My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

Air Traffic Control or The Lighthouse

Image courtesy of moogs on Flickr

There’s a murky continuum between micromanagement and being “hands off.” In the classroom and as part of a school community, I have experienced both extremes and felt alternately stifled and abandoned. I wanted to ensure my staff wouldn’t feel that way about my leadership, but it took time and reflection to find the empowerment sweet spot.

One conversation with a seventeen year-old junior counselor gave me the insight I needed to define my leadership styles. The counselor had a child in his group whose behavior was causing nearly constant disruptions. It seemed natural for me to take action to address the problem head-on, but when I offered to talk to the camper, my staffer flinched. His reaction surprised and worried me. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained, “The kids know you’re in charge–and they’ll listen to you, but why should they listen to me if they don’t think I’m in charge, too.” He helped me see what I already knew about good leaders. I had to learn to pick my moments and support my staff without swooping in and “fixing” things for them. Just because I knew how to approach the problem didn’t mean it was best for me to take control away from someone who needed to learn.

I left that conversation with a perspective I’d been lacking. In the high-pressure, now moments of camp, I would focus on the problem before me. Like an emergency room doctor, I often handled conflicting needs in triage: scraped knees, lost shoes, borrowed towels, “fairness” arguments, bee stings, and homesickness. These were the frenetic moments where I felt hard pressed to be in three or more places at once, and it’s exhausting to be “the decider.”

I knew I had to empower my staff to make decisions and handle problems without always having to consult me first. It’s inefficient for them and for me if they rely too much on me to tell them what I think they should do next. I knew I wouldn’t be an effective leader if every choice had to go through me first. I knew I had to model the type of leader I needed my staff to be and to give them the right amount of support at the right times.

Image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr

In essence, I understood that sometimes I’m Air Traffic Control, fielding questions and making decisions because there’s no time to waste. It’s good for me to make certain choices or to establish expectations because no matter what: some problems won’t solve themselves. At other times as I walk through the camp grounds, I’m more like a lighthouse. My staff knows I’m there if they need me and it’s my responsibility to model strong leadership and show them I have confidence in them, too.

In reflecting on these two roles, I’ve thought about the leaders who have guided me and leaders who have frustrated me. The ones who have helped me grow were the ones who didn’t try to solve problems for me, but allowed me to develop my capacity. As I shifted my role from leading from the front to leading on the side, I watched as my young staff stepped in and stepped up to the challenge, going beyond even their own expectations.

Children Will Listen: On Voldemort and Bin Ladin

When I heard the news on Facebook–“Osama Bin Ladin is dead”–I turned to Twitter while traditional media lagged behind the story. For over an hour, I waited for the President’s statement, reading tweet reactions and listening to a live stream from CBS. The tweets were raw–ranging from Hemmingway-esque bursts of “AP Confirmed: Bin Ladin is dead” to tweets dealing with the complex emotional reactions we were all having. Was it wrong to cheer the death of a man so focused on destroying innocent lives–who had taken so many American lives on 9/11 and was largely responsible for so many deaths of our soldiers? What was that feeling? Relief? Catharsis? Justice?

The experts and pundits chattered on in the background, dissecting the President’s yet-unmade speech, and speculating on what the news might mean. I knew what it meant to me.

I was a student teacher in 2001, hundreds of miles away from New York City in the Midwestern city of Evansville. September was test-time for my sophomore students and while they were sequestered in classrooms in a wing of the building that would not be disturbed by other students changing classes, my supervising teacher and I were shuffled off to the teacher work-room. I was grading my way through a pile of quizzes when another teacher came into the room and told us to turn on the television. A plane had hit one of the buildings in New York City.

I imagined a Cessna, a tiny bird, wildly off course–an unconscious pilot, a horrible accident, no doubt. When the image appeared on the screen, I felt my stomach harden. At that moment, live, we saw the second plane strike and knew our country was at war.

The rest of the day–spent on lockdown–is a blur. I remember students laughing at the idea of a plane flying into a building, stunned by their lack of understanding and compassion. I now understand they had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend the way the world had shifted under them. I saw and understood in a way they would come to know how the world would not be the same for them or for me anymore. On campus at the University of Evansville, our student newspaper lamented: “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see a world without our country at war.” We, on the cusp of our adult, professional lives knew it would be years and many more lives lost before our country would ever feel safe again. There was a profound sense among us that when those planes struck, our innocence died and was buried in the rubble.

