Ask and You Shall Receive

Yesterday, I announced to my fifth period class that I would be leaving them in capable hands for part of the period while I left to go sing at the graveside service of a dear friend from my church.  His daughter and son-in-law are close friends of mine and two of his grandchildren are my former students and currently seniors at our school.

I have the luxury of teaching at Trinity Presbyterian School, whose mission is “to glorify God by providing the highest college preparatory education, while training students in the biblical world and life view, thus enabling them to serve God in spirit, mind and body.”  Because of who we are as a school, it is entirely acceptable to say to my class, “I would appreciate your prayers for me as I sing for this family and for them as they grieve the passing of their grandfather.”

It was a very cold day;  and singing is best when the body is warm. I was nervous about not being able to sing well outside and also about being able to keep my emotions in check when I saw the faces of these people that I love and the casket of this fine man who was our first Sunday School teacher when my husband and I moved to Montgomery eighteen years ago. I did not want my poor performance to be a distraction at such a sacred moment for this family.  Frankly, the tension was building in my body and I didn’t know if I could get out four verses of “Amazing Grace” under the circumstances. So, needing all the help I could get, I asked for the prayers of my ninth graders.

“We could get in a circle and pray right now,” one bright-eyed, warm-hearted girl said. It caught me by surprise.  What courage!  We were already conveniently sitting in a circle, and so I said, “Ok, would one of you like to lead?”  I was thinking I’d pray myself, setting an example to them that I ‘walk my talk’. Before I ended the question, the same girl who suggested it piped up, “I’ll do it.”   And so within seconds, I found myself surrounded by a circle of fifteen-year-olds with heads bowed with one voice praying aloud offering gratitude for the gifts of the day, the school, each other, and asking for comfort and peace for the family we all know and love and for strength for me as I sang.

The very act itself, the sound of her voice, the willing spirits of every soul in that circle gave me the gift I needed to walk to my car and drive to the cemetery.  For those who think today’s teenagers are too tied to their social media, too self-centered and spoiled, don’t have the right priorities and incapable of leadership in our culture, think again. Come visit my class. There are some courageous, compassionate, selfless young people who’ll step up when the need presents itself. They have much to offer us old folks if we ask them.


Did you hear about Justin Bieber?

“Mrs. Slawson, did you hear about Justin Bieber?”

This was the chatter of students entering my classroom a few days ago.  I answered that though I had caught less than five minutes of morning news while I grabbed my coffee that morning, I had, in fact, heard that Justin Bieiber was arrested for drag racing in Miami Beach and was allegedly under the influence of substances at the time he did it.

“He did something very inappropriate in jail,” one girl said.  This news, I would later learn, turned out to be an internet hoax, but not being surprised or especially caring what Justin Bieber did or did not do in his jail cell, I didn’t bother to check it out at the time.  Frankly, I was interested in getting on with class.

I let the girls have their moment, then begin to give the class instructions and settle them into their work.  One young lady just couldn’t seem to let it go. “Why would he do that? He had the perfect life,” she said.  She couldn’t seem to get her attention focused on classwork and couldn’t stop talking about it to those around her.  I called her down and she very honestly replied, “I just can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Why don’t you go sit in the hall and read?”  I said.  We are currently reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and I was giving students some time to read in class.  Sometimes less proximity to friends is a good thing when trying to engage ninth graders in the solitary act of reading.  She didn’t seem to want to go in the hall, which is unusual since most students jump at that chance which I rarely offer.

“Would you like to come sit up here behind my desk?”  I asked.  I honestly thought this would seem threatening and get her attention. Maybe now she would get on with her work at her own desk.  To my surprise, she got her things and came and sat on the floor behind my desk.   Soon she was quiet, as were the rest of the students, and we all got to work.  After several productive minutes, I heard a sniffling noise.  I turned my chair around and behind me on the floor, she was crying.

I didn’t say it; but I was thinking, ‘What on earth? She cannot  be crying over Justin Bieber.”   Instinctively I crawled out of my chair and onto the floor beside her.  I reached an arm around her shoulder and as soon as I did she buried her head in my shoulder and sobbed. After a minute or two of wondering what on earth to say, I said,   “Are you crying about Justin Bieber?”   She nodded.

I had no idea what to do next; I couldn’t believe this was happening.  I finally whispered something about it being hard to grow up, that I wished it weren’t so but that people disappoint us, sometimes even people we really know, not just those we admire from a distance.  I found some Kleenex in my desk drawer; she dried her eyes, and we just sat there in the floor for a few minutes.

The memory of those moments stays with me. As an adult, it’s so easy to dismiss teenagers’ feelings when my years of living have jaded me beyond shock or disappointment about what anyone in public life might do.   It’s also easy to just tell kids how they are supposed to feel, confusing their feelings with their ability to judge or react to a situation.  I can remember, though it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, being told how I should feel and being completely frustrated because that didn’t seem to be something I could control. Feelings were feelings, just there. Emotions appeared, whether invited or not.

Knowing right from wrong, being able to evaluate a situation as good or bad or healthy or unhealthy, and being able to make good choices based on more than just emotions are things we should teach our children, but in doing so we must not forget to acknowledge and honor their feelings as just that, feelings.

And next time, I think I’ll stop immediately and fact check the latest Bieber story. Maybe that will spare some heartbreak and we can get on with The Good Earth.

