Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

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We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

The Heartbreak of Misbehavior

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In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.

Becoming Our Personal Bests

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I was driving home in the dark after spending the evening helping my grandsons complete a Geometry test review. It had been a long day and I was quite tired so I needed some sound in the car to keep me alert during the fairly long journey. I keep my radio tuned to NPR and just as I had hope there was an interesting program on the air. All of the guests were speaking about the idea of giving humans a small nudge to motivate them to do something difficult. It seems that there is a right way to get people to take risks and a wrong way that makes them complacent and uncomfortable with trying new things. Unfortunately much of the parenting and guiding and teaching that we tend to do is often exactly the opposite of how best to inspire humans,

As a mom, grandmother and long time educator I found myself instantly fascinated with the topic, so I turned up the volume and listened intently to a parade of experts giving pointers on how to create adults who are willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It seems that every single theory was grounded in the idea that making mistakes can be a powerful tool for learning as long as it happens in the right kind of environment. If the emphasis is on personal growth rather than ranking, an individual is far more likely to demonstrate a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. There is something in our human natures that wants to be adventurous, but we throw on the brakes of caution whenever we realize that we are being compared and judged. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our mistakes and so all too often we quietly give up rather than endure the pain associated with failure.

One of the guests discussing this issue spoke of an horrific childhood experience that she had with a teacher who seated children in the classroom in order of IQ, from highest to lowest. Aside from the personal humiliation associated with such an arrangement she noted that it created artificial barriers to learning in which those lowest in the ranking began to believe that they didn’t have a chance to improve or master new concepts. It also segregated the students from one another by making them believe that those at the front of the class were smart and part of an exclusive group and those at the end were hopelessly doomed to uninteresting lives. The woman who was subjected to this horrible situation still shudders at the psychological damage it did to her and her peers.

My own high school experience was not much better. We were grouped according to an entrance exam and previous grades. Each six weeks a list noting our class rank was posted on a bulletin board in the main hall. We gathered together each time it appeared to determine where we were in the order, trying not to look at the very bottom because we somehow understood that there was indignity associated with being last. To this day I shudder at the idea of such shameless and ignorant humiliation that the listing created and the fear that it planted in me.

As humans we are born with a willingness to try different things. As babies we innocently explore and develop. Nobody thinks it odd that each little one grows at his/her own pace. It is the natural way of things and generally there is no worry unless the child shows signs of some type of extreme difficulty. In those early years our curiosity is at a peak. We want to know about and try everything. Learning is natural and fun. It is only when we begin to impose the artifices of tests and grades and competitions that many children begin to waver. When they feel that they are being judged badly because they are not quite as good as their peers, they sometimes slowly become and less and less inclined to participate in the process. In fact, even those at the top reach a certain comfort level and sometimes stop exploring lest they fail and lose their status.

As adults we want to encourage our young to be the best versions of themselves and so whenever they succeed at an endeavor we tend to praise them not so much for the attempts as for the outward judgement of their accomplishment. In other words we celebrate a good grade more than we cheer on effort. We pin our hopes on winning rather than a willingness to try. There is a kind of invisible ranking by IQ or ability that destroys a young child’s natural instinct to try things out. It deadens their souls just a bit, and in the worst case scenario convinces them that their possibilities for life are severely limited.

Sometimes it has the most deleterious effect on those children who started out at the top. They become so accustomed to being the best that they come unglued at the first sign of a challenge. They question themselves and withdraw from the race. They choose easy pathways that allow them to maintain their status, but their interest in reaching higher and higher is stifled. This is particularly true whenever a child suddenly fails after a lifetime of seeming perfection. We sometimes neglect to show them how to rebound from disasters.

The world will no doubt always be competitive but during the formative years the ideal is to instill a growth mindset into our young. We must strive to praise hard work and progress as much as mastery. We need to break learning down into doable chunks and celebrate the achievement of reaching particular milestones as much as we do high marks.

I have learned from watching my grandsons in swimming and track that each effort that they make is measured in personal improvements that may be little more than a tenth of a second. The focus of competition is with themselves. They understand that by beating their own records they move closer and closer to besting those who run with them. Races are generally won with very small but important differences. My grandsons work hard to close the gaps and they begin with themselves. Even if they do not gain a medal, they feel excited when they learn that they have shaved just a bit more time off of their own records. Improvement is a slow but focused process that they keep chasing because they are willing to stay in the race.