Last night, too, was full of what some called “inappropriate” reactions to the announcement of Bin Ladin’s demise. The crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA” and celebrating as though we had won an Olympic victory. In scanning the faces of the crowd, I was struck with how young they were. If I, at 30, had lived one-third of my life with the War on Terror and I felt sober relief at the news, how must it feel to someone in their late teens or early twenties who had known war and the specter of Osama Bin Ladin for half of their lives or more. These young people have been steeped in the rhetoric of war and America’s righteous vengeance. They know the names of the enemies and who to fear. The whole story has been told and calcified into legend. Washington crossing the Delaware? Just as remote and iconic as the crumbling Twin Towers and President Bush with his bullhorn.

For the youngest Americans–the children who watched the adults around them react to 9/11 and the many years of being told who and what to fear–Osama Bin Ladin was a character in a story, not a real human being. He was the bogeyman, a symbol of evil, an unknown danger lurking somewhere in a country far away, the ultimate bad-guy from the cartoons. He had no humanity anymore–both because his actions were so heinous and because the man himself became a folk tale. On Twitter, I read: “Sure hope it wasn’t just one of [Bin Ladin’s] horcruxes.” For our students, and those young people celebrating and chanting, perhaps the Voldemort/Bin Ladin connection isn’t too far off. How else do we expect them to react to the news that the most evil villain of their childhood has been killed at last?

Young people celebrate outside the White House.

As we move forward and step into our classrooms to have more conversations about war, terror, good, evil, justice, and humanity, we must be careful how to speak and react with our students as the story takes shape. Stephen Sondheim knew the power of stories and warned through song in his musical Into the Woods: “Children Will Listen.” All we have are stories and the adult leaders we want will be shaped by what they see and hear as children.

“Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,
Not free.

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you see
And turn against you…

Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…

Guide them then step away
Children will glisten.
Temper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Children will listen.
Children will listen.

Why Gymnasts and Flipped-Class Teachers Need a Spotter

The flipped-class method, sometimes referred to as the “Fisch flip” (or reverse instruction), is a way to reorder the elements involved in teaching class material. In theory, students view a vodcast lecture or presentation screencast at home and the next day in class the student will practice or apply what was taught the night before. The flip refers to the swap between traditional uses of class time (lecture) and homework.

"Jake" image courtesy of xac on Flickr.

There are many reasons why this flip works for students and teachers among them:

  1. Unlike live lecture, students can pause, rewind, or review the recorded content any time in class or on their own.
  2. Teachers can ensure all sections of all courses hear the same explanations. No more worries about class interruptions for fire drills, assemblies cutting class short, teacher or student sick days–the content remains the same.
  3. In a mastery environment, students can work ahead or take more time. Learning becomes self-paced instead of teacher-paced.
  4. Teachers and students take advantage of class time for experimentation, exploration, practice, and clarification.

I don’t doubt the benefits for many teachers and students, but I am concerned about how reversed instruction may be applied. Planning for and creating vodcasts or screencasts requires a certain amount of technical skill along with presentation skills. Enthusiasm for the flip is not enough without understanding what makes it work well.

Gymnasts and Their Spotters

In order to learn and develop the strength, flexibility and muscle memory necessary to execute backflips, handsprings, and other tumbling, a gymnast requires dedicated, focused practice. In order to learn effectively, gymnasts begin with a spotter who can help them develop their skill as they learn a new technique. Spotters are experienced guides who don’t take control away from the gymnast, but provide the support necessary to ensure the gymnast’s safety, encourage proper form, and prevent injury. Just because a child is naturally athletic and taught herself how to do a back handspring in the backyard doesn’t mean she’s ready to complete a series of back handsprings down a balance beam in competition.

Spotting the Flipped Class Teacher

In education, we’re fond of throwing around terms for educational practices and we expect when we use these terms that everyone knows what we mean by them: formative assessment, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, the flipped classroom. In practice, misunderstandings and misapplication of methods that work well in the cutting-edge classrooms lead some late adopters and critics to decry these methods because they’ve missed what’s under the hood. It’s easy to read blog posts and Twitter testimonials and get excited (or critical) about a new method but without understanding how it ought to be applied. For example, my first flipped class experience was for an online Masters degree course. The lecture consisted of a cram-packed PowerPoint presentation and a muffled audio recording of the professor reading the slide information while occasionally interjecting additional points that weren’t already on the slides. It was difficult to pay attention to the recording because I could read the content faster than it could be read to me. Just because the lecture and notes were pre-recorded didn’t mean this was a successful flip. It was an attempt, and like a gymnast who falls and fails to complete a tumbling pass, my instructor needed coaching and practice. In other words: what if my professor had a spotter to help him refine his presentation or give him feedback?