(special thanks to my student for letting me share this story)

Upon Reflection: New Year’s Resolutions

Soren Kierregaard, Danish philosopher, said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.”  To live life with any understanding at all, then, we must occassionally pause and look behind us. We need to reflect on where we have been, what we have done, and how that might shape us going forward.  Then and only then can we make wise choices going forward.   After writing last week,  New Year’s Reflections , about the value of reflection before making New Year’s resolutions, I have now had the pleasure of reading my students’s papers and seeing what reflections and resolutions are on the minds of the high school freshmen at the midpoint of their year.

Looking cool, managing others’ impressions of themselves, and worrying about their ‘image’ is  a recurring theme. Here are some excerpts from their writing:

During my first month of high) school, I felt like the character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie A Fist Full of Dollars, when he first entered the corrupt western town. In other words, I had no idea how to handle myself, yet I strived to look cool throughout all of its entirety. After a few weeks, and some minor setbacks, I had finally learned the ropes to this new reality.  ( JS) 

If I were starting ninth grade all over again, I would stop being so worried about what people think and do what made me happy. I became so consumed by what others thought of me that I forgot to see what I thought of myself.( MS) 

It is pretty funny how such a trivial thing like the lunchroom could have intimidated me the way that it did. ( SN) 

The lunchroom seems to be the  defining social hurdle of the day for freshmen in high school.  Getting to the ‘right’ table, finding a friend group,  getting a seat among that group, and gaining proximity to other cool people at nearby tables all have to be negotiated while getting a noon meal.

Time management is a second common subject among these young people.

My best decision was deciding to do my homework and any work associated with a class, my worst decision was doing the homework the night before it was due. ( EP)

When I look back, I also see how I have come to understand the value of hard work. (SN)

The biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome was managing my time with homework. My daily after school routine was wasting a few hours watching Netflix, checking social media, and rushing to finish my homework before midnight. As a result, my homework was usually sloppy and half-par, and I was exhausted at school every day. I learned that I am bad at time management and that I am good at procrastination. ( MS)

The best decision I made in the first semester was reading To Kill A Mockingbird. The test was easy to me when I studied and read the book. The worst decision I made in the first semester was not putting forth the effort towards my grade until it was too late. The differences in these decision were that I could have ended up with As and Bs. Instead, I ended up with As, Bs, and Cs.               (Anonymous)

Who would have guessed it?  Reading the novels actually helps in English class and not waiting until the last minute to study or do homework is a good idea, too.  Like the old adage says, “Wisdom is gained from experience, and most of that bad.”

Changing social habits and pushing themselves to new limits are also prevalent in their writing.

One good decision that I made this year was a little bit of a challenge at first. This was my decision to be more social and not be so shy and quiet. Up until this year, I was really quiet and I didn’t really go out of my way to talk to people. This year, I tried to be more social and actually talk to people who I really didn’t know that well. It has made school way more enjoyable. ( BR)

Another thing that ninth grade has taught me is how to push myself harder physically.  Football workouts have been very demanding.  We’ve done everything from lifting weights to running six hundred yards with another guy on our back.  Football has shown me how much my body is capable of not only physically but also mentally.  I’ve learned how to push through pain and weariness to get the job done.  I know that no matter what life throws at me, I’ll be able to deal with it. ( Anonymous) 

I was pleased with the quality of thinking and writing that went into this assignment.  With good reflection behind them, my students now stand a chance of keeping some of their New Year’s Resolutions.

New Year’s Reflections

I don’t like New Year’s Resolutions; it’s just one more thing to make me feel guilty.  Like most people, my resolve runs out before the end of January and by March I don’t even remember what my resolutions were.  I quit making them years ago, at least in the old way of listing goals and drumming up my willpower to meet them.

What I do like are reflections. I like looking back over a period of time, thinking about where I have come from and the decisions I have made, and evaluating the influences in those decisions and the outcomes of them.  Hopefully, I learn something in this process.  Reflection is what keeps one from going through life blindly, making the same moves like a default on a computer without considering that the same habits net the same outcome every time.  The process of reflection enables one to change directions which is what resolutions are all about.

It’s important to get away from “I resolve” – which will not be successful with the same old bad habits and practices – and begin the year with reflection.  After reflection is the time to make resolutions. Then and only then do I have the knowledge needed to make changes in my life. Reflection is the foundation of successful resolutions.

With all that in mind, I begin the new semester by asking my students to reflect on their first semester as high schoolers.  They laugh remembering how scared they were of the lunchroom the first few days of school, how they quaked in fear at the sight of the dean with the flat top haircut. ( Some of them are still quaking in his presence, but that might be a good thing.)  They were scared of the big juniors and seniors who now have become friends and role models.  They survived, maybe even thrived, in the first semester of a foreign language or a high school sport.  For some, their grades took a dip compared to middle school days. They need to figure out why.

Here are the questions I asked them to ponder and respond to in writing:

What were the best and worst decisions that you have made this semester?  What were the differences in them?  What or who influenced those decisions?

If you were starting ninth grade  all over, what would you do differently and why? 

In the past semester, what is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome, and what did you learn?  Address academic, social, emotional, and physical – or at least two of those four. 

How do you want to be different four months from now than you are right now?  How would you like to grow or change as a student?  What do you think you can do ( specific actions) to help you achieve your goal? 

I’m currently reading these pieces they have written and my next post will be some of the wisdom my students have gleaned through the process of reflection. Then we will get on with resolutions and goals for the new year.


Teaching Is Relationally Expensive, But It’s Also Priceless.

