Thank You Mr. Smith

As a teacher you are lucky if you find yourself teaching in a building with inspirational and influential people. In this area, I feel incredibly fortunate due to the high number of people that would fit this description in my building. However, there is one teacher that stands above the rest for me personally. He has inspired me to write this post that I hope to serve as a thank you to him as well as a learning opportunity for others. I will not use his real name for both personal and professional reasons.

This particular teacher, Mr. Smith, teaches the kids that many others don’t want to, or simply can’t handle. These students are difficult, to put it mildly, and make up the so called “E-D” population which are students with a host of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. His caseload ranges from year to year and fluctuates in both numbers and intensity of needs and he has been at it for 25+ years. Many of the students that walk through his classroom doors have witnessed and experienced things that most people will never see in a lifetime. Without going into great details, Mr. Smith’s students often are known by the local police departments, hospitals, social workers, and armies of therapists. In any given year his students will come and go due to hospitalizations at treatment centers or problems with the “law”.

Press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection

What amazes me most about Mr. Smith is that he is like a prize fighter that gets his bell rung nearly every single day and yet keeps getting right back up. I have witnessed kids screaming at him and cussing him out while throwing classroom furniture. Yet, within minutes of these altercations, he is there rebuilding the relationship and providing the love and support these kids so desperately need. It is often a thankless job that largely goes unnoticed by other students and staff, who routinely try to avoid his room for fear of what is happening down in “Room 13”.

I have spoken and written often about my belief in relationships being the key to a successful teacher-student relationship. Much of my feelings and beliefs have come from the dreaded Room 13. When Mr. Smith’s often hair trigger students are having a bad day, he will dance and sing a “Grumpercism” which is one of his many creations to help his students crack a smile and relieve the tension. He will literally do anything for his students who are those that struggle the most with authority and the general institution that is public school. It is very easy to talk about relationship building and supporting kids in a so called “normal” class. However, teachers like Mr. Smith prove it can be done in the most difficult of spaces and takes away any excuses the rest of us might have.

What are you doing to build relationships with your students? Do you connect with the kids that are difficult and often pushed to the side? What about the kids that scream, yell, and throw furniture? Do you build relationships with them as well? What about the students in your building that are in “room 13”, do you take the time to know them, understand them, and have empathy for them?

Lots of educational talking heads keep saying we are “Waiting for Superman”. I am not. I work two doors down from him every day and I along with many other teachers in my building are better because of it. 

Sitting on the Fence

I feel as though we are becoming more and more polarized in our country, especially in education. Often we find ourselves in discussions where it is either left or right and we can’t be in the middle for fear of being looked upon as apathetic. Everyone wants to think they are right and therefore that others are wrong. The more and more discussions like these I find myself in the more I think sitting on the fence is the best way to go.

Now there are certain things that we can never sit on the fence with. Students should always be treated fairly, with respect and dignity. However, there are many things within the educational realm with extremely polarized views.

Some teachers swear by their grade books as an integral part of their teaching. They would think it blasphemy to hear the outrages claims of those saying we need to rid out schools of grades. On the other hand there are those that see no value in grades as a means of feedback and that our classrooms would be better off without them. I would rather sit in the middle and acknowledge most traditional grading practices are archaic and should be reflected upon and revised. If we are up front about what we grade, how it is graded, why it is graded, and detailed feedback on the grading process in our class it is ok. Myself, I use standards based grading as a middle ground. I am able to clearly communicate to students and parents progress made toward a set of learning standards. There is no guess work as to how the grades are determined or what goes into the “A”.

Standardized Testing:
This is one that I may get heat for but again, there is a middle ground here. The issue as I see it is the amount of money spent creating, preparing, administering and grading these assessments. In addition, the amount of class time spent preparing and taking these tests is at a great cost to learning opportunities. Can’t we use small tests to gather the same data? How accurate is this data if so much time is spent teaching to the test? The tests themselves are a greater indication of teacher preparedness rather than student learning progress. If we instead down play their role and use them as snap shots or basic skills only, they can have little use for us. With technology we can offer more solutions with less hindrance on the classrooms themselves.

