The Heartbreak of Misbehavior


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


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.

It’s Not Too Late


There is a teacher shortage. Schools of education at universities across the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract students. Young people are entering the Teach For America program to eliminate loan debt, but rarely staying past the the required two year term. Even experienced educators are leaving the profession far more frequently than their counterparts of the past. Concerns that this trend will lead to a crisis in our schools are being whispered but only minimally addressed, mostly without the kind of difficult and honest discussions that are needed. Will we one day awake to find our classrooms packed with children, but understaffed with qualified adults to guide them in their educations?

The problems inside schools began long ago when the public took it for granted that intelligent women would provide the bulk of the heavy lifting in education. There was indeed a time when there were few career paths readily available for college educated females beyond teaching or nursing. A few brave souls became doctors, engineers and such, but mostly those avenues were exceedingly difficult to travel. The roadblocks for women were quite real save for the worlds of service. The best and brightest were often attracted to the idea of educating future generations, and many women found a way to display their intellectual talents in classrooms across America.

All of that began to change once pioneering souls pushed their way into what had always been male dominated professions, sometimes at great personal cost. Slowly opportunities in high status, well paying jobs opened for more and more women. Schools were no longer able to assume that the cream of the female academic crop would automatically opt for traditional roles in the nation’s schools. Teaching more and more often became a vocation with only the most dedicated individuals willing to endure the low pay and increasingly low opinions of the public toward educators. The mantra “Those who can’t, teach” became a national indictment of the teaching profession, and all the while did little or nothing to shore up the reputation of the career while also creating increasingly more difficult demands for those who stayed.

Teaching is a rewarding profession, but mostly in psychological rather than tangible ways. Most educators are akin to missionaries in their zeal, and like those who toil to save souls they rarely achieve the levels of financial success accorded to their college educated peers in other careers. Their work hours are much longer than the visibly prescribed school day, often extending into the late night at home and intruding on the time shared with their families. The public perception that teachers are paid sufficiently because they do not work for three months out of the year and are finished during the school year at three in the afternoon is a falsehood that somehow continues to be perpetuated by government bureaucrats who set teacher salaries at the lowest possible levels. Anyone who has ever taught knows of the late night planning and grading marathons that extend daily hours to ridiculous levels, not to mention the required training sessions that have reduced summer vacations for teachers to little more than a month. If educators were actually paid by the hour for every minute that they spend engaged in their work they would all be earning six figure salaries. As it is they are likely to find less financial security both during their active working years and later in retirement than those who work for the United States Postal Service.

If pay were the only concern for the teaching profession there would still be legions of altruistically centered individuals who would be attracted to the profession because of the sheer joy that comes from helping young people to learn. It is noble and important work. Sadly it has become so politicized that it has been made more and more difficult to endure. The responsibilities piled on teachers and the lack of respect accorded them have made the work less and less attractive to all but the most dedicated. Teachers constantly hear the insults of politicians and the public hurled at them. Our president speaks of them with disdain. Parents wince when their bright children indicate an interest in being educators. Reformers tend to listen to everyone but the teachers in crafting plans to improve the situation. All the while once willing teachers are driving away from schools never to return to what they view as a far too difficult and thankless task.

Perhaps the true caliber of our nation’s teachers is no better illustrated than in the horrific times that a shooter comes to a school intent on inflicting harm. Time and again educators protect their students with their very lives, taking bullets rather than allowing their kids to become victims. The heroes who do such things are not as unusual as they may seem. Teachers, like first responders, do not run away from such situations They stay to insure the safety of their charges. It is who they are, and yet we rarely see events honoring them the way we do our military, police officers and firefighters. Teachers quietly maintain the safety of our children day in and day out with little or no fanfare. Now adding insult to injury there are some who would have them train to use guns in the event of an emergency, all while we ridicule them and complain about how ineffective they are.

Teachers have been tirelessly doing their jobs with pay that does not fairly compensate them in conditions that are enormously stressful and without the kind of appreciation that they have duly earned because they understand the importance of their work. They are generous individuals who don’t require much more than the knowledge that they have made a difference in people’s lives. We as a society have taken advantage of their good natures far too long. Unless we begin to recognize their enormous contribution to society by honoring and compensating them fairly we may one day take our children to schools and find that they are closed for lack of manpower. The handwriting is on the wall. It is time to remember, appreciate and hear the dedicated individuals who provide the foundation of all that runs the engines of our society. It’s not too late, but if we wait too long it may be. 


The Dialogue


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.