I did not want to come to work Monday morning. After two days off to attend a professional conference followed by a week of Thanksgiving break with extended family, I was out of my routine, somewhat tired, had a head cold and was lacking in enthusiasm for my job.  More importantly, though, I knew how difficult the days ahead would be.

Over the break, I’d learned that a young man I taught last year, a smiling, loving, energetic sixteen- year-old had died in an accident.  This boy was not only my student, but the son and nephew of very good friends. My personal sorrow was great, and yet I was headed into a school full of shocked, hurting teenagers as well.

I drove myself to work mostly complaining but finally relinquishing a prayer asking for the desire to do my job and for wisdom in what to say or not to say.   One of my first task on campus was to check my mailbox since I had missed the two days prior to the holiday break. I fully  expected to stand there in the mailroom and empty the publishers’ catalogs and theatre company postcards into the trashcan before returning to my classroom.  Instead, I found four letters.  Thank-you letters from high school students. Apparently one of my colleagues had asked students  to write thank-you letters to someone for the upcoming holiday.

As I read the notes, one in grape-flavored purple ink, another decorated with flowers and curlycues, for a moment I forgot all about not wanting to come to work.  One student thanked me for remembering they were kids. ( How could I forget?) Another thanked me for respect. I saw in those letters I was holding in my hand the answer to my prayer.  Suddenly, I wanted to see my students. I had missed them. We had lost one.  Where else would I be today?   They need me and I need them. The pain of loss makes it tempting to run, to avoid relationships, to avoid those connections and investments in each other; yet those vulnerable relationships are what make life worth living.

Teaching and learning only happen in the context of relationship. Spending almost an hour a day five days a week in each other’s presence changes both the teacher and student. Watching my students mature into college-bound young men and women gives me immense satisfaction, but sometimes the things I must do to help them mature are difficult. Discipline in the classroom is not pleasurable.  Assessments can be excruciating if they aren’t passing.  No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. The humor and energy of teenagers can be delightful; the drama, entertaining; the grief, almost unbearable.

I told one young man recently he needed to quit disrupting my sleep. He looked at me puzzled until I explained that I had awakened in the pre-dawn hours worrying about him because I knew he didn’t understand what we were doing in class.  I wish at times I could shut it off, ‘it’ being the constant thinking about what one student needs or how to change a lesson to better suit a particular class or whether I handled a disciplinary issue correctly.   Sometimes I am tired and I want to quit.  I can’t keep my emotions out of my job no matter how hard I try because I am in relationship with these young people.  It’s expensive, relationally speaking. But as those curlycued, fragrant letters reminded me, it’s also priceless.


I Almost Read Ahead

“Mrs. Slawson, I read last night. This story is getting good,” this coming from a fifteen- year- old boy who was doing his best NOT to read in my class this year.

“ I read, too,” another reluctant reader piped up.

“ It’s actually pretty interesting,” a third one said.

“ I almost read ahead last night,” I heard from my left.   That good – he almost read ahead.

I’m about to sprout wings and fly around my room. They are reading!  They are reading!  I’m not sure what I have done, but most of them  are reading the novel I assigned them.  I suspect it might be what I have not done.  I’ve not gotten in the way of great literature this time.

I recently read an article (  the source of which I can’t remember or I’d cite it here)  in which the writer questioned why we teachers stop to discuss while we read through the book with a class rather than waiting until we’ve read the complete story.  How would we like someone to stop a film every fifteen minutes to discuss it with us rather than just let us enjoy the story?  I’ve long suspected that some of my students didn’t have to read for themselves because they could rely on me to ‘retell’ the chapter in the discussion.  These two things together prompted me to try a different approach.

For the most part, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird in full before we begin to analyze it for the symbols, the themes, the plot or setting,  and the tools of characterization.  We will look at those things, but only after we have had the pleasure of being told a great story by Harper Lee.   We are learning some new vocabulary and I am asking students to do some writing as they go to reflect on what they read, but for the most part, we are reading.  I’m giving them class time each day to accomplish hopefully half  of the reading I expect, and the rest should be done for homework.

Some students like to tell me they can’t read in class. I refuse to accept that.  If I can keep the room quiet, (and I can) and let them get comfortable, many of them find that they can leave the cinder block walls of my room and travel in their mind’s eye to Maycomb Co. to roam the streets with Jem, Scout and Dill.  I give them time in class to read for two reasons:  at least I know they are reading some of the book because I watch them do it; and more importantly, I want them to know I mean it when I tell them that nothing is more important to their academic lives than reading.  How can I tell them reading is such a high priority in their lives if I don’t make it one in my classroom? 

I recently asked my students  in each class how many of them read chapters from their textbooks when they are studying a unit in history, science, or math.  Unfortunately, only a few hands in each class went up.  Most of them just study class notes, they told me.  This is disheartening because as a college-preparatory school, our students should leave here being comfortable reading textbooks.  My daughter, a freshman in college, has noticed that her sociology professor might assign 75-100 pages of reading between classes, which only meet twice a week.  No way is he going to cover all that material in two fifty minute lectures per week!  Yet she will be tested on it, hence, the need to read the book.

Granted, I have Harper Lee, Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway to help me “sell” the pleasure  and virtue of reading in an English class. Still, reading the book – whether novel or textbook – is essential to college-preparedness. So if you pass by and we are sitting on the floor, under the pool of lamplight, book in hand, leave us alone. We are  reading!

B is for…GOOD!

