Six Words that will Free You

While helping make lunch, my sister began cutting a watermelon.  She hesitated and grimaced several times as she tried to make each piece the same size.  My seven-year-old nephew watched her for a few minutes and then kindly said, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

“I need a bunch of sticky notes with that quote to put all over my house,” she said.

He walked over to the desk, printed his words on a piece of paper, and then asked with a smile, “How many of these do you want?”

She took a photo of the original and shared it with me. I keep it on my phone as a reminder.

My nephew’s words are even more powerful when I consider that he’s only lived in the United States for 17 months and arrived knowing less than ten words of English.  Over the last year and a half he’s applied this wisdom countless times as he’s learned the norms of a new culture and how to speak a new language.

If you’re like my sister and me, if you struggