I've been a teacher since I taught my four-year-old sister how to read at "Miss Shoe's Kindergarten" down in our basement. (I was eleven.) Now I'm almost sixty, and I'm the Head of a small K-8 independent school in central Virginia, but I'm first and foremost a teacher. I'm delighted to be teaching an extra section of seventh grade grammar and composition this fall.
Returning from spring break and moving into warm weather creates anticipation for the summer holiday. How do you recharge the spirit in your classroom and ensure that the remaining weeks of school are engaging and productive?
First, think back to the over-arching goals you had for your students back when you were preparing for the current academic year. August hopes for student learning are usually ambitious, and somewhere in February, most teachers face a bleak moment when they realize that they are not going to complete every topic or unit at the level they had planned, before the end of the year. Teachers who love their work know that this is normal, as August plans tend to be aspirational and designed from the perspective of having just had eight weeks of rest. However, even though teachers know they probably were overly ambitious for their students’ learning back in August, they also know that April is NOT TOO LATE to accomplish something worthwhile before the end of the year. They recognize the importance of recalibrating plans for the year, just as they recalibrate a daily lesson plan based on their students’ response to it.
Perhaps the focus in April planning will center on a skill that you believe is essential to success in the future. For an elementary teacher, it might be “waiting your turn without demanding to be the center of attention,” or “writing a complete sentence with a capital letter and a period,” or “listening to all the directions before seeking to ask a question.” For a math teacher, it might be “checking your work carefully.” For a history or science teacher, it might be “making close observations and asking penetrating questions before drawing a conclusion.” For an English or world language teacher, it might be “listening closely during discussion and responding directly to others in the class, rather than simply waiting your turn to talk about your own idea,” or “making a thoughtful revision to written work before declaring it is finished.” For a fine arts teacher or coach, it might include “practicing drawing the line, or making the shot, or playing the phrase relentlessly, until the action becomes fluent.” Teachers have deep understanding of the skills and behaviors that successful students employ, and they desire that all of their students gain the ability to use those skills and behaviors.
So, here it is, April, and not all the students in your class have yet gained whatever those deeply important skills may be. It’s not too late to take another shot at putting at least one of those skills in place! Take your final unit or project or activity, and plan it to include lots of practice using the skill that you want your students to carry with them into the future. You may even decide to change up the routines of your class in order to provide more time to rehearse the behavior you want your students to acquire and to bring a sense of freshness to the class. By intentionally focusing on something that’s truly important to you as a teacher, you will infuse your final unit of study with passion, and your students will feel it. Rededicate yourself to your original goals, and you and your students will re-engage!
Have you ever discovered you were standing in someone’s way and you didn’t even know it? Think of the crowded grocery store. My cart is parked right in front of the items you wish to view, but I am looking at the items across the aisle, intently. When I suddenly see you waiting to pass me, I say, “excuse me,” and move my cart. I wasn’t intentionally blocking you; I just hadn’t noticed you. It’s easy for me to correct the problem, because moving my cart doesn’t require a sacrifice, and I have no desire to own the grocery aisle. Blocking someone unintentionally in the grocery store causes a minor annoyance and is easily corrected. What can we do when we discover that we’ve been seriously standing in others’ way, preventing them from opportunity? Sharing my personal experience may not give others an answer, except perhaps to inspire reflection, but I must start somewhere.
In 1968, I was a ninth grade student attending West Junior High School (grades 7-9) in central Missouri. We had over 750 students in our school, and the hallways were noisy and crowded between classes. I served as a “hall patrol,” which meant that I, along with a number of other students, had been asked to stand on the stairway landings between classes, creating a human marker for students going up and down the stairs. Students went along the right-hand side of the hall and passed me on one side when going up and on the other side when going down. I had no other duty but simply to stand there, a marker to help bring order to the busy stairwell.
One day, a student I did not know shoved me aside as she descended the stairs, saying, “Get out of my way, you honkie bitch.” I was shocked and frightened. I didn’t know her, and I was only standing there, doing my job. Why was she so angry with me? At the moment it happened, I did not know how to act – I did not try to push back, nor did I try to stop her or talk with her. I did not know how I was supposed to respond, so I just kept standing there, frozen. In a vague way I felt as if I should apologize to her, even though she had pushed me. I figured if she was that angry, I must have done something wrong. I waited to talk about what had happened until I was at home. My mom said she was “jealous” of me – my mom’s standard explanation for anything unpleasant someone said or did to me. I don’t remember ever seeing that girl again, and I did not seek her out. My mother’s explanation didn’t really satisfy me, but after a while, I just stopped thinking about it. At the time, I did not understand all the ways I was standing in that girl’s way, and even today, I am only beginning to get a glimpse of the background to her rage.
Although I did not know it when I was in ninth grade, I was most definitely standing in the way of my African-American classmate, in a variety of contexts. As a junior high school student in 1968, I had no real appreciation for the ways that African-Americans were discriminated against, by cultural expectations and attitudes, and also by institutional regulation and practice. As I entered puberty, it became obvious to me that many African-Americans were angry. I saw riots on television where they expressed their rage with violence, theft, and fire. I was babysitting the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, and I remember feeling horrified while watching the reporting on television. I thought his message of equal opportunity and peaceful protest was important and right, and I was upset to think that his death would result in more violence. I knew that the Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act to end legal discrimination, and I did not understand why African-Americans were still angry. At thirteen, I believed that passing the law would fix the problem. I was clueless about how discrimination against African-Americans in the areas of education, employment, housing, and criminal justice impacted every aspect of their daily lives.
Beyond what I saw on television, I had little interaction with African-Americans, despite the fact that 20% of the student body at my school was black. I lived in a white world, knowing only about the black American experience from what I had gleaned from television, family, friends, and textbooks. I never wondered why there weren’t any black students in the advanced classes I took. I believed that the comfortable middle-class lifestyle I enjoyed, with a mom at home and a dad working as a college professor, were simply the result of my parents’ and their parents’ hard work. The message I received from history textbooks and white culture emphasized the hard work and sacrifice of the pioneers to face the challenges of civilizing a new world. My personal family history included settlers traveling in an ox cart from Vermont to the Northwest Territories, where they built a farm in what would eventually become Wisconsin. No one ever mentioned the fact that the land where they built the family farm had been stolen from the Menominee people. I knew that slavery was wrong, but it never occurred to me that the hard work of African-American slaves had made white wealth possible. My education at home and school had not included the whole story.
I feel sad when I think of this memory from ninth grade. I wish I had known the girl who pushed me; I wish I had been able to appreciate how both of our lives were greatly affected by cultural and institutional discrimination. I was most certainly standing in her way. She was blocked from opportunities that I took for granted. Even today, 50 years later, I can see that any children and grandchildren of my black classmate had to struggle with on-going discrimination, based solely on their ancestry. Once you look, you will see the devastating results of this pervasive racism everywhere in America.
The mainstream American narrative – that immigrants take risks and work hard, thereby giving their descendants every right to enjoy the fruits of their labor – has developed slightly in recent years to include more of the truth about the ways some immigrants stole from and oppressed others: those who were already living here, those who were brought here against their will and those who have come to seek opportunity but don’t look like the original European settlers. Recognizing and acknowledging the truth of white power and privilege in America, while an important first step, doesn’t make it disappear. Passing the Civil Rights Act didn’t end discrimination.
Awareness makes change possible but does not guarantee it. People who have acquired wealth and power are human, subject to greed and the innate desire to protect their own families and interests above all others. Humans rarely give up an advantageous position, even if they believe to do so would be just. While many white Americans recognize they have been standing in others’ way, we find it difficult to share our wealth, power and opportunity, especially in a culture that so highly values wealth and power. It will take continued, concerted effort to enact policies and cultivate behaviors that guarantee safety and create fair educational and economic opportunities for all Americans, regardless of their family origins or how much money they have.
On good days, I see a great awakening coming to the evolving human brain. For millennia, humans have relied on the divisions of family, tribe, party, religion and country for survival, believing that without division, all would be lost. When humans see that division is violence, perhaps we will create a different way of living on our planet. It is incumbent upon each of us to see our part in the ways we are blind to each other. Every day I seek to learn how to be in relationship to others that does not include violence. I seek to understand how our country can evolve so that we offer liberty and justice for all.
I write poetry, which I publish under my maiden name, Mary Wescott. I have a new one, and I figured, why keep it separate from my writing life as Mary Riser? So I went ahead and put it up at maryriser.org.