Innovation and trying something new are key elements to keeping education vital and helping students meet 21st Century Learning outcomes. In the process, though, it’s important to remember we don’t have to do it alone–and we’re better for it. Before I embark on a flipped-class venture, I plan to seek out my own spotters and coaches to help me avoid making mistakes that will impair learning in my classroom. What are some of these mistakes that need spotting?

  1. Creating presentations that allow students to merely watch passively.
  2. Replicating textbook content and replacing reading with viewing.
  3. Ignoring issues of recording quality and clarity.
  4. Conflating pizazz and technical showmanship with instruction.
  5. Expecting too little of my students.

QCK Coaches Code of Conduct image courtesy of Rick McCharles on Flickr

For more information and examples of a flipped classroom in action, visit the Flipped Class Blog by flipped class innovators Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron  Sams or ask questions using the #flipclass hashtag on Twitter.

Acknowledging Students’ Humanity

Students come to us in all forms, and no two students think alike or come equipped with the same set of coping skills, aptitude, talents, or motivation.

In any given classroom, you might find…

  • The Driven–students whose parents expect nothing less than their child’s best and push their children to take and excel in advanced classes.

    Sometimes my role is to let them cry or vent on the days the pressure is too much and to breathe deeply when they (or their parents) lobby for me to change a grade. At all times, I want to meet their desire to learn more, know more, and be the best while tempering their drive with the reality that “knowing it” for a test isn’t the same as learning. These students tie their self-worth so tightly to their GPA that taking risks or making a mistake is tantamount to failure.


  • The Disruptive–students whose behavior ranges from outright defiant or violent to gregarious and subversive.

    These students stand when we ask them to sit, yell when we ask for quiet, and question everything–“Why do I need to know this? Who says?” They seek the approval of their peers and test the bounds of authority. These are the students who garner enough disciplinary notes to wallpaper their bedroom–if the notes even make it home for a parent’s signature.

    These students test my patience and their constant need for attention can make it difficult to teach anything. These are students who have learned that life isn’t easy and will take any kind of attention to feel important–even if it means being yelled at. They cope with stress from home or a lack of support by turning on adults around them. Negativity and impatience are toxic responses.

  • The Immature–these students are emotionally or socially delayed for many reasons and as their more socially sophisticated peers leave them behind, the gap becomes a chasm. They may have short tempers and be easy to provoke. These students may “overshare” in class or reveal details about their likes, dislikes, or home life that make them targets for bullying. They may unsuccessfully attempt to insert themselves into conversations or friend groupings and alienate themselves from the very people they long to know. Their reputation can outstrip them and even as they pass through this developmental stage to maturity, they can still be trapped by the expectations and long memories of other students.

    Sometimes my role with an emotionally or behaviorally immature student is to consciously alter my reactions to support that student’s need for attention while helping them find alternative ways to express themselves. I also have to watch the balance of power in the room and encourage all students to treat others with patience.

  • Students with particular needs: English language learners, new students, and transient students; students with autism, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and other learning differences; students living with addiction (their own, or a parent’s), pregnancy, divorce, homelessness, depression, eating disorders, or suffering trauma from abuse or assault; students with frequent absences due to illness or tardiness due to a lack of reliable transportation. They may be consumed with grief because a family pet died or because a friend died in a car accident or because a parent is going to jail. They may live in fear of violence, failure, not fitting in, not getting into a good college, not having a best friend or a date to prom. They may face racism, bigotry, homophobia, religious intolerance.

    Even students who face none of these challenges to their safety or sense of self and have the full support of their parents can be challenging on the days their binary view of the world’s fairness causes conflicts.

    And this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the challenges our students face or may face.

Just because we teach children doesn’t mean that their lives are not touched by troubles. Our students deserve more than to be summarized into a statistic or data set. The art of teaching acknowledges students’ humanity and works with students’ frailties, not in spite of them. Without this essential element, teaching loses its soul.