Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Cell Phone

Simple, really.  Silver, a flip phone.  No bells and whistles, simply designed to "gasp!" make calls and text. It sat in the white tupperware container for 9 days.  No student claimed it, we all knew whose it was.  She wasn't returning.  And we didn't know if she ever would.  As each day came.....and sat there amongst the other students' belongings during the day and alone all night. 

Then winter break came and I took it to the office.  Cradled it in my hand, knowing deep in my heart that it belonged to someone I would never see again.  I handed it over and labeled it with her name--and swallowed as the reply came, "she moved, we got notice yesterday." It hurt, even though I knew it.  It hurt because she didn't deserve that.  She had already bottomed out--well she hadn't but her mother had.  Where was there to go but up? 

But there isn't always an up and sometimes at the bottom of that pit is someone with a shovel, digging an even deeper hole.  And sometimes that shovel sits in the hands of a person responsible for other lives--lives that have no say.  Lives that have yet to be lived and who must remain in limbo, waiting for a ladder instead of a shovel. 

But all I had was a cell phone, and a disconnected one at that.  So, if you, dear child, are the owner of that simple silver cell phone and you land somewhere you can use it, call me.  Because I packed it full of love and hope and best wishes for you and I'd like to know that you received it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons from the one that leaves first...

It's never easy losing a student.  It's not even really easy when it's the hardest student in the class.  But it's rarely the most difficult child that leaves. 
I have notice that one of my students is moving and tomorrow is his last day.  I've known for a couple of weeks, but to have the date of departure looming so close is disheartening.
This child is a great kid.  Socially, the kids respect and look up to him and that is a good thing because he is a great role model. Academically, he's right where he needs to be.  Asks all the right questions, is not afraid to try and is just an all around great kid. 
As much as I want my class size to go down I hate losing students to accomplish that. 
I was telling my husband that the student was leaving and he asked who.  When I told him the first name, my husband noted that I had never spoken about that child at home.  My quick reply was that of course I hadn't because this kid was an easy kid who didn't test my patience. And that stopped me cold.
How terrible is that? To not be able to spend time reflecting and improving my teaching with the kids that are not challenging me.  When I come home and talk about my day it's very cathartic and leads to a reflection that improves my teaching.  So, with the class size I have this year and the number of students with intense behaviors, I have been so focused on the 15 that are driving me insane that I fear I am not giving enough to the kids who come in and do what they need.
How much better of a teacher would I be if I reflected on my work with the kids that were at grade level.  Isn't that where my teaching should be focused--my expectations should be the same for all the kids.  If I spend so much time reflecting on students who need more to produce less, am I also lowering my expectations for the others. 
How unfair! How biased! How do I fix it? 
As this student leaves my classroom this week I have so many hopes for his next school experience: a teacher that focuses on him as well as his peers, a class size that allows him to experience relationship, and high expectations from all the adults in his life so that he can rise to them. And for the students who remain.  I have the same hopes--and the challenge is on me to create that experience for them.