Talent, Compassion and Wit

27857957_10216399335842193_7355374117100203653_nThree teachers stand out as my favorites when I was a school girl. I simply adored my first grade teacher, Sister Camilla, because she was kind and understanding of my needs both academic and psychological. I’ve always had a tiny bit of dyslexia and she created a number of visual tools to help me to distinguish between the letters of the alphabet, as well as encouraging me to use multiple modes of learning to decipher. Given that I was only five and feeling overwhelmed when I was her pupil, she somehow managed to use her skills to help me to enjoy the process of learning.

The next educator who had a lasting impact on me was Mrs. Loisey, my sixth grade teacher. The key to her greatness was an ability to explain virtually any topic in ways that were easy to master. Additionally she was perhaps the most wise and just instructor that I ever had. I think that I was more relaxed in her classroom than at any other time in my life, which speaks to her talent because the first year of middle school is usually filled with angst.

It was in high school that I met my muse, my English teacher Father Shane. He opened my eyes to the world of artistic expression and firmly instilled a love of literature and poetry in me. He introduced me to authors and playwrights, writing and self expression. I loved him and his class so much that I dreamed of becoming an author and teaching English just as he had.

These three individuals became my gold standard for excellence in educating the young. I modeled myself after what I had witnessed from them and measured the teachers that I would ultimately mentor by comparing their abilities to my masterful exemplars. I carried a mental rubric of what I considered to be exceptional teaching and it included the very best traits of my favorite teachers. My yardstick was exacting, but along the way I was gratified to learn that many of the educators with whom I worked were as dedicated and inspiring as those who had so influenced me.

The last years of my career as an educator were mostly spent recruiting, interviewing, observing, coaching and supporting teachers in my role as Dean of Faculty. My constant goal was to provide our students with the same quality of teaching that I had enjoyed when I was a student. I was proud to note that most of the individuals with whom I worked were indeed the best of the best, but even among such an elite group there were always shining stars such as Jenny Brunsell.

Jenny literally combined all of the traits that I most valued in an educator. Like Sister Camilla, Jenny was perennially patient and pleasant with her students. She spoke in a quiet and soothing tone making her pupils feel safe and respected. At the same time she was wise and fair like Mrs. Loisey and had a knack for explaining key concepts in a manner that made them attainable for everyone. Best of all, Jenny’s classroom was a fun place to be just as it was with Father Shane. She spent a great deal of effort searching for ideas that would make the time spent with her enjoyable and entertaining. She taught with grace and enthusiasm and I always sensed that her students loved her just as much as I had adored my own favorite teachers.

I eventually retired and Jenny went to another school where she continued to ply her magic. In addition to teaching English she became an Academic Decathlon coach with her husband. In a very short span of time her teams became perennial winners and the students in her classroom fell under the spell of her enchanting ways. It did not surprise me at all that she was so successful and that she was named the Katy Taylor High School Teacher of the Year earlier this week. My only question was why it had taken so long for someone to honor her with the recognition that she had earned long ago.

I believe that the key to our future lies in a three pronged effort from our children, their parents and their teachers. When all three of those groups work successfully together we produce a healthy productive society and all of the rest that we need follows. We do not often enough identify the finest traits of each of those three important contributors to human development. Sometimes due to uncontrollable conditions one or more of the triad is weak or even broken. A very strong effort by any of the remaining elements has the power of overcoming such difficulties. In particular a truly great teacher may literally change the course of another person’s life. This is the essence and the power of someone of the caliber of Jenny Brunsell. I have little doubt that many of her former students treasure the moments that they shared with her, and understand just how significant she has been in helping them to learn and grow.

We spend untold amounts of money on education each year. We do research and struggle to find ways of making our schools more uniformly excellent. The truth is that we need only begin to list the traits of the teachers that we love best to discover the elements needed to create thriving classrooms. The trick is in helping those who do not organically possess the qualities to learn how to incorporate them nonetheless. Therein is our challenge.   

Even in retirement there are parents and students and teachers who consult me. I hear horror stories of educators who are the antithesis of Jenny Brunsell. They seem uncaring and harsh to their pupils. They appear to lack justice, instead wielding power over their charges. They are unwilling to walk that extra mile for their students or to just be that one person determined to stay the course until everybody learns. They often even appear to dislike the very youngsters whom they are supposed to guide. Luckily that are the exception rather than the rule but even one of them is too many.

To know the greatest teachers is to be in the company of talent, compassion and wit. To have such a teacher is a never ending gift. I have been fortunate to learn from Sister Camilla, Mrs. Loisey and Father Shane. I have been encouraged by understanding that there are still teachers like them toiling away, often unsung. It’s good to know that now again someone takes the time to acknowledge the most remarkable of them like Jenny Brunsell.