I have a chart in my room that reads:

A is Excellent  –Highest Level of Achievement

B is Good  –High Level of Achievement

C is Satisfactory  –Adequate Level of Achievement

D is Passing –Minimal Level of Achievement

F is Failing   –Unacceptable level of performance

Despite all my efforts to educate to the contrary, I have some students (and their parents) who have decided that B stands for bad.  Being an English teacher, I love alliterative phrases, but not when it gets in the way of the truth; and the truth is B is not BAD. B is GOOD.  B represents a high level of achievement.

A colleague of mine recently told me of a conference in which a parent remarked, “We’ve already resigned ourselves to a B, ”  as if the child had some handicap or some disease.   This was in AP Europeon History, no less, and the student is a sophomore in high school!   So we have a fifteen-year-old tenth grader taking a course that is the equivalent to a freshman history class at the university level, and we are resigned to a B.  What about PROUD of a B?  How many of us parents took a college-level class while still in high school, juggling seven classes a day and extracurriculars while doing so?   Furthermore, the AP classes are weighted a full point, so a B in an AP course still earns 4 quality points.  It is entirely possible to make  all B’s in AP classes and still graduate with a 4.0 or higher if are few A’s  in honors courses are thrown in the mix.

Having steered two children through high school and the college search process and seen then both be accepted to selective colleges, I have heard more times than I can’t count from admissions officers, “We would rather see a B in challenging course, than to see that your school offered challenging courses that you didn’t take just so you could make all A’s.”  I also heard repeatedly that admissions officers look for upward trends on transcripts.  A “C” in a AP class as a fifteen-year-old is probably perfectly fine if by the junior and senior year those are trending to B’s and A’s. The fact that a high-school sophomore attempts an AP class at all should be commended.   The rigor of these courses is the best possible preparation we as a school can offer our college-bound students if they are capable of taking those classes.

My defense of the “B” is probably heightened by the fact that my ninth grade students have recently finished a difficult unit and some of them were less than pleased with their test results.  Considering that several students failed the test, a solid B was quite an accomplishment in my eyes. Not so in theirs.  How did we get here?  What happened to C being satisfactory and B being good?  Does everybody deserve an A just for showing up and working hard?

Realistically, some students are better at some subjects than others. Some are better test takers, while others excel in writing or creative projects or the arts.  On any given day or during any given semester for that matter, a student’s performance can be affected by a myriad of factors.  If we adults are honest with ourselves, the same is true for us too.  On a given day my teaching might be graded an A, but the supper I cook might barely earn a C.   That seems to average to a B, which I’ll take to mean I had a GOOD day.

Extracurriculars: What’s a teacher to do?

A week  ago I realized several of my students would be away on Monday for an extracurricular activity sponsored by the school.  In addition, another handful would be gone the preceeding Friday for another school sanctioned extracurricular activity.  I had a big test scheduled on Tuesday, which had been on the Upper School’s test calendar for about two weeks.    With a variety of teams and activites for students to participate in year round, somebody seems to always be going somewhere. What is a teacher to do?

Nothing.  I did not move the test.  Why not?  Because there is value for my students in learning to make adjustments, manage time, and accept limitations. Every choice creates a limitation.  To play baseball in the spring means one can’t be on the school golf team. To be on the dance team  this fall means one won’t be cheerleading.  These are obvious.  Less obvious:  to participate in extracurricular activities that take one out of class occassionally means grades may be lower, hopefully temporarily.

Now before a host of my students’ parents call for my head, let me explain two things.  First,  I am willing to work with students who miss class for any reason, but I can’t reproduce the actual classroom environment.  If a student says something great in a discussion or a group presents an outstanding project, that scenario can’t be re-done in a make-up session one-on-one with a teacher before or after school.  I always encourage my students to get class notes from at least two other classmates, as no one students will get the full scope of what another needs in note-taking. Note-taking is very individualized.

Secondly, and most importantly, I am proud and supportive of my students who are missing class for a regional track meet, a state volleyball tournament, or Youth Judicial or any other school team or activity.   These students are doing good things in their lives, wholesome activities that are building life skills that can’t all be taught in my classroom.   In high school, I performed with a show choir and competed with my school’s debate team.  The skills I gained in those two activities are on display every day that I am in front of my classroom.

Our son began flying lessons during high school.  By the beginning of his freshmen year of college, he had completed his solo flight and become a licensed pilot.  Did his grades suffer because he spent time in pilot training?   I doubt it.  Perhaps his overall GPA could have been two tenths of a point higher or he could have done more ACT prep, but the skills he gained such as paying attention to detail, focused and sustained concentration, the ability to troubleshoot problems and remain calm far outweigh the slight increase his grades might have gained had he not spent time on this worthy endeavor.  Furthermore,  the confidence he gained has enhanced his academic life by enabling him to tackle challenging courses, seek out  competitive internships, and set goals for his future.

When it comes to extracurriculars and missing school, we must take the long view.  Students need to learn that all of life involves choices. Sometimes schedules get hectic. Good planing, time management, and working ahead are skills to develop. At the same time, we will have times when we must accept we’ve done our best, given the tight circumstances, even if the grade or the performance is  not as high as our usual standard.  The payoff will come in another area of life that can’t be measured on a test.

Read…even when you don’t want to!