Standards and Common Core:
This is a hot topic right now with the advent of the Common Core standards and their role in the future of education in many states. On one hand there are the advocates of strict standards and increased rigor as the only means of “saving” education in our country. Conversely there are those that would advocate for more student driven learning where students guide their learning in absence of standards. Can’t we have both? Is it possible to have a loose set of overarching standards to guide our learning progress while giving students a larger role in the process? Standards are not the issue as much as our overreliance on them both as a means to drive curriculum as well as attempt to hold teachers accountable.

Instructional Procedures:
There are many ways in which a teacher can deliver content to a group of students. As with a favorite sports team, many teachers become a staunch fan of one way and nothing else. Whether you are lecturing, using PBL, Flipped Model, small groups, or any of the other numerous models, they all have value. What works one day will not work the next. What works with one student will not necessarily work with another. We need to stop looking for that silver bullet of instructional methods and realize that bullet is flexibility and evolution. The teachers who succeed are those willing to change when needed for the sake of the student.

Technology Use:
Yes, there is certainly opposing views on the value of technology in education. Many see technology as a great tool with unending potential for improving student learning. However, there are also those that see it as a distraction or shiny object flashing in the eyes of our students. I tend to think they are both right. Technology can, has, and will transform learning in our schools. However, if not used properly, it can be a distraction and a waste of resources. Stand in the middle where you use technology to further learning but not just using it to be using it.

Too often we get wrapped up in our “side” that we fail to recognize the value in the other side. It is in this moment that we are unable to learn and move forward but instead get entrenched in our viewpoints at the detriment of all. Often times sitting on the fence is viewed as the easy way out or just being lazy. However, in most situations, it is the dichotomy within issue that breeds inaction and stagnation. Most of the discussions in education have two sides and the middle ground between both is where I see the greatest potential for growth. I encourage discourse, argument, and discussion as a means of growth but we must stay in the middle to a certain degree for the sake of any change happening. 

You're Holding that Pencil Wrong!

I hesitated in writing this post as I don’t want to call anyone out or embarrass anyone. This story is true and happened to someone close to me and I felt sharing and reflecting on it. My friend’s oldest child is in kindergarten this year and recently got his son’s first report card sent home. Report cards are all different but this was a pretty standard kindergartner report card. It had a handful of skills in a column with the tried and true “S” for satisfactory or “D” for developing. One such skill was “pencil grasp” and his son received a “D” in this column.

Now, the grade was not the issue my friend initially had but rather confusion because his son holds his pencil as “normal” as anyone else. So, he waited to bring this up at his son’s parent teacher conference. At the conference he asked the teacher why his son received a “D” for his pencil grasp. Her reply, according to him was, “well, when I tested him, he held his pencil in a fist which is not correct.”

I am not here to defend the way a child holds his pencil but the fact that his grade was based on a one time “test” of pencil holding ability. Knowing this kid, I am sure he was just being a stinker at that moment of the test. In addition, I have personally witnessed this child hold and use his pencil in the “approved” manner. Yet, this teacher did not base his grade on what I would assume would be multiple days of in class observation. She had to have seen him write, color, and draw on countless occasions during the few months he had been in her class. His grade was based on a so called snapshot moment that clearly did not illustrate his abilities.

For me, there a few reasons I find this story problematic. First, I happen to know this was a first year teacher that was probably just doing what they were told. This is often the case in schools where new teachers are products of the environment rather than doing what is best for kids. Second, this is another illustrated example of why standard and district assessments are too often a snapshot and not the whole picture of a child. Yet, so much value is given to these assessments. Finally, this points to the problem with grades and how they often fail to articulate a child’s abilities. If you were an un-involved parent, you would see such a report card as my friend and assume there was a problem with your child.

In looking at lessons learned here…if you are a teacher don’t let a child’s grade be based on a snapshot. Do everything within your power to use grades and any other feedback you have to paint a clear picture of a child’s abilities. On the other side of things, if you are a parent like my friend, make sure you ask questions. Teachers can learn from parents as much as anybody and their perspectives are often underutilized.