My family moved from Middleton, Wisconsin to Columbia, Missouri between my fourth and fifth grade years. My new school was built of tan brick, low and long and sixties style, with an enormous playground where during recess you could swing, run, or play ball. I made a friend, and we played chase games at recess. I didn’t play ball; I liked music and dancing. One spring day at the beginning of physical education class, held outdoors on the playground, the teacher appointed two boys to be team captains. We were going to play softball. Each captain took turns choosing a kid to join his team. First they chose the boys, then the girls. Finally, I was the only one left who hadn’t been chosen. The captain whose team I would join by default, said, “That’s OK, you can have her.” I was the one who was not wanted on either team. I wished I could disappear. That moment of shame still makes me cringe for my fifth-grade self.
When I tell this story to my peers today, many remember similar incidents, wincing as they do. Not all of their memories are of the ball field – some are of round robin reading or spelling bees or math facts competitions. All of the memories, however, share the common factor of shame for a lack of skill that was almost entirely out of the child’s control. The shame I felt that day in fifth grade PE made an indelible impression on me. It confirmed that I was not worthy to join in any ball game and that other children would shun me because of my lack of skill. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t question the teacher’s practice, I just felt worthless. However, when I became a teacher, I never forgot that shame, and I became a champion of children who might be lacking skills through no fault of their own.
Many years later, I told my story to a physical education teacher at the school where I worked. I was concerned because I had heard that he let the kids choose their teams for class, and I didn’t want any child to face what I had faced. When he heard my story, he said, “Well, you turned out OK.” He did not see my experience as one the teacher should have prevented. Instead, he believed that my experience in the world of athletic competition not only had not harmed me, but had probably done me good by making me stronger. In some strange way, he thought it was appropriate that my complete lack of ball skills should be pointed out in public. I disagreed, knowing that my experience had been a formative one, but not one that had made me stronger or inspired me to learn better ball skills. In fact, that experience helped close the world of team sports to me permanently. From that day forward, I knew I was the worst at ball skills and shouldn’t even try.
As I reflect on my fifth-grade experience now, I recognize that adults (both teachers and parents) are not in agreement about what is best for children. Some adults think children should be tempered by the school of hard knocks, while some adults think children should be protected from all hurt and disappointment. I think that experiencing some hurt and disappointment is part of growing up, and that we should not protect all children from all hurts, especially if the behavior that results in being hurt or disappointed is within the child’s control. On the other hand, setting up a competitive class activity to demonstrate a child’s lack of skill does not teach the child that skill; it teaches the child to be ashamed.
Teachers wield great power, wittingly or not, for good or evil, whether their students are learning how to play ball or how to read or how to do any number of other things that schools require. Teachers must take responsibility for teaching skills to all children, regardless of each child’s aptitude. All children know that talents are unevenly distributed. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where those with great talent thrive while learning to help and support those with less talent, not shun or mock them. Teachers’ responsibility for the health and well-being of the students in their care is huge, and most teachers I know take that responsibility deeply to heart. My plea is for teachers to ensure that no lesson of theirs results in a child’s public humiliation for lacking a skill or talent over which they have little or no control. Shaming a child for her lack of skill teaches the wrong lesson. Instead of the child learning that she can master the skill with practice, she will learn that she is not worthy of being part of the group and that she should be ashamed of herself.
We each “know” many things superficially, but from time to time, we have a powerful personal experience that deepens our knowledge and makes an indelible mark in our memory. How do those lessons impact our daily lives? Following is the first in a series of articles about deep lessons I learned in school.
“If you don’t know what to do, watch others.”
Third grade found me in an old-fashioned public elementary school building in Middleton, Wisconsin: creaky wooden floor boards, narrow and pale; heavy metal desks whose lids lifted up to make a cave where you could hide your head and whose attached chairs squealed when dragged across the floor; and tall windows whose many panes framed a patchwork view of the metal monkey bars and tall swings on the empty playground. Like all the other children in the class, at the beginning of the year I was placed in a reading group. We were each given a textbook containing stories and articles, with a set of multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of each passage. The second time my group met, I was horrified to discover that everyone else had read the assigned passage and answered the questions, while I had not. The teacher called on me to answer a question, and I had to guess. I had no idea what the answer might be. I hadn’t done the assignment. I remember curling forward into my chair, trying to cover my face with the page before me.