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. – Walter Bagehot, British economist, essayist, and critic

A colleague recently attended a workshop and brought me back a delightful book, What Teachers Make  by Taylor Mali.  Among many inspiring quotes in the book, this one is at the beginning of chapter in which Mali discusses why he doesn’t let middle schoolers leave class to go to the bathroom or especially ‘to get a drink of water’.  Though not trying to be mean, Mali says that “much of life is simply learning to buckle down and do what you have to do even though you don’t really feel like doing it.”  Furthermore he says, “Great teaching moments happen in the classroom all the time when you least expect them!  It would be a shame if a students missed one just because he had a short attention span or a habit of cutting out when things got slightly uncomfortable.”

I see adult life all over that quote. Mature adults don’t just “cut out when things get slightly uncomfortable.”  Isn’t some of working, parenting, marriage and homemaking buckling down and doing what you don’t really feel like doing?  I remind my students when they are tempted to complain about their assignments that changing their diapers and doing their laundry isn’t the fun part of parenting, that paying bills isn’t something anyone ever feels like doing, that entering grades on the computer is boring to me and I’m never in the mood to do it, but it’s part of my job and pretty important to them.

This quote and Taylor Mali’s point are perhaps most poignant this week  because I am in the midst of teaching ancient Greek literature to fourteen-year-olds who like to remind me daily, “This is hard,”  “I don’t understand it,”  “ But I don’t like to read.”   As if somehow those statements will make the curriculum optional.  They might could skate through life without having read Homer’s Odyssey, but they will not skate through life without the ability to read a complex text.  In a college preparatory school, the expectation of their parents is that they will attend  four-year universities and receive a professional degree. To think one can do that without reading complex material is asinine.  History, biology, calculus: do those college texts come in easy-to-read entertaining formats?  Are nursing students and future engineers and business majors now getting degrees without reading?   No matter how tech savvy this generation may be, the need to read complex material, critically think it through to discern its meaning, importance, and validity will never go away. In fact, it may be more important than ever in this digital age where communication is its various forms is more subtle than its ever been.

Technology provides all sorts of ways to make the task of reading complex materials easier.  For my students who are in an Apple 1:1 school, their textbook in online with an audio feature. Struggling readers can listen to The Odyssey being read to them.  The internet provides an infinite number of possibilities to search for supplemental materials to help one understand the story.  As a teacher, I scaffold the reading with guiding questions, comprehension checks, visual aids  and class discussions. Still, as Carol Jago, one of the leading English educators in the field, says, “It is not possible to teach classical literature to students who will not read outside of class.”  I might add, even more impossible if they won’t read in class either.

Discipline on Loan

The part of my job I enjoy the least is discipline. By nature, I am highly relational. I like people in general,  desire connection with them, and tend to be optimistic even when my first impressions are not favorable. I’ll dig a little deeper, I think, believing there’s more to that human being than first met my eye.   I inherited this nature from my father, who doesn’t meet a stranger and believes when it comes to friends, “The more the merrier.”   It is often said of him, “If Pete’s there, it’s a party.” Sometimes this exhausted my more introverted mom who was  behind the scenes cooking and washing the dishes.  This way of being has served me well for most of my life, and only on a few occasions have I found people that I simply had to pull away from because I couldn’t find a way to have an emotionally healthy relationship.

In the classroom, though, this way of being is both virtue and flaw.   Like a good Shakespearean hero, my best quality is also my worst, my virtue can become my tragic flaw.  I want to enjoy my students and them to enjoy  me.  I desire conversation with them about the literature we study or the papers they write.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt when their work is late or they don’t get it right the first time.  I want to give grace and to have them leave my classroom every day in love with learning.

The problem is that they are fourteen and fifteen years old. Many of them, when in a group setting, still cannot hold a conversation without interrupting each other.  Class discussion quickly becomes several individual conversations.  I hate the idea of making them raise their hands like fifth graders, and yet I sometimes must resort to that.  Some of them can’t sit still in a desk for fifteen minutes, or pay attention to a reading for more than five.  I want to believe every story about why an assignment was not turned in on time, and yet I can usually see it in their eyes when they are trying to con me. I know that some excuses are just that—excuses!  When I read a paper that is, frankly, “a mess”; I want to assume they just don’t understand yet; but wiser teachers and tutors, who know that student better than I, tell me, “He just didn’t try. He is capable of more than that.”   I know these things are true because I, myself, sometimes didn’t give my best, offered excuses, and didn’t wait my turn to speak. Yet I resist the confrontation with them for as long as I can, sometimes longer than I should.

A good friend who reared two boys to successful adulthood told me once, “ When my boys don’t have self-discipline, I loan them some of mine.”  Wisely put.  I said this to my students recently. I don’t enjoy correction, calling them out, or writing demerits, but I have to remember that discipline is training, not punishment. I have to train them to be  self-motivated, self-guided students, even when I don’t enjoy it and they don’t either.  Their college professors are going to expect self-discipline. Until they develop their own, I am going to have to loan them some of mine.


Be the Person

Years ago, when my own children were in elementary school, I recall being frustrated frequently with child-rearing issues.  My children did not always behave as I thought they should and respond to me the way I wanted them to.  I was always looking for what technique or parenting strategy might work.  I had read numerous books with topics ranging from sleep schedules  and potty training to doing chores and getting along with siblings. I continually found myself with new challenges every time one of them hit a new stage of development.

One hot June day, my husband and I were driving our son to summer camp. I was pondering (and silently praying) yet again, about how to handle the children.  As I stared out the passenger window, suddenly this thought bubbled up in my mind, It’s not what you do; it’s who you are.” 

