Saddness, suffering, wisdom, and my dog

Every man has his secret sorrows that the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.
Longfellow.

I have 100 students.It is very easy to cruise through the year without ever getting to know many of them. That is the reality of an in and out 45 minutes a day schedule. I have quiet kids and loud kids. Kids who do extra work and kids who hand in nothing at all. Kids who talk all through class and kids who are barely audible. Kids who are very happy and kids who are very sad.

It is hard to tell which ones are happy and which ones are sad. You might think that is a silly statement, but what you see is not what a kid is feeling. The book bag the kid brings to school is the tip of the iceberg of the emotional baggage they might be carrying. If you think about it, we make plans for our class based on the assumption that each kid is happy. We give grades, due dates, and comments to kids assuming that everything in their life is fine. And even if it is not fine, even if their life sucks, we still hold them accountable to the dates and guidelines that we set assuming they were fine.

Over the last decade I have become more in tune with the emotional well being of my classes. I realized that there might be a week or more when a certain kid does absolutely nothing because all they can think about is being evicted from their house. I realized that for two weeks a kid might just need a safe place to come in and sit and not have anyone getting on his back about anything. I realized that just because your parents divorced 3 years ago, doesn’t mean it still isn’t painful…especially after father’s day. I realized that a kid yelling at me doesn’t need me to yell back or to be given a detention to teach them a lesson, but needs a sign that someone in this world still loves them.

I didn’t realize how any of the pain my kids were feeling impacted their school life until I had periods in my life that made me suffer with emotional pain. Every period of suffering in my life brought more clarity to my understanding the plight of the kids whose suffering I had never noticed. While good times made me happy, suffering made me a better teacher. If you made a list of the events in your life in that you gained the most wisdom from would they be sad or happy? I did not gain wisdom from buying a new car, but gained a lot from driving around in a car that always broke down. No wisdom from having plenty of money, but a lot of wisdom from having none. Some wisdom from having a baby, but a whole lot more from the death of one.

With each struggle that I go through, I use it as a reminder that out of 100 kids many of them are also struggling. Struggling with things that they have no control over, and living a life they have no control over. They still have to meet the same deadlines that everyone else has to. Before someone says “well that’s how life is,” it’s not. During each struggle in my life I was able to ask for extensions for deadlines, delegate parts of my job, and when it was really needed…I showed a movie.

Last week my dog died. She was my buddy for 15 years. I was very, very sad. It gave me a wake up call to keep in mind the struggles that my kids are going through. Unfortunately when my life is good, I forget that not everyone elses is good. My dog’s death reminded me to keep alert for sadness that might be disguised by a smile, or sadness that is represented by a missing assignment. I know my kids were certainly surprised last week when I made every kid sit in their seats silently during bus announcements after two kids were found in the hallway. I overreacted. I was not reacting reasonably; I was reacting out of my pain. Not one kid could say something because I was in charge so no one could “punish” me for my outburst and mistake. I was reminded that most kids misbehave for the same reason. They are reacting in reaction to some pain. Sometimes it is as obvious a stake through the heart, but other times it is a small sliver that is undetectable. Sometimes it is with a frown, but many times it is with a smile. Sometimes it is followed by an I’m sorry, but the one that gets teachers the most and makes us forget about the kid, riles our emotions, and causes us to react instantly to the action is when it is followed up by an “I don’t care.” “I don’t care” is the phrase kids use when they care deeply, but don’t have any words to express the emotions behind their actions.

We should all look at our “classroom management plan” that we have established in our classes. When we implement rules that are created to stop actions and ignore the pain, we are basically creating a system set-up to suppress emotions. Bottling up pain, just leads to more problems. Is your “system” built to suppress actions? Or solve the underlying cause of them? When a kid says “I don’t care” is your system set-up to punish, or support. Coerce, or connect.

Every student has their secret sorrows that the world knows not; and often times we call a student a bully, lazy, dumb, uninterested, careless, unmotivated, stubborn, trouble, rude, difficult or needy when they are only sad.