Tea for all and all for tea

It's been an interesting year.  Each day brings new learning--and not just for the students.  It's a constant balance of ying/yang.  When I feel we are settling into routine and I get comfortable, the routine shatters. And I am becoming comfortable in that. 
I find myself torn between wanting my students to conform and wanting my students to be themselves.  I recently have been focusing my thinking around two thoughts:
"We must not be content to allow children to color outside the lines, we must strive to teach them to."
"A society without norms is chaos"
So how can I teach these children that it is both okay to not conform and at the same time there are certain rules to living among a group?
When a student asks me if something is okay to do (and frankly, I am just happy they know to ask!) I am working to stop my immediate answer of yes or no.  Rather, I try to step back to think what it is that they are truly asking and whether or not it is my right/responsibility to answer for them.
Out of this flux has come an interesting new "norm" in my classroom: travel mugs.  They adorn at least 5 desks now.  And hanging out of each mug is a string with a tea label attached. 
It started one day when a child asked if they could have something to drink at their desk.  Instead of saying yes or no, I simply replied it had to be healthy and in a closed container.  A fine balance of societal norms and free will.
I expected water bottles.  I even expected Gatorade (kids seem to think that is the "healthiest" drink in the world.
Then the first travel mug showed up.  And the next.  And then the request for hot water came.  Sadly, we found out that the kids are not allowed to partake of the filtered hot water tap that staff use.  But the travel mugs remained, and I noticed that the same tea label hangs from the mug each day.  I never see the kids drink from them, I assume they are awaiting hot water.  Others have been filled with coffee, but these, too, remain untouched.
I find it interesting that the kids are striving to be individuals by drinking that which I drink.  And I wonder if there are other things I do subconsciously that the kids are also emulating.  I need to be cautious and thoughtful in all I do. 
I also need to support their individuality.  I need to buy an electric tea kettle so that the kids can partake of their tea--and maybe find out they don't like it at all!
The weather has turned and warm liquids in the classroom seem a good thing.  A colleague suggested a crock pot for cider. I am thinking that a new norm we can all agree on might just be having warm tea/cocoa/cider available for all to choose their favorite.
I only really know one thing for sure and that is simply, I will never know if I have taught a child to color outside the lines, but I hope to always know that I taught kids how to live a true life--true to themselves while also being true to the people around them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Unexpected Runner

Ah, Wednesday night.  Half way through the week, yet only 1 month into school.  I am exhausted.  My students are settling in and it has taken way more out of me than in years past.  I had my eye on a select few kids, knew they would require more from me and I was prepared to give them my all.  And I was blindsided by those deemed (by me) least likely to need me.  They, too, want more from me, need more from me, and would like their fair share.

But what is a fair share?  What constitutes doing my job and meeting their needs?  What is it that really reflects "excellent teaching"?  There are 35 kids on my roster.  There are 35 unique, wonderful, young, needy, impressionable, eager children that look to me each day and hope that this is the day I notice them.  And I try, I seek relationship, I grab every second of "connection" time I can find.  But there aren't enough seconds--let alone enough minutes to truly give them what they deserve from me.  And there are even less seconds to give to myself that which I deserve from me in order to be what these kids need me to be. 

The kids know what I need, I need tea.  They offer to get it for me.  They shove around each other to be the one to get to me first when I drain the last drop in my mug.  They ask me as they enter in the morning, "can I get your tea when you need it today?"  And the answer is, "yes", and the answer is, "please stop shoving each other", and the answer is, "I'm sorry, someone already asked me that today--maybe tomorrow."  So many kids want to be connected and helpful and noticed. 

And, surprisingly, the first kid to step up quietly and seek this connection was a child who seemed to have it all.  This child came in the first day well equipped--had every supply, had a new outfit for the first day of school, had a parental request for nightly homework all typed up.  This confident young man knew the ways of a school room, knew what a student's job was, and was eager to learn what he could in 5th grade.  I wrote him off as "set" and ready to be a student without guidance from me.  A kid that I knew could self-manage in a classroom of 35, a kid who I knew I would be asking to mentor other students.

But as we entered the 3rd week of school I began to see I was wrong.  This kid did have it "all"--the supplies, the clothes, the right attitude.  But he also lacked something big, adults in his life that cared enough.  He constantly sought approval from me.  He was fastidious and neat in his work and I wrote it off as an amazing ability to be a good student.  He was gracious and kind to others and I wrote it off as an amazing ability to socially interact.  And then it stopped and I commented that I was surprised at his behavior and less than perfect work.  He balked at my "reprimand" told me I hadn't ever seemed to care that he was neat or friendly.  And I hadn't commented on it, I hadn't complimented him, I hadn't praised his care in both schoolwork and relationships.  And he wanted me to notice and to care. 

So much so that he, himself, had written that beautifully typed letter asking for homework, because his parents wouldn't.  My student had done it.  He wanted so badly to have something to do in the evenings while his high school aged brother did his own homework and his parents played virtual reality games on their laptops.  He wanted homework in order to belong.  He wanted his teacher to provide something that proved she recognized his worth as a dedicated student and that also provided him with evening entertainment in an isolated house.

And so he got my tea.  He got my tea because he offered first.  And he still gets my tea, because he is so responsible he gets to train all the others how to get hot water from the filtered dispenser in the office as I need it.   This year there won't be a single tea runner, nor even a select few.  This year,  I want everyone to belong and everyone to feel needed.  As for the first kid, to me he's my true "Tea Runner," this year.  Because he taught me something new about teaching and loving and giving one's all: never assume you know what a kid brings--you have to seek the answer.   

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sometimes there are no words

I have struggled.  I have contemplated for the past two weeks whether or not I had what it took.  I have reflected on all that was going wrong.  Grappled with what to change and what to hold onto.  Cried.  Screamed.  Choked on words.  Slept.  Got up to fight through the day without any energy.  And avoided.  Avoided writing this blog.  Pushed away accepting that I could be wrong.  Ran from self-doubt right into self-defamation.  And I avoided the obvious.  Forgot the kids needed time.  Beat myself up over that which was beyond my control.  Cracked down when I should have cracked up.  And then, then I cracked. Period.

And then today.  Today was great.  Today was a dream; and even better, today was a reality.  Today my students and I stood up to a test unlike any other this early in the school year.  And we all shone.  And no one was irreparably hurt in the process. 

I haven't written each weekend like I had hoped.  I haven't had the ability to be so brutally honest with all of you in the midst of my own personal hell.  I couldn't write without being a bitter downer.  I couldn't put myself out there as I was failing miserably and falling without a net.  Then the net that I thought didn't exist caught me.  And I am here to tell about it.  The failure, the reflection and the road to recovery.  Hopefully by June I will be here to tell about the success.  But for today, just the realization that it will be okay is enough.

So, know that I am back.  Know that we are all okay.  And know that the weather has turned and tea will be brewing.  It's gonna take a lot of tea this year. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Phone Calls Home. Part 2--Speaking with the Student

I spoke with 5 students today! 2 days before school starts.  They were adorable.  So sweet, so honest, so flabbergasted to be speaking to their teacher on the phone.  And I was a bit flabbergasted, too.  Not just because that's a fun word to write, but because these little children are unknown to me.  Even the children I have met before in the hallway don't have a clear connection in my brain to my classroom and being my student.  It was like talking to a disembodied voice.

More so, for the student I thought I had a clear picture of.   I was proven wrong by this student today.  Probably not the last time for the year, either.  But I can't be happier to be wrong.  I had met this child before, many times in the hallway.  I was a bit overwhelmed at having them in my classroom.  I had labeled this child to be a "gets-their-own-way-no-matter-what" kind of kid.  But wow, we spoke for the longest time.  This child is so eager to be back at school, with friends, with a new teacher (me!).  After having me read the entire class list (perhaps a little of that get-their-own-way?), this child was excited to have known friends in the class, excited to have new kids in the class to befriend, excited just to have a class.  Respectful, helpful, eager, filled with the excitement at returning to a place that they obviously love to be.  It's good to be reminded that personality is made up of more than just that one characteristic.

So now I have a picture of this group.  It's not a physical picture it's a feeling picture.  And the picture I have is of a truly sweet group of kids.  Mind you 5/38 is probably not a big enough sample to make a whole class judgment, but if nothing else I know that 5 kids are on my side.

Phone Calls Home. Part 1--Speaking with the Parent

I called all but 5 of my students over the past few days.  That's 33 phone calls.  And I am buoyant.  The best time to call home is definitely before school starts, nothing scary about a pre-school phone call.  I was just calling with a welcome to 5th grade and Open House invitation for the day before school. I only got to speak directly to 5 of my students.  I left lots of messages via voice mail.  I left even more messages via parent.  There was a common theme among the parents I spoke with.  They were suspicious.  Not once I told them who I was, but before I told them, when I first asked to speak with their child.  People who just moments before had pleasantly answered the phone, immediately went to mama/papa bear mode when I inquired if their child was available.  At first I was off put, thinking maybe I shouldn't call to speak with my students.  Then I was intrigued, with each new switch from pleasant to gruff I got a sense that these parents care deeply about their children--protective through and through.  And then the best part, after introducing myself they relaxed, they chatted, they were happy to talk to me, surprised and elated that I called.

What a great feeling.  Connecting with these parents who are entrusting their child to me.  Hearing their protective nature for these children we will be sharing for the next year.  And hearing their happiness, surprise, eagerness to connect back with me.  And this is why I spoke with so few of my students, I spent so much time connecting with their parent that by the time I would have spoken with their child, the parent had already relayed the open house invite and room number for me.

One dad was so happy I called, he merrily relayed everything I said to his daughter, who must have been sitting next to him, as I said it.  And while at first he suggested they had been thinking his wife might bring their daughter to the open house, by the time we were saying goodbye he eagerly told me that not only his wife and their daughter would see me at the open house but he would like to come along, too. 

Upon immediate reflection, I was sad to have not spoken directly to more of my students.  But now, many hours later I still sit fulfilled at having connected with the parent.  I have plenty of time to get to know my students, to make an impression on them over the school day.  But today was my chance to connect and impress the parent.  And I can rest knowing that it was a success.  I can now build upon this initial good impression if necessary should I need to call with less stellar news mid-year.

When I heard I was returning to the classroom I had set a goal to call home on 6 students each week--just a check-in, no bad news.  After today, I have taken that goal from "maybe" to "must-do".

Friday, September 2, 2011

Letters to My Next Year Teacher

I received the best surprise yesterday.  It was the first official district work day of the 2011-2012 school year.  Well, that wasn't really a surprise, teachers have known that was coming.

The surprise came in my teaching partner's classroom in a yellow folder--discovered on the first official district work day of the 2011-2012 school year.

It's finally real.  Official work days. With that comes the stacks and stacks of teaching stuff that somehow always fits away neatly for an entire school year and also somehow always gets spread out across any available space the days before a new school year.  Families registering their children in the office.  Little feet and big feet dashing to and fro along the hallways in a flurry of hellos and how are yous and how was your summer and are you ready for the year. 

The quiet of the hallways as I worked on my classroom prior to official days is gone. And I am glad.  Because in the quiet the surprise sat all along in a yellow folder in the classroom across the hall from where I sat and it waited.  But in the bustle of the end of the day and the commotion of moving everything from one stack to the next it showed itself.

A simple yellow folder--which in my school often signifies information about a child who may need a little more attention--contained not a heads up but rather sweet letters from some of my soon to be students.  From students who, until this moment,  sat only in a list of black and white names on my class roster.  From students who, until this moment, sat in a blur of anticipation in my brain.  Students who now sit with their little souls bared as much as they can stand, or in many cases bared as much as fit into the sentence frames their teacher from last year wrote on the board.  Students who now sit with their school picture affixed to the bottom (or top if they didn't follow directions) of the letter smiling at, or shying away, from me as I read their words about themselves. 

They are precious little beings.  I wonder what they thought as they wrote this letter to a teacher they have never met, a teacher they have hopes about.  A teacher who in their head sits as a blur of anticipation and perhaps fear.  A teacher who turned out to be me.

It's such a unique relationship in the teaching world.  We ask and expect our children to trust their teacher so completely that they are willing to try and fail and try again and perhaps fail again, only to be asked to try one more time to succeed over a period of 9 months day in and day out with that 1 teacher.  We then ask and expect our children to build that relationship with a new teacher--every year.  What hope these tiny humans bring when they write to that next teacher--please like me, please have faith in my ability to learn, please don't see me only for my shortcomings, please oh please be nice. 

I love looking at their penmanship.  I love reading their birthday and their likes and what they are good at. Yet, I flinch when I read what they feel they are not good at.  They plead in their letters.  Among them this year, "I hope you make math something I understand." And I want to.   I yearn to make sure they leave in 9 months better at math or what ever it is they ask.  And deep in my heart I know they will be just fine at it, if I can build confidence within them along with the skills.  And I also know that for the past year their teacher worked to build that confidence.  I hope my colleague knows that in the end she succeeded.  Because now these little children know not only what they lack in knowledge,  more importantly they are secure enough to know they can ask for help.  And I thank that colleague silently for that security which she instilled.  And I rise to the challenge in my head and in my heart. Thus today I began my lesson plans for these students who ask for so little and yet so much.

I can only work each day to live up to their desires, to fulfill their hopes for a good year, and ultimately work to teach them that which they must understand before the next grade.  It will take time.  And then, then once I have their trust and they are comfortable enough to learn in my classroom, when they are settled into an academic routine then, well, then I will have them write a letter to their next year teacher. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Space for Everyone

I spent the day in a meeting and rearranging the room.  The meeting was, unexpectedly, quite good.  It felt good to have a plan, to have a process and to work closely with such a great group of my colleagues.  But the best parts of the day, for me, always happen in my classroom.  It felt good to catch up one on one with people I enjoy working with in my own space as they trickled in and out.  And it felt equally good to sit in the silence and take the space into consideration.

Sitting in various spots around the room gives one a very different view of the space.  The major pieces of furniture are in place in my room, so today was my time to make sure that the little physical space details start to come together. Moving around the room and spending quiet time just sitting and taking in the environment from the various locations gave rise to some major changes from a child's perspective.  But minor changes from an actual doing aspect.

For instance, looking towards the back window corner from my desk it appeared I had this great space created at the "carpet" area.  For those of you who are not teachers, the carpet area is sacred learning space.  A space where the whole class can come together and learn in unity away from their individual spaces.  It's a pretty intimate (read tight) space.  One that has to be set up to be conducive to a group of people being able to focus on their learning, while also trying not to bump into the person next to them.  From my desk, it looked big, it looked possible.  It even looked inviting, from my desk.  From the carpet, it looked dark; the easel and teaching area were backlit from the windows.  Think teacher and chart paper/lessons completely in shadow.  From the carpet area it looked cramped and tiny.  The room was blocked off from view by a big bookshelf on wheels.  There was nothing inviting or big about it at all!

After spending 1 minute sitting at the back of the carpet and realizing the effect from the student's view, I flipped it.  I put the teaching space on the opposite side, I got rid of the bookshelf that blocked off part of the room, I lined comfortable chairs around the outer edge.  The whole room looks different.  It even improved the look and feel from my desk area.  I love these moments.  The ones that have such an aha! emphasis at the end.

We get so caught up in what our own perspective is that we forget at times to think about how the children experience it.

This is true in many of our interactions with kids.  A reality worthy of taking a moment to sit back and reflect on~ from a different spot in the room.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tea Running

I certainly never intended to make my hot tea a ritual for the students. It happened organically. I drink a lot of tea during the school year. I have a very specific travel mug for my tea. I keep boxes of my favorite tea in my desk drawer so that it smells delicious even in the summer, long after the boxes have been removed. When I am cold I hold my tea mug as I teach. When it has been a particularly trying day, I hold my tea mug as I teach. Sometimes the tea drinking is secondary to the tea ritual. The smell, the feel of the mug in my hand, the simple ritual of pouring the hot water over the tea, watching the water dance with the bleeding tea. Taking a moment to remember to pick up my tea, relax and then respond rather than hastily react to a particular situation.

Strangely, the kids caught on. "Oh, Ms. Mitchell has her tea, someone is pushing her limits." "See Ms. Mitchell, even you are cold-- you have your tea!" "Uh! Oh! Ms. Mitchell has her tea..."and then one day, "Ms. Mitchell, can I get your hot water?" This from a child who was often the impetus for me latching onto my tea mug in anticipation of its calming effect.

