I remember the excitement I felt my first year of teaching at having my own classroom and my own group of students. Setting up my classroom was great fun.  I decorated the room with bright colors and positive messages about learning. I immersed myself in understanding the curriculum and thought carefully about how I would teach these concepts.

I was excited to get started, but it was exhausting to work the long days, evenings and weekends just to barely stay on top of things. It took me a while to feel fully comfortable with the new school, new colleagues, new parents, and new community.

I had so much on my mind, it took me a while to really notice Annie. Most of my students talked and moved constantly, bouncing from one activity to the next. Teaching was often a joy, but my students needed so much attention I tired myself out just trying to keep everyone on task.

Annie was different. She often sat alone and was very good at making herself invisible. Quiet and shy, she would rarely ask for help and found ways to ensure that no attention was called to her.                         

My first attempts at helping her were frustrating for both of us.  She was hesitant to try new things, and as a first-year teacher, my strategies were limited.  I knew I needed help, so I asked a trusted colleague for advice and she gave me some great ideas.  

One technique that worked well for Annie was to use music and mnemonics. It turned out that while Annie was shy about speaking in class, when she was alone she loved to sing. One subject Annie struggled in was math, but when we set math facts and concepts to song, she remembered them easily.

Annie would sometimes stay after school and offer to help clear the blackboards or tidy the room. I gratefully accepted and we would chat about the day. As Annie became more and more comfortable with me, she opened up and had a lot to say. She told me about her family, her dog Grover, and some of her family’s struggles.     

Annie still had her challenges in school, but I could see her making progress and developing more and more self confidence.  She began to smile more and speak up during class discussions. I was so proud of the academic progress she made, but I was also proud that she began to believe in herself.

One day after school, Annie handed me an envelope.  Tucked inside was a card she had  made with a picture of us holding hands.  It had been colored carefully with an elaborate border all the way around.  Underneath the picture, there were three words: You like me.

I started to tear up.  I gave her a huge hug and said, “Yes, Annie. I like you so much!  You are such a special, smart, and kind person.  You are an amazing after school helper too! And I love listening to you sing.” She looked up at me and smiled.  

Annie taught me that for all of our students to learn, it is important to try many different ways of teaching and learning. For Annie, singing was the key. But I never would have discovered that if I hadn’t gotten to know her and connected with her on a personal level

Dr. BARBARA BLACKBURN

My wife Eleri teaches English in the local high school and has done so for many years. As parents of growing children, it has handy to have one of us in the same school as the kids, where problems can be learned and handled before things get too bad.

   Normally, having a parent in the school is a source of embarrassment for children, but not so for our two. Eleri is very largely liked by her pupils and the most common comment our children hear is ‘Your mother’s cool!’

   There are several secrets to her success. First, she knows that you cannot teach without strong discipline and has a broad arsenal of methods she can deploy. She also, and very importantly, respects and cares for her charges (which contributes strongly to the good discipline she holds). Finally, she uses inspirational teaching methods.

   There are two ways to teach: through the head and through the heart. Teaching through the head includes logical explanation and clearly structured lessons and exercises. The goal is first and last to get good results and, done well, does just that. I remember a history teacher who taught this way. We sat quietly, scribbling like mad all lesson as he marched at a measured pace through our heritage. I passed the exam and dumped dowdy history, forever in the past.

    Eleri does things differently. Every lesson is a performance, where she conducts the class like a jazz orchestra, exploring the way forward with a known goal in mind. She is not afraid to look silly and will stand on the desk and declaim Shakespeare, if that is what it takes. She engages the whole class in challenging debates and encourages innovative thinking.

   It is not surprising that her pupils love her lessons and that she gets regular grateful letters from then at the end of the year.

     “Kids respect neither ‘soft’ teachers who try to be their friend nor the disciplinarians who force-feed facts to a silent class. They like teachers who both hold discipline and who bring the subject to life, making it fun and interesting,” she always keeps saying.

   Inspirational teaching plays first to the heart. It works on the principle that if learning is fun and interesting, then the learners will develop a strong and lasting interest in the subject. And when this happens, great results will happen as a natural and inevitable progression.

    And Eleri and her methods are living proof of this. She gets the r equisite learning done, but without the painting-by-numbers rigor of more traditional methods. Her classes may seem chaotic to the untrained eye, but they work. Her pupils leave her both loving Shakespeare and with excellent results. They also are far better able to face the world’s problems, having been taught to think, analyze, challenge and experiment.

    Inspirational teaching shows students how to think, not just to know. It engages the heart, and hence the head. It lights fires of passion that will continue to fuel themselves. And it creates worthy citizens who will contribute strongly to the nation and the world.

                                                                   David Straker

It’s the end of the school year! It’s a time that I would normally be so anxiously awaiting; but not any more. For I know that by summer simply coming, I end up losing two of my greatest friends. You are one of them, and I’m pretty sure you can figure out the other.

     The impact that you have had on me this year is inexplicable. You have affected and changed me in so many ways that it’s hard to single a few out. Under your teaching, and your influence, I have become a kinder, nicer, and more caring person. I find that I am so much more thoughtful towards others and much less likely to judge.

      You have changed the way that I think about English. Sadly, I used to despise English, and it used to be my weakest subject. I just couldn’t figure out how all those words and grammar rules really would take a role in my life, and after all they weren’t anything important to me personally. Where would words and grammar rules get me? I now look forward to English class with great anticipation, and ever so infrequently do I get an activity incorrect. Through you I was able to acquire a love for math that I’m confident will continue to grow as I get older.

        You have also changed the way that I think about myself. Through you I was able to obtain a higher self esteem and a higher opinion of myself. I am able to look into the mirror and for one of the first times ever, be proud of the person that I am. You believed in me, and that’s all that I really needed. You took the time to care, and not only that, but you made sure that I knew you cared. That has made the difference.

       You have changed the way that I think about teachers. Before you, I always respected my teachers, but I was never really aware of the amount of work  teachers put into their job. Before this year, I never realized how much certain teachers cared, nor did I ever take the time to thank them. Before this year, I never really thought into the fact that a teacher was a person with a personality, and you could like the person that a teacher was and befriend them for it.

       I wish that I could have seen this before, for I had so many great teachers before you, but I am glad that I was able to realize it for at least half of this year. It would have been a shame if I never would have seen it, for I truly would have missed out on some great friendships with some amazing people, including you.

       I wanted you to realize though, that without you, I never would have seen any of this. Without you, I would not be the person that I am today.

       At times, I truthfully believed that you were the only one there for me; but you were enough to save my life. If it weren’t for you, showing how much you cared, being there for me, and simply doing your job to the best of your abilities, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. You saved my life. I can never repay you for that; even these measly thoughts barely express the amount of gratitude I owe you. It is because of you that I will, one day, be able to go on and become one amazing teacher. I thank you for that…

Your Student, Friend, Admirer, & Fan

” As we express our gratitude,

we must never forget that the highest appreciation

is not to utter words, but to live by them”

                                                    J.F. Kennedy

There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher. Her name was Mrs. Thompson. And as she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant.

It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big F at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last.

However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners…he is a joy to be around.”

His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”

Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper,except for Teddy’s.

His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume.

But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist.

 

Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.”

After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, and writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy.

As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”

A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.

Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it,and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.

The story doesn’t end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.

They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, “Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.”

Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”

by Dahlia Rideout

 

Alex had been kicked out after only his first year in high school. He had attended class for only 21 days that year. Worse, he had been arrested five times for dealing drugs.

At the beginning of his 10th grade year, Alex asked to be admitted to a new school. The principal of the new school met with Alex to determine whether or not to admit him. He looked over his academic record. It showed he had received excellent grades during his first nine years of school. But something had happened to change all that during ninth grade. The principal asked him to explain what had happened.

“My father died last year,” Alex said, “and I needed to pay for the funeral. So I started dealing drugs. It was good money, so I kept on doing it. I make more money now dealing drugs than going to school. But I also know what my life expectancy will be.”

The principal knew the same statistic. Three years.

The principal asked, “What is it that you want? What is it that you need?”

Alex replied, “I don’t want to be a statistic. I don’t want to die in three years. I want to go back to high school.”

The principal could see that Alex was still a bright kid, who wanted to get past dealing drugs. He admitted him to the school.

Alex studied hard and maintained a B average. He impressed everyone in the school with his intelligence, work ethic, and personal charm. He graduated on time and was accepted to a local college on full scholarship. He got a summer job with a local business to help pay for his college expenses. 

But Alex’s past wouldn’t let him go. Frustrated, he told the principal, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, but I can’t go to college here. If I stay, I’m afraid I’ll get back into trouble. I need a fresh start.”

The principal knew the dean of another college in a nearby state. He told her about Alex’s history, but he also told her about his intelligence, work ethic, and successful efforts to change his life so far. The dean agreed to interview him. Alex visited the school and had a successful interview. He started college the following fall.

Midway through the fall semester, the principal received a phone call from the dean.

“I need to talk with you about Alex,” the dean said. The principal was worried. Had Alex’s past caught up with him again?

“Alex has just been elected the freshman representative to the student government,” said the dean. His grades are outstanding. I want to know if you have any more Alex’s at your school. We want you to send them here.”

The principal smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. He called Alex to congratulate him—and also to find out how to meet the dean’s request.

“How can we clone you, Alex?” he asked. “What did we do that was right?”

“I’ll be happy to tell you,” Alex said, “but on one condition.” He laughed. “Visit me here and treat me to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town.”

The next weekend, the principal drove out to the college and took Alex out to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town. Then Alex gave him the secret of his success. Of their success.

He said, “You were the first person who ever asked me what I needed instead of telling me what I needed to do.”

Alex graduated from college and was hired by a major engineering firm in Chicago. Due to his intelligence, work ethic, and personal charm, he was soon promoted. And promoted again. His annual salary was now higher than the principal’s…for the last several years combined!

Years later, the principal was in Chicago and decided to look Alex up and give him a call. Alex was happy to hear from the principal and once again thanked him for helping him get through his troubled years.

“Let’s get together while you’re here,” he suggested. “Sure,” the principal replied. “But on one condition. You treat me to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town

by Franklin Schargel

When Barbara Blackburn visited Valley Middle School, she found a strong community that was in need of a little encouragement. This month’s story reminds us that a school is at its best when teachers support each other by focusing on their strengths.

Valley Middle School was a Title I school experiencing challenges improving its standardized test score, but it was also a place where kids wanted to be.

I was hired as a consultant at Valley, and when the curriculum coordinator introduced me to the teachers, I saw slumped shoulders and heads hung low. They looked tired and dejected, as if they felt their hard work wasn’t making a difference.

The district review team was coming to the school in a few days, and I could tell from the teacher’s faces that they felt too disheartened to be receptive to my workshop on rigor.

After talking with the curriculum coordinator, I decided to spend time building up teacher morale and motivation instead. As I visited classrooms and talked to students and teachers, it was clear that the situation was better than they perceived it to be. Although the teachers at Valley were experiencing challenges, my observations proved to me that the school was a strong community.

I asked one student, “If you were in charge of the school, what would you change?”“I could use a bigger locker. But I really like all my teachers,” she said.

 

Another student said, “I’d make the school closer to my house so I wouldn’t have to walk as far. But I wouldn’t miss a day. I have perfect attendance,” he said proudly.

With these positive comments in mind, I asked the teachers to write down their vision of a successful school year. As they shared their goals, they realized that they all wanted to create an environment where students wanted to learn, improve, and felt cared for. No one mentioned success as measured by standardized test scores.

I told them, “Test scores are important, and there is always room for improvement. But test scores should be the floor, not the ceiling. Every student I talked to wants to be here because they feel like you’re making a difference. Don’t forget – you are good teachers!”

For the next day of the workshop, I gave the teachers a homework assignment. Because the school mascot was a wildcat, I asked the teachers to write each other “Paws of Praise.”

The next day, something was different. Teachers were smiling and there was a new energy in the hallways. One teacher came up to me and said, “With the district review team focusing on all the negatives, I forgot how important it is to pay attention to the positives!”

At the end of the day, the teachers asked me to stay for the district review.

 

I told them, “You don’t need me to stay here. You are a team. You can support each other.”

The teachers and staff nodded in agreement. Together, they all decided to wear red on the day of the review as a sign of unity and solidarity. It was a great idea. As we said our goodbyes, I reminded them once again to focus on the positives.

A week later, I got a call from the curriculum coordinator. She told me that when the review team walked into the school, their jaws dropped. All the teachers were wearing red and full of confidence. Morale was high, and the whole school was working together as a team. The staff felt like they had regained their power.

A year later, Valley brought me back to do the workshop on rigor. I noticed that this time around the teachers and staff were upbeat and energized. The teachers told me that now when morale starts to dip, they make an effort to encourage each other by reminding themselves that their hard work is both noticed and appreciated.

My experiences at Valley reinforced my belief that while it is important to work on areas that need improvement, the best way to achieve success, measured by test scores or students’ smiles, is to focus on your strengths. As teachers, we have good days and bad. But remember—even on your worst day, you are someone’s best hope.

by Barbara Blackburn

Eye On Education thanks our teachers this month with a special Thanksgiving Tale from author Sandra Harris. November’s Tale is about the effect of a simple “Thank You“ of a student to a first-year teacher. Here’s a reminder that everything you do as teachers is appreciated!

 

It was a hot day in July, the summer after Sandy’s first year of teaching. Sandy was sitting on the backyard swing with a diary in her hand.  When she got her first job as a teacher, her mother had given her the diary to record “all those triumphant teacher moments.”

Sandy had gone to college not really knowing what she wanted to be or do with her life.  Growing up, she had wanted to be a writer, a psychologist, a lawyer… But when Sandy’s friends who wanted to be teachers talked about what they wanted to do, their faces seemed to light up as they talked about making the world a better place.

However, the first year of teaching was not as enchanting as she had thought it would be. The first entries in her journal were usually brief – Sandy was too tired to write much at the end of the day.

         September 7 – Teaching is harder than I thought it would be.

October 1 – I got my first teaching check today . . . was it worth it?

October 10 – I can’t change these kids’ home lives – how can I expect them to do homework, when there is often no support?

November 8 –  I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a teacher.

As she leafed through the pages on this lazy summer day, Sandy could see the faces of her 30 third-graders:

         Paul sat right by her desk – even that didn’t stop his constant talking! But she had sent a note home every day to let his parents know.  Sandy had worked hard at being consistent. 

Connie, cute as a button, never did one piece of homework.  And Sandy had worked so hard to get her parents to help, but they wouldn’t even return her phone calls. 

Sitting quietly, almost invisibly, in the back of the room was Jane wearing the same dress she had worn all week. Did she ever smile?

Michael sat to the left of her desk, a sweet little boy, but when he read aloud, Sandy got impatient – he called so many words wrong!

Sandy sat back and remembered how many times she had climbed, frustrated, into her car at the end of the school day, nearly crying tears of frustration. She tried so hard to be a good teacher, but it didn’t seem as though she was making a difference of any kind, let alone a difference that would make the world a better place.

But halfway through the diary, Sandy noticed that her entries had become longer. They focused less on her frustration and more on the kids themselves. 

Sandy began reading:

            January 10 – Paul controlled his talking so well today that I sent a note to his parents telling them about his good behavior.

February 12 – I found out today that Connie’s parents are getting a divorce. I’m not going to keep calling. Instead, I think I have a plan, a way to help Connie with at least some of her homework before she leaves school . . .

March 8 – Jane came up to me on the playground and whispered in my ear that her Daddy had a new job.  She was smiling.

March 25 – When Michael was in reading group I noticed that he was always able to answer my questions. It’s when I call on him to read aloud that he stutters, and his hands even shake.  What can I do to help him?

As Sandy turned to the last page of her diary, a piece of paper fell onto her lap. It was a note from one of her students that she had tucked inside, sometime earlier that year. She unfolded it to read:

         Thank you, Teacher, you made my day happy.

Sandy smiled as she realized:

Teaching was not only about making the world a better place, it was about making their world better, day by day.

Thank you, teacher, for making your students’ days happy.

 by Sandra Harris

On the first day of school, all of the students came in smiling and carrying new backpacks and school supplies. All except one student: Lily.

As Ms. Catrino greeted the new students, she noticed that Lily had only a pencil and a folder in her backpack, nothing else. No crayons. No scissors. No notebooks. The little girl looked very upset. 

Lily told Ms. Catrino that her parents had money for only her older sisters’ school supplies. Looking at the other children’s notebooks and crayons, Lily felt left out.”

Ms. Catrino saw how sad she looked and said, “Lily, would you help me pass out the notebooks?” The little girl’s face lit up as she helped the teacher.

Throughout the school year, Lily acted as Ms. Catrino’s extra pair of hands. Instead of feeling left out, she became a helper to Ms. Catrino and a leader to the other students. If the other students had questions about directions for classroom activities, they would ask Lily.

After the first grading period, it became obvious that Lily was a struggling reader. She tried her hardest every day, but still fought to master the art of reading. She and Ms. Catrino practiced reading together, and she would even get dropped off at school early and read to Ms. Catrino while she was setting up for the day.

But Lily never raised her hand to read aloud, and progress was slow. Ms. Catrino began to be concerned that she would not be prepared for the second grade.

One afternoon, Ms. Catrino asked if there was anyone who wanted to read a story to the class. Usually one of the stronger students volunteered.

But this day, Lily’s hand flew up. She burst out, “If I can help the teacher hand things out, and I can help everyone in class with directions, then everyone else can help me read.” So Lily read to the class, while her teacher, friends, and classmates supported her. Lily’s reading confidence was growing.

The days and weeks continued, but Lily was still not reading to grade level. Lily’s parents were called in to school for that dreaded retention meeting. Ms. Catrino had to break the news that if Lily wasn’t reading on level by March, she would have to repeat first grade. Lily’s parents were worried and sad, and so was Ms. Catrino. She felt enormous pressure to develop Lily into a reader. But she and Lily had been trying so hard all year, and nothing seemed to make a dramatic improvement. Both she and Lily were frustrated.

Ms. Catrino tried to motivate Lily by talking to her about all the wonderful things you could feel, imagine, and experience when you enjoyed reading.

“Don’t give up,” said Ms. Catrino. “I’m not giving up on you.”

One morning, Lily said to Ms. Catrino, “I want to be a reader. Do you know why? So I can be a teacher and teach kids like me to read and never give up, ‘cause you never gave up on me.”
By the spring, Lily not only reached, but exceeded, the expectation for second grade reading.

Through determination, and with the support of her teacher and classmates, Lily achieved her goal. It was such a proud moment, that Ms. Catrino could hardly believe Lily was the same girl who was so upset about not having the right supplies for first grade.

Lily was proud of herself too. At the end of the year, she said to Ms. Catrino, “I hope someone takes care of you next year, just like I did. But don’t worry if they don’t. I will be in the second grade hall if you need me to help… or to teach your kids how to read

by Gary Mcguey & Lonnie Moore

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