First Impressions

Now that it is the end of school, I find myself examining the start of school.  What did we do at the beginning that is causing us to end the way we are (both good and bad)?  I really liked my first day, the first impression I gave the kids.  It reminds me of a passage from a book by William Glasser:

I don’t want to start with threats.  They’re an admission of weakness, an admission that a lot of what I teach isn’t very interesting and that I’m worried about losing control.  Besides, before I even get to know them, I’m anticipating trouble and telling them that at the first sign of it, I’m going to clamp down.

First impressions last for 30 days.  The first day really lays the ground work the year, and should not just be considered a day to hand out lists of rules, supplies, and the course syllabus.

What kind of impression do you make on the first day?  Do the kids want to come back for day 2?  Would you?

Schools Are Mirrors, Not Windows (Stilll seeking sugestions for a title!)

By now you have probably heard someone who was talking about changing education refer to how we still teach like we are in the 19th Century.  By now you have probably read many articles, posts, and tweets about how to change schools.  It is something that I have intensely thought about in the last year.  Lately I am just so stuck on why things that obviously work are rejected by other educators in lieu of more traditional tools and practices.  It seems so obvious why we should stop grades, coercive management plans, move to PBL, and integrate technology.  Yet so many people will not even consider any of those for a second.

Consider things you can easily change someone’s mind about.  Where to go out and eat dinner?  A title of a new book to read?  Type of laptop to purchase?  Where to shop for clothes?  You could met someone and sway their decisions on those questions probably within minutes.

How about these– Switch religions? Become pro-choice? Homeschool your kids?  Convince your boss to change the dress code to shorts at work? Don’t get married before kids?

The first set of questions is easy, the second set hard.  The reasons for some of the questions in the second set might seem to you as obvious as the answers in the first set.  Why you should buy your clothes at Walmart might be as obvious as why one should be pro-choice.  Yet why would another person be capable of being easily swayed to try and buy clothes at Walmart, but never consider becoming pro-choice?  It is hard to change what makes up one’s culture.

Maybe its hard to change schools because what one would be trying to do is not just change tools and techniques, but a society’s culture.  School’s did not rise up in the 19th Century and then shift the ways Americans thought and how they lived.  They did not rise up and change our views on children and how one should learn and be taught.  Our culture is not a reflection of our schools, our schools are a reflection of our culture and it is that 19th Century reflection that still dominates our educational practices because it is still those 19th Century views that dominate out 21st Century American Culture.

In the early 19th Century a change occurred in American culture that later influenced education and is still with us today.  Women started to lose economic importance.  While once integral to the family’s financial status, factory goods and specialized farming took much of their responsibility away. Homes were becoming separate and cut away from society.  There was home, and then there was work.  Women began to “raise” children as a separate job.  Originally the whole family was involved in the economic fabric of the house and community, now it was no longer part of the economy.  That meant that kids’ daily activities no longer were apart of the economic fabric of the family, or society.  A disconnect between childhood and adulthood began to grow.  Children became no longer meaningful to adults.  They were to be raised as emotional beings–emotionally coerced into doing things that seemingly had no connection to their day, the families success, or society’s success. This is when many books on how to raise your child started to be written.  No longer were parents the expert. Raising children became stressful, with parents responsible for how their kid turned out and increasingly seeking advice on how to raise their kid and allowing others to “take over.”

Schools were set-up and continued this line of thinking.  Children were buckets to be filled, they were to be taught to be ready for work “in the future.”  They were not to be empowered.  They were not capable of taking on responsibilities.  They were taken away from society for more and more years–now it is quite possible for a kid to be in school away from the economic fabric of our society for 13 years before being expected to go out into the world and contribute.  19 years for those college (BS/MA) graduates.  Schools were built and educated kids in a manner in which our culture determined.

So that leaves me with a question in my head…If we were able to change a few schools would that lead to a cultural change?  Or should we be working on changing our cultural values…

We still live in a culture which does not believe that a kid can contribute value to our society.  We still live in a culture in which it is OK to have a kid contribute nothing of value until after “graduation.”  The problem with our 21st Century schools is not our 19th Century methods, it’s that we are teaching with 21st Century cultural values that still harbor the essence of our culture from almost 200 years ago.