On its surface, that  statement may not sound groundbreaking; but for me, it was transformative.  And not always pleasant. The point was not the next useful strategy in parenting; the point was the person I was and the life I was living in front of my children. Be the person you want your child to become seemed to be the message. My husband and I have been parents long enough to see that our shortcomings do show up in our children: procrastination, messy closets, hard-headedness, over-committing…just to name a few.  We never told our children to over-schedule themselves or tend toward running late; in fact, we told them not to, but that is what they saw in us and it sometimes shows up in them.

My wonderful country grandmother, who wisely reared five children and was a schoolteacher herself, used to say, “More is caught than taught.”  How true. In the world of education, we call this ‘modeling’. We show our students examples of what a good lab report or essay looks like. In English class, I write with them or show them my own work (this blog, for example) but we are modeling way more than we realize and purposefully intend. That thought merits some reflective thinking for us as teachers and parents.

If I want my students to be on time to class and ready to work when they get here, am I? If I want them to be interested and engaged in the material, am I ? If  I tell them to use their time well and get their rest at night, do I? If I encourage them to set goals and accept challenges, am I still doing that?

I reminded myself and my husband frequently through the teenage years with our children: “You can’t fool a teenager.”  They may not be able to articulate what they see or don’t see in our lives, but they can spot a fake and they rebel against inauthenticity in the adults in their lives.  We should constantly be asking ourselves some questions as we lead them through the treacherous waters of adolescence:  Are we giving our best efforts to our jobs, homes, and relationships?  Are we managing our time and personal lives well? Do they see us trusting rather than worrying, or are we anxiety-laden while we chastise them for it?  When we are wrong or make a mistake, can we own it?  Can we ask their forgiveness?  When we are right, can we stand our ground and let go of their favor and approval of us?  Are we demanding they be something that we are not  –  or were not at their ages?

Yes, I know that we are answering that last question, “But I don’t want my kids to make the mistakes I did; I want them to be better than I was.”  That’s a noble goal, so are we willing to then share our stories of failure or struggle, to let them learn from our own bad examples?   It was our goal at our house – that our kids do better in high school than we did, but then my husband’s mother conveniently found his tenth grade report card the very semester that our son was slugging through geometry with a “B” while his father stayed on his case constantly about his level of effort.

Dad’s  “C”  from  geometry in 1978 was kind of hard to explain.


Talking Back – Dealing with ITB

Last week’s blog post  was identifying ITB – Irrational Teenage Behavior  – and learning not to react personally to it if you are a parent or teacher of a teenager. This third segment in this series about communication between high school students and teachers (or parents) is a list of what each can do to improve communication with the other.

First, a few points for teachers and parents to consider:

1. When the tone or content of a conversation is going in a direction you don’t like, don’t take it personally. It isn’t about you; it is about them.  ( Trust me, they are not thinking about you.)  Check  your emotional reactions.  Get your ego stroked somewhere else. Don’t rely on a group of teen-agers to meet your approval needs. This may seem obvious, but when you are standing alone before twenty of them in a classroom day in and day out, it is easy to fall into the trap of familiarity and to return sarcasm or apathy with the same.  ( It is also easy when you are the lone parent in the moment confronting or saying “no” to your teenager.)  We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the average teen-ager – no matter how good it might feel in the moment to make a snarky comment.

2. Do hold them accountable for what they say.  The rest of the world will, so let it start in your classroom.  They should be learning to be impeccable with their words in all disciplines.  The old adage, “Say what you mean and mean what you say” applies here. Make them be precise with their language and accountable when it is hurtful to you or others.   Question them until it is clear to you what was said and meant.   Model this to them in your own speech and behavior.   As the year rolls on, students and teachers  get very comfortable with each other; yet the relationship remains a professional one  and that is the standard  to which we will be held.

3. Do remind them regularly that once in print ( or cyberspace) there is no denying it.  What they put on Facebook the night before exams, they might wish they hadn’t said by the time they apply for college admission. Tell them that we don’t go looking for it, but that kind of information always finds its way back to us.

4. Remember yourself at that age.  Forgive them; though they won’t ask.    Be patient and empathetic even when they are not, but don’t enable bad behavior.  Ignoring is enabling and so is giving too much time and too many chances when they need to experience the consequences of bad choices. Love is truthful; let them experience the truth about life, themselves, and their choices.

Now for the students:

1. Respect the knowledge and experience of your teachers. Despite how brilliant you are, they actually get paid to be here and you don’t. That should be a clue for you.   Even teachers you may not like personally have expertise to offer you. You will have some you don’t like personally, some who bore you and even some who offend you throughout high school and college. Learning to get along with them and learn from them is an important life skill.

2.Your teacher isn’t your mother or father. We love you and want the best for you, but we have numerous students. You are special, but you are not the exception to the rule. We can’t always accommodate you and the rest of your peers individually.

3. Use your manners. Courtesy – words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way.  Approach a teacher with humility. See point #1 about respecting their knowledge.

4.  Don’t complain. Don’t whine. If you want to appeal a grade, approach a teacher privately and respectfully. Don’t take up others’ class time to argue over your two points on a quiz.  If you don’t like the assignment, keep the negativity to yourself.  Our goal is  your education. If we are lucky enough to entertain you too, then great; but our goal is not entertainment.   We want you engaged in learning, but that doesn’t guarantee you will enjoy everything we ask you to do.