When had everyone else done the work? How did they know when they were supposed to do it? As far as I could remember, the teacher had never told me when to do the assignment, and I was in a panic. I didn’t like being unprepared. After we finished our group meeting, I sat gazing out that big window, still feeling embarrassed and shocked. Then I noticed the other children. The teacher had gone to meet with another group, and each of the others in my group was reading the next passage and answering the questions. Ah, ha! I now knew when to complete the assignment before the next group meeting! What a revelation! I had learned the power of imitation. The fact that my embarrassment fueled my discovery is a topic for another article.
We know that humans learn by imitation. My third-grade lesson would not surprise any student of human behavior. However, the moment I realized, for myself, that I could figure out how to do something by watching others was a moment of great power for me. From that day forward, as a student, as a teacher, and eventually as a school administrator, I never forgot that I might be able to learn what I didn’t know by watching others. Whenever I met someone who elicited my admiration, I tried to watch that person closely, so I could learn whatever skill or attitude they demonstrated. I discovered that, on the whole, simple physical and intellectual tasks are easier to imitate and learn than interpersonal skills and psychological attitudes, but a careful observer can build an understanding of even complex skills or attitudes over time.
When I started teaching, I recognized that if I wanted to ask my students to be kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful, and optimistic, I would need to model that behavior. The alternative – demanding compliance through fear and coercion – was not attractive to me. When I started working as a school administrator, I recognized that I needed to be a role model for teachers, as well. I created what I called my “Mrs. Riser disguise,” a role that I played to demonstrate for those around me the attitudes and behaviors I valued. Ironically, I discovered that it can be easier to be a role model while playing a part. The disguise I created was actually MORE kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful and optimistic than my authentic self. I built the disguise to ensure that those around me would have an appropriate model, no matter how I actually felt. I made it my responsibility to play the role well, because I believed it was necessary to being a good leader.
I retired from being the Head of a small K-8 school in the spring of 2017, and during the final year I played the role of Mrs. Riser, and especially after the November 2016 election, I fretted on a daily basis about the example political leaders set for our children. I had spent 30 years in teaching, telling children never to bully or tease others in a mean way and seeking to demonstrate consistent kindness and respect for others in my own behavior, but now it seemed that every day the news showed a leader who bullied people, mocking them with unkind nicknames. The new President’s behavior would be cause for disciplinary action, were he a student in my school. I worried that his bullying behavior was offering a role model in direct opposition to the one I tried to portray.
Since my retirement, I have watched American politics with increasing dismay. How will America ever extinguish racism, bigotry and misogyny if political leaders participate in it or encourage it in public? I am heartened, however, to see that citizens everywhere in America are taking a deeper interest in the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Having the right to vote in order to choose the people who take leadership roles in our government is a significant right – something not to be taken for granted. Young people are setting the example of political activism for all who care to see!
I am no longer in a work position where my actions are widely observed. Nevertheless, I remain committed to living as if I were, to cultivating behaviors that do not harm others. On line I do not resort to name-calling. I seek to understand those whose views seem wrong to me, rather than vilifying them. I watch my authentic self in action to see what I might learn.
Relationships and rules are the connections and guard rails of school communities. In schools that intentionally build strong, respectful relationships, rules become less necessary. Nevertheless, it is essential to have the rule that no one in school is allowed to act in a way that interferes with another’s right to a safe and supportive learning environment. This rule lays the foundation for a caring school culture and is easy to understand. It applies to everyone in the school – adults and children. When adults have strong, respectful relationships with their students, they are best able to coach children’s behavior to align with that foundational expectation. It’s important to remember that no one, teachers included, is able to behave respectfully and kindly at all times, but having the shared intention to do so helps each individual shape their behavior to support the school community.
Occasionally a teacher needs help with a particular student whose behavior is interfering with the classroom atmosphere or activity, despite the teacher’s repeated coaching. The teacher may be concerned about another student’s safety, or they may have become so frustrated that their coaching is no longer effective; they fear they won’t remain respectful in dealing with the student. When a teacher needs help, one common systemic approach in schools is to send the student “to the office,” where another adult is available to help coach the child.