We can do so much much better with our young, but for now it is a difficult battle as long as tests are used to rank them, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. We are killing the natural instincts and curiosity one mistake at a time. Instead of encouraging our children to develop a love of reading we force them to submit to comprehension tests having little to do with how we humans enjoy the written word. We make the world of mathematics terrifying and far more difficult than it needs to be. We mystify science and insinuate that only a select few will ever be bright enough to work with its principles. We categorize children before they have even had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wonders of learning. By the time we are adults we have boxed ourselves into rigid mindsets from which few of us ever escape.

It’s time for an overhaul of how we guide and teach our children. We have the know how and potential to use our most precious resource to the fullest. We just need to begin.

The Dialogue

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Teachers talk all of the time. They desperately want to do the right thing for their students. They literally take their worries and concerns home, sometimes keeping them awake in the dark of night. Their constant worry is whether or not they have done all that they possibly can. They wonder what is really most important for preparing their charges for life. Is a laundry list of knowledge and skills enough, or is there actually something more important than grades and test scores? What is the recipe, the correct ingredients, the proper method for putting a life together?

This past weekend I was with two extraordinary educators and a student who is on the brink of launching her career after spending most of her life learning. We spoke of our concerns about education and all agreed that what is too often missing is the opportunity to help young people develop a foundation of particular traits that will serve them well in any situation. The young lady who had once been our student is a stunning example of a process gone right. She earned a bachelors degree in psychology and immediately followed up by working toward a masters degree in clinical counseling. It has taken her almost eight years to reach her goals. In that time she has had to work as well as study. Somehow she understood the need to focus on the prize, often with great sacrifice. She adhered to an unwavering belief that God must always be first, family second and career third. All are important, but always in that order. She values life from birth until death and plans to work in palliative care at a hospital. Somehow she has made her journey appear to be easy, but we know that it was not. She had the same kind of stresses and problems that all humans have. perhaps even more, and yet she was able to overcome them and remain healthy, optimistic and kind. What we wondered gave her the courage and confidence that she must have needed on many different occasions? Why was she able to find joy and success when so many falter and fail?

One hint that she humbly provided was that her core of values guide her along the way, but mostly her faith. Her heart is strong and it is her foundation. She is willing to work, and always determined to make a difference in our society. She is less concerned with grades or scores or rankings, and more inclined toward finding purpose in the things that she wants to do. In other words, she has found a passion for people and good works that motivates her to keep going even when times become difficult.

As we explored many ideas we concurred with her philosophies and noted that as educators we have the power to help our young develop a sense of meaningfulness, but all too often our jobs force us to concentrate on areas that are far less important. We become distracted and fractured and unlikely to have either the time or the energy to encourage each and every one of our students. We want to help them on a deeper basis but know that other demands cause us to fall short. It is frustrating, maddening even. We are in the trenches with society’s most important resource and all too many times we are bombarded with so much bureaucratic minutiae that we have to ignore our own instincts about what is most important in the care and guidance of our young.

I recall a workshop from long ago criticizing the American tendency to teach a vast array of concepts in a shallow manner as opposed to going deeply into a few key concepts. As a mathematics teacher I always felt as though I was in a race to keep up with all of the topics. Too many times I was forced to move ahead even when I sensed that my students had not yet mastered what they needed to know. I wondered why I had to teach them how to create a stem and leaf plot when they lacked an understanding of fractions and decimals. I felt that I was somehow contributing to the slow destruction of their confidence, I wondered if they would one day be telling people that they were not good in math because I had made them feel inadequate by ignoring their need for just a bit more time to master certain ideas.

During my career I worked in a variety of schools. The best of them created situations that allowed our students to feel as though they were members of a caring family. There were adults watching over them and helping them to develop traits that would serve them well in any situation. We taught them to work hard and be nice. We reminded them to remember and appreciate kindnesses. We urged them to leave any place where they wandered in a better state than they had found it. We rewarded character as much as grades. We taught them about wisdom and honor. We joined hands with their parents in the work of caring for them. We showed them how to rise to great expectations even as they stumbled in the process. We encouraged them to demonstrate true grit, helping them to realize that those unwilling to give up will ultimately enjoy great accomplishment and happiness. Mostly we wanted them to know that they were never alone. There would always be someone on whom they might rely.

Dialogues such as the one I enjoyed with my colleagues and a former student are commonplace among teachers. We understand how critical our roles truly are. Educational reform is happening every day in small ways inside the classrooms of the majority of dedicated individuals on whom our future depends. Teachers are changing lives one student at a time, and when they witness the fruit of their labors in the form of an adult who is ready to commence the heavy lifting of important work, they know that their efforts have not been in vain. Such a realization is a teacher’s greatest reward.