5. Own your mistakes. When you forgot, just say, “ I forgot.”  Really. It isn’t that hard. We, your teachers, forget things too. That is much more forgivable than an overused excuse we’ve heard for years.

6.  Tell the truth.  Be honest in your dealings. We may not always have proof to catch you, but we almost always know when you are lying or cheating.  Remember we are trained in educating you – child development, psychology, counseling classes – they made us study you when we went to college. When you need us to cut you some slack or show you mercy, you’ll fare better if we know you are an honest soul.

Recently a student said to me, “May I talk to you?” followed by  “I just forgot about the deadline.”  She hit #4, # 5 and # 6 – Courtesy, owning her mistake, and telling the truth.  I gave her an extension.

It’s not You; it’s ITB

Teaching is based on relationships and relationships are based on good communication.  Good communication fundamentally requires good manners. 

I recently ended a blog post about how to talk to a teacher with that quote, knowing I had more more to say about communication between student and teacher. This is part two in the series  and deals primarily with understanding  and accepting the inequality in the relationship between student and teacher.

If good communication requires good manners, then accept the fact that as a teacher  sometimes your classroom communication, and thus relationships with students, will be difficult. Not all who walk into your classroom are taught manners at home. Moreover, these are teen-agers with raging hormones and moods and little ability to think about long-term consequences of anything, particularly the many words that stream out of their mouths.

A colleague recently wrote the following in an email to me, asking for help with a particular student  whom we had both taught:

She must be going through something because her attitude has been in the pits nearly all year.  She stopped doing anything on time or putting any effort into anything, and when called on it, she would get an attitude with me.  Other students even commented on it and told her she was being rude.”

The student is bright, full of potential, and has previously been a pleasure to teach.  Yet now, this stellar teacher finds herself on the defensive; the student going so far as to make it known to her classmates and within earshot of the teacher that she had no intention of studying for the test in that class. Her grades have fallen from her usual standards and she is even using social media to voice her displeasure about the class.   (To the students:   Most teachers try NOT to know what you tweet, but it usually gets back to us.)  This  teacher is one who pours heart and soul into her work and it was hard not to take the criticism personally.

To the Teacher:  It Is Not Your Fault !  It’s ITB.

I have a friend who coined the acronym ITB when our daughters were young teen-agers.  It stands for “Irrational Teen-age Behavior”. Even the best kids exhibit it sometimes; and some teens, a lot of the time.  It has  little or nothing to do with us as teachers and parents.   ITB  cannot be explained; hence, the word irrational.  This perfectly capable, usually well-mannered, otherwise decent, teenager suddenly gets emotional, stomps up the stairs, says mean things, tells you what an awful parent you are or if it’s your student,  tweets to his or her friends how horrible your class is or mutters something disrespectful just loudly enough for you and one or two other to hear it.

Having lived through the teen-age years recently as a parent, I have spent many hours commiserating with my friends – also parents of teenagers – to reassure myself that I am not a horrible person or parent, that “this too shall pass” – whatever ‘this’ is that week,  and  that my teens won’t hate me forever. The ill will usually spans from the last “no”  out of my mouth to the next “yes” to whatever they want to do.

As we were parenting and I tended to get emotional and take personally all conflict with our children, my husband was constantly reminding me, “ Don’t get down on their level. You are the adult. You have superior intelligence.”  Trust me; I had my doubts.

The key thing to remember, however, is that teen-agers are fairly self-centered. They are not aware of an effect on you one way or another – though they need to be made aware as that is how they learn. In the moment, though, they are not thinking about you, they are thinking about themselves.  Experiences, sufferings,  relationships – these are the things we adults have had which draw us out of ourselves and  force us to think of and serve others.  Years of living, mistakes included, teach us to realize the profound consequences that words and actions have on each other in relationships.  By trial and error over the years,  we learn what to say and not to say, when to speak and when to remain silent.  We adults are often double or triple ( or more)  their ages.  This is what I mean by inequality in relationship.  We have lived some life. Stop and remember this.  Teenagers are inexperienced at living, thus inexperienced at good communication, and therefore, inexperienced at good relationships.

Primarily, it is the parents’ job to teach them empathy, to teach them that words have consequences,  and to teach them manners;  but that is a work in progress.  Some are parented better than others, and some teenagers learn those life lessons faster and easier than others; but all of our students, by virtue of being children still living at home with their parents, are in training.  They may look like adults. They may  outweigh you and stand taller than you. Most of my ninth graders are taller than I stand at a whopping 5’1” ; but they are not adults yet.  The relationship is not equal.  Your age and experience gives you a leg up on communication, patience, understanding, and hopefully compassion and forgiveness…assuming, of course, you grew out of ITB yourself.



How ( not) to Talk to a Teacher

I recently read an article written by a college professor, the gist of which was what professors need students to know when they come to college.  I fully expected to see certain content and skills at the top of his list. Not so. The article read like a basic lesson in manners.  His point was this:  teach them how to talk to a professor.

“Is it that bad?”  I asked myself.  It is.  I teach in a private, college-preparatory Christian school. Our students come from homes where the parents are choosing and paying for a certain type of quality education. One assumes manners and courtesy are taught at home, but maybe the pull of the culture is too strong and when the students come to school and hang around their peers, those early life lessons  are temporarily forgotten, or maybe manners just aren’t being taught any more.

I have two children in college now, and I may be an anomaly; but I have preached the following to both of my children their whole lives.