Two things happened in that moment. The first positive effect was the easiest to recognize: a very trying child left my room happily to get me some hot water from the office. No need to follow up and make sure they got where they were going. No need to buzz the office to let them know a child needed to talk with someone. No need to take my lunch and their recess to discuss what to do about their trying behavior. No need to apologize to the neighboring teachers about the angry child making their way down the hallway.

The second positive effect took longer to recognize: a child, trying very hard to find their way, found purpose in my classroom community. I didn't see it immediately because while the first effect was all about my needs, the second effect was all about theirs. It took the kids to teach me that the best lessons in the classroom very rarely center on academics alone.

What started as a student asking to get my tea led to me recognizing that sometimes a student needs to be asked if they'd like to get me some tea. This has certainly led to more than one burnt throat as I chugged my recently brewed tea in order to actually need the child to go get hot water. But if you've ever been in a situation where a child really really needs to get out in order for one of you to not blow, you'd recognize the necessity of a temporary loss of feeling in your mouth and throat.

Teaching those students who most desperately need a break when to ask for it is easier if the purpose of the break leads back to a classroom need. Students who are acting out don't always want to leave, instead they want to know why they should stay. Even more, they yearn to know they are wanted in the room. Sending a disenfranchised child away from you with the express purpose to return is a much better message than to send that same child away with no other purpose than to shape up and then return when they are ready. How many kids being sent out of a classroom knew they "weren't ready to be there" let alone can figure out what it feels like to be "ready to return"?

It has been interesting to note that students who know where they belong, know what they bring to the community and know what they can expect of their teacher and peers rarely ask to get my tea. It's the students on the fringe, the loudly bold, the violently tempestuous, the silently hiding ones that notice when Ms. Mitchell needs her tea and offer to go get it. They trot off with excitement to pour the boiling water from the office pot. Then very carefully, they walk back to the classroom careful not to burn their hands, careful not to spill the water and every so often I notice that they, too, are slowly inhaling the scent of freshly brewing tea and perhaps feeling that much closer to their teacher who relies on that scent to get her through.


It's August and rainy, not actively but the sky is grey and the air hints at a summer storm that blew through last night. The fact is, I like it. My thoughts have returned to work and my first "official" meeting of the school year is just 2 days away. A little cleansing rain and preparation for the changing of the season is good for my psyche.

Change invigorates me. Oh, I like my routines and normalcy, but I thrive on the subtle changes that occur within that realm. Teaching fits me perfectly--I get to continue to do the "same" things each year but each day is completely different from the prior. Children flit into my life in mid-course of their own lives and dance out 9 months later forever changed but still changing. I, too, am forever affected by what they have given and taken from me.

I have been spending much of my time reflecting on the classroom dynamics of years' past in preparation of the class that will meet me in a few weeks. This is both good and bad. The nightmares certainly reflect my biggest fears (strangely-and thankfully-none of the horrors that meet me in my sleep have ever actually happened on my watch, but each year the possibility of them happening is so present in my thoughts...). Nightmares are the norm in a teacher's August. I would rather dwell on my greatest hopes for the coming school year.

Thus, I have recently found a desire to reflect to find what it is that brings my classroom community together. I truly believe there is a key student or small group of students that make each year a defining one, where growth for all involved occurs. It's never the best academic student, nor is it the popular child, and often it's not the student who is quietly making their way through the world of social and academic requirements. No, it's the student who lives their life out loud, in many cases a bit too loud for the community. It's also the student who attempts to hide behind a mask of silence or even absence.

In any classroom these students exist. But in the best classrooms these children EXIST: they are seen, heard and responded to in a way that allows them to find acceptance. I'm not just speaking of acceptance within the classroom community, however important that is. More importantly they find what it is they bring that is unique and accept the greatness within themselves that they can then share with their peers.

This discovery of being needed, of being helpful, of being an integral part of the whole starts in my classroom with the simple act of getting me my tea.

The Tea Runner is my reflection on the trials, the triumphs, and the day-to-day happenings in a community of children just trying to make sense of themselves, their peers and ultimately-the world.