When a child is sent to the office, it is usually because he or she 1) has been chronically socializing with friends during class, 2) has done or said something hurtful or disrespectful, 3) has disobeyed a direct order from the teacher, 4) has made noises or acted in a way that disrupted the class, or 5) has physically hurt or threatened violence to someone or their belongings. All of these behaviors are disruptive to the learning community in a classroom, and so are “against the rules.” In the years I worked in the role of the adult in the office to whom the child was sent, I developed a procedure for helping the child learn from having broken the rules. Here is the procedure, which can be used by any school administrator or lead teacher.
First: Ask the child why they are there. Have them tell you the story of why the teacher sent them to the office. Don’t be distracted by the child’s reports of others’ bad behavior, but keep the focus on the behavior of the child in front of you. Keep in mind that the child will be angry and/or frightened and needs to be heard. Often a child’s bad behavior was provoked by another, and they need to tell about that, but your focus is ultimately on what the child in front of you did that precipitated him or her being sent to you. Sometimes it helps to ask, “What did you do right before the teacher sent you to the office?”
Second: Ask the child why what they did caused a problem. If learning in a safe and supportive environment is the goal, how did their behavior interfere with that? It’s important for the child to understand that whatever they did kept the teacher from teaching or kept a student or students from learning. It is easier for some children than others to accept responsibility for their actions. Many children are very afraid of “getting into trouble,” but if they are minimizing or denying the impact of their behavior, you can point out that they are already “in trouble,” and working to improve the situation will help get them “out of trouble.”
Third: Ask the child what they want to have happen next and what they can do to make that happen. This usually involves making some kind of apology, and most children recognize this with little or no prompting. You can offer to go with the child to make the apology if you have a sense that he or she will have trouble following through, but it is more effective if the child can make the apology independently, as he or she will feel more competent and the teacher will be more impressed with his or her courage. Whether a child is able to take this action independently is also a function of their age. A Kindergarten student will usually need more support than a seventh grade student in making an independent apology. Help the child prepare by role playing what they are going to say to the teacher and/or the student or students to whom they owe the apology.
Nota Bene: If the child’s behavior involved any violence or threat of violence, remind the child that violence will not be tolerated, ever. In the schools where I worked, violence could result in suspension or dismissal, and it’s important for children to know whatever the consequence may be of further violent actions or words. If the child has broken or stolen something, he or she will need to replace that, in addition to apologizing.
Fourth: Ask the child to write a letter to you (the person in the office), explaining what they did, why it caused a problem, and how they will avoid the troublesome behavior again. It is useful to have a conversation with the child about their plan to change future behavior, as making a behavioral change is much more difficult than the child imagines it to be. As the adult, you may have suggestions for supporting the child’s efforts to change behavior. (Obviously, children who are not yet able to write cannot take this step, but giving the child a strategy for what to do instead of what they did is a very helpful coaching move.) The letter must be signed by the child and the parents and returned to you by the start of the next school day. Make sure the child’s homeroom teacher or advisor knows about this requirement, so they can support the child in the process of writing. Often once the child leaves the office, they find that they can’t quite remember what the letter was supposed to contain. A trusted adult at school can help discuss with the child the plan for behavioral change.
Fifth: Tell the child that you will be calling their parents to let them know what happened. Tell the child that you will be following up with the teacher to ensure that the apology is made appropriately. Occasionally, I would ask the child to call their parents from my office, especially if their actions had been hurtful to others. Having to call your parents, in front of a school authority, and say what you have done creates a powerful and memorable moment that can be an excellent deterrent to repeating the hurtful behavior – no one wants to make a call like that twice!
Sixth: Follow through. Touch base with the teacher who sent the child to be sure that the apology was made. Call the parent and explain what happened, asking for support to ensure the child writes the letter. Make sure you receive the letter. Keep a copy on file. If the behavior is chronic or you deem it particularly of concern (especially if violence is involved), it is wise to write a formal follow-up letter to the parents that states what happened and that you are confident the child will not repeat the action. If you need to warn parents formally of possible suspension or dismissal if the behavior reoccurs, include that warning in the letter. In the phone call to the parents I would let them know if I were going to send an official letter, and I would reassure them that I would keep the letter only until the end of the year and would not put a copy in the child’s permanent record.
Seventh: Once you receive the child’s letter, have a final conversation with the child. Let him or her know that you talked to the teacher, that you received their letter, that you know what their plan for the future is, that you will be checking to see how things are going, and, finally, that the event is now closed. Children need to know that you forgive them for their mistake and that they have a fresh start. Each day in school should be a new day, a day open to learning and belonging.