  •  Respect the authority of your teacher.
  • Be polite.
  • Talk to the teacher.
  • Ask questions of the teacher.
  • Act interested, even if you are not.

Accuse me of teaching them to brown-nose, to politic, to be fakes; it matters not. I’m old enough to know that courtesy, respect, pleasant engaging conversation, and common interest can take you a long way in life, or at least in school.  Since I suspect my grown children have quit listening to me, I now preach this to my ninth graders.

Last spring, a student  entered class complaining about all the test and projects that particular week. She was lobbying me to move a test, which had been marked on the school test calendar for two weeks prior.  Before I could compose a thought in my head to answer her, she was joined by several other students, all talking and complaining to me at once, practically shouting at me.  A mob mentality was beginning. I stood before them feeling under siege in my own classroom.  It’s one of those frozen in time moments in my memory. They think if enough of them talk loudly and longly enough, I will change my mind. 

They have reason to think I’m approachable. I am.  My own daughter just finished her senior year and I have watched her juggle a heavy academic and extra-curricular load for four years.   I know what their lives are like; I realize the students in honors classes are often the busiest students in the school, serving as leaders in the arts and athletics. Still, they signed up for this class.  I have a “No Complaining: You chose to be here” rule for my Honors English students.  I have also moved a test or quiz in the past – so their request wasn’t unfounded; but I did not move that test that day.  Why not? Because  it wasn’t a request. It was an attack. They  were rude and arrogant.

Somewhere the lessons (previously listed) were forgotten. Showing no respect for my position, the students tone and volume was indicative that they saw our relationship as that of two equals.  It is not.  I’m 49 and they are 15, but even if respect for elders is passe’, I know the subject matter; they don’t. Knowledge should be respected, whether you like the person who has it or not.

Not all students are pulled into the vortex of rude, obnoxious behavior. Occasionally, when a student becomes argumentative over something in class ( usually a test question he missed)  and  classroom decorum deteriorates, another student will speak up and say, “Quit arguing with her; she’s the teacher!”  I want to commend that student’s parents; you have trained him well.  There is a way to appeal to the teacher, but that’s another post.

Good teaching is based on relationships and relationships are based on good communication.  Good communication fundamentally requires good manners. So the professor was right, before anything else we have to teach them how to talk to a teacher.

My son, a senior in college, recently said to me, “ You know, Mom,  I’ve noticed if I go by and see the prof and talk about my paper, it seems more likely he’ll bump me up on a paper from B+ to A-.”

I smiled.  He won’t admit it, but he listened to me (or somebody) who taught him how to talk to a teacher.

Process and Patterns

I met with mother of a student last week.  “I just want some advice”, she said.   She began the conversation by telling me that her daughter had to work for her grades, was usually an A/B type student, with mostly A’s and one or two B’s each marking period.   Her daughter had recently made a high C on a test in one class and a low B in another.  She then proceeded to say that she’d told her daughter that if she made below an 85 on a major assignment, she’d lose her phone.

“ What do you think?”  she asked.  I answered by asking some questions.

“Do you have problems with her attitude toward you and her dad?”

“ Does she procrastinate on homework or fail to turn some assignments in?

“ Does she use the phone or other technology too much or let it interfere with her homework?”

The answer to all of these was “No.”

“What are her extra-curricular activities?”

She has a few that take up time after school and occasional evenings.

Thankfully, this mom is  a longtime friend of mine.  We were in the fifth week of an eighteen week semester when this conversation took place.  I don’t presume to know how to parent anyone’s children but my own, and I’ve questioned myself plenty with them; but they are now in college and I have gleaned a few lessons from my mistakes.

“ You really want to know what I think? …You are being too hard on her,”   I said.

I went on to explain: this is a girl who appears to be giving her best. She is obedient at home, respecting the parental boundaries around technology,  and conscientious with her studies.  I went on to tell my friend that high school is a whole new world; the students are now working toward a semester grade, not a nine-weeks one.  They have to juggle four core classes and a foreign language at a college-preparatory level. The workload increases in volume and complexity as they enter high school.   Rare is the student who makes straight A’s in every subject and also can handle some extra curricular activities. Subjects are harder and even a student’s best effort doesn’t always net an “A”.   Ninth grade, in particular, is an adjustment period.  Students are learning to manage their time, to make choices, to prioritize assignments and study time.  We educators are in this process with them, and it is a process.   December’s final exam and semester grade is still a long way off.  Ups and downs are part of the learning.  No one  test grade determines the final average.  Patterns are what we look at and so should parents.

Is your student improving with each test or essay? 

Is homework consistently done or not done?   ( We all forget something every once in awhile.)

Are some chapters or text harder than others?  ( The Odyssey test grades are usually lower than the ones on To Kill a Mockingbird.  Southern students might have an advantage on that piece of literature and not on the ancient Greek one. )

How does your child relate to a particular teacher?  ( Students  tend to be more engaged in classes where they relate well to the teacher; and not all students like all teachers.  Sometimes they have to learn to “ get through it” and learn from someone even if they don’t especially like them. This is an important life skill.)

These are all things to ask yourself, your student and the teachers as you navigate the waters of this first semester of high school.   Am I saying not to take their phones away?  Absolutely not!  You own that phone and it is good parenting leverage when you need it, but look for patterns of behavior and in grades.  If eyes are not rolling at home and doors are not slamming, then step back and consider that your fourteen- year- old might be doing the best that a brand new freshman can do – even if it doesn’t match last year’s best.