In 1820, a kid living in my town could go to sleep at night knowing that what s/he did during the day was vital to the families well being, and connected to the fabric of the well being of the community.  In the next school year I am going to spend a little less time wondering how I can change schools, and a little more time thinking about making sure that the results of my students’ projects add value to the community.

I don’t want to change the world…

I don’t want to change the world…just one little school.

Here’s the scenario. You have a fifth grader and a first grader. You live in a small town. One K-6 elementary school. Two principals. One superintendent. One board of education. You want to change the way things are going in the school, not just one class. Things such as the amount of homework, integrating technology and more progressive methods of teaching.  You can’t have a five year plan.  By that time you youngest will be out of school. You are doing this as a parent, not a teacher.

Do you aim your energy at the kid’s teacher each year, the principal, the superintendent, or the board of education?

Do I even bother with the elementary school or aim higher–middle school, or high school?

I think next year might be the year I get off my butt and actually open my mouth and I am trying to figure out where to start.

What if your life depended on them?

I have a small farm. A few days ago I noticed that one of my rams was missing. I searched and finally found it. My guess is that it received some kind of head-butting, mating season, broken neck injury. As I was burying the ram I thought about how it was scheduled to go to the slaughterhouse this month and while I was sad because it died, I also lost one year of labor, feed costs, and the income from its sale. While it hurt my “farm budget” it really won’t impact my family. My life did not depend on that ram living or dying. I am a part-time farmer, and while it is a for-profit enterprise and my family relies on the meat to nourish us, it just doesn’t matter if it died. I will be just fine.

I thought about the people that raised sheep on my property 150 years ago. They would have depended on that ram for their lives, and each sheep and plant they grew would have taken care of as though their life depended on it-because it did. Taking care of their crops, their animals was more than a job…it was their life.

I teach. It’s just a job. My life does not depend on whether I put in a good effort, or a great effort. That is simply the reality of the position. I could put in four less hours of work each day and still get paid the same amount. I could deliver the curriculum in a non-personal, traditional way and it would not matter. I could just “do” the textbook with the teacher book worksheets, and teacher book quizzes and tests and it would not matter. I could ignore every problem my kids have in their lives and it would not matter. My life does not depend on it. When it comes right down to it, it just doesn’t.

What if my life did depend on it? What if each kid was like a lamb that I depended on for my life? If it was sick, would I give it the best medicine I was able to find? If one came in limping one morning would I stop it to find out why? If one was threatened by wolves would I protect it? If one was a runt, would I give it extra feed? If one had a poor mother, would I step in with extra attention and nourishment? If the barn was leaking, how long would it take for me to fix it? If I had to mend a fence, would I put up a temporary fix, or do it right the first time? If my life depended on it the answer to all of those questions would be yes. Do you do the same for your kids?

Tomorrow treat one, just one kid, like your life depends on them.

I wonder…

dream.jpgI wonder what kind of change my students will be responsible for creating in the future. As I get older, and teach longer, I find myself thinking about this more and more and find that it is driving me to change the way I teach. What will they do? World leaders, technological innovators, neighborhood activists, loving parents. I strive to have each kid graduate from my class with at least the knowledge that they can change the world, they are not just a member of the audience, they are the writers and directors.

The following is inscribed on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abby (1100 A.D.) …

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.

But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.

From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.

Some might say that we do too many assignments that require self-reflection. But as the above quote states, we must all be able to change ourselves first, before we start dreaming to change the world we live in. Once we start looking inside ourselves, we also start to study history differently. No longer is Harriet Tubman just a hero for freeing slaves, but we start to think about why she was a great person and then start to internalize some of her characteristics that made her a hero. We take one step closer to being like her, one step closer to changing the world.

I just hope that they don’t wait until the “future” to start creating change.

future.jpgIt is also important to remember that while past-present-& future are all somehow interconnected, the only place from which to change the future is in the NOW. The power for change resides in the present moment, for that is the only place from which our thoughts or actions can actually be changed.

I can’t wait to find out what they will do, and how they will do it.