teacher who designs assignments that keep the students engaged in learning. It helps if these assignments are also fun to complete. Disciplines issues including acting out, tardiness to class, and even failing students can be minimized and maybe even eliminated IF you, the teacher, think innovatively and make a focused effort to keep your students actively engaged in the subject matter and the learning process. Oh yea, it will make you an even happier and more productive teacher as well.

But how? How in this world of standards, standardized testing, exit exams and formative common assessments is there any time to spend on being creative when designing assignments for students? I’d like to suggest that you can both meet the objectives and be creative in your assignments. Here are few things to think about.

Authentically challenge the students.
Regardless of ability or learning level, all students can be challenged to improve, even within the same assignments. First, their assignments must be meaningful to them. As their teacher you need to learn about who your students are as people. This might be challenging to do at first, but the more time you spend working in the same teaching assignment with a similar population of children, the more you will get to know who they are, what they love, and how they work. Once you do, you can begin to tailor the work you give to fit the interests and experiences of the kids. For example: if you are an English teacher assigning a biography essay allow the students to chose subjects that they relate to. Sure you may end up with a dozen biographies of 2-Pac, but that’s acceptable so long as the kids are writing and completing their essays. In a history class you might allow the students to research their family history. In math you might take them outside and have them measure whatever they see. And the list goes on.

Second, you the teacher must set the achievement bar as high as possible and really challenge them to reach it. Don’t make the work too easy. If the student is not challenged to grow they will not grow. Embrace the standards and show examples of truly outstanding student work. Share your confidence in their abilities and urge them on to greatness. But your job does not end at the distribution of the assignment.

Give them support.
As your students strive to reach their goals, help them along they way. I often describe myself as just another human being on the road just a few more steps ahead of my students. My job is turn back and help guide them along the path a little ways. It’s important that your students believe that you believe in their abilities and potential to succeed. Of course, in order to be convincing, you really do need to believe in your students’ success. You can bet that they will know if you are pretending to believe in them, and they will resent it, and you. Good luck trying to motivate that classroom. But support is more than just motivation.

Teachers support their students by guiding them through step by step processes that will successfully lead the students to their goal. Some educators criticize “spoon-feeding” their students. I believe in it. By giving the pupil just enough for them to swallow or absorb instead of bombarding them with instructions and information works very well. Plus, by leading the kids step by step towards success, they learn the process well enough to repeat it on their own. This method also works with a variety of different learning levels. Students can work at their own pace when they know where to place their next step. The longer I teach the more I breakdown my assignments to smaller and smaller pieces. It might be micro-managing, but I watch the kids get better and better at learning each year. And they retain more too.

Hold them accountable.
Assessment is important. Meaningful assessment is even more important. Sure, there are times when a check plus, or a check minus is appropriate, but most of the time, students need more feedback then that. I like to write notes all over the margins, between the lines, and anywhere else I can fit them on my grading rubrics. I make sure that every aspect of the assignment is worth some points, even if it’s only one or two points. That way when the students study their rubrics they know that there is no area to fudge and no corners to cut. I don’t assign “busy work” either. Meaningless work equals time wasted on meaningless grading. Students resent wasting their time as much as teachers do.

Consistency is also crucial. Sticking to hard deadlines and subtracting a percentage of points for late work tells the students that their work matters. Holding your self accountable is important too. There is no excuse for not returning graded work to students in a timely manner. The best is a 24 hour turnaround, but that can’t always happen. All teachers were once students and we all know how annoying it is for an instructor to sit on your work and not hand it back within a reasonable amount of time.

In my opinion its important that kids enjoy school and that they have fun learning. It’s equally important that the teacher enjoy teaching and sharing their wisdom and the learning process with his or her students. If the teacher hates the assignment they give, there is no way the students are going to embrace it. Even the work that is mandated by the district or the course scope and sequence can be made to be engaging if the teacher is willing to find out how. Students who are engaged in their assignments will work harder to complete them and put forth their best efforts. The result will be smarter students, higher test scores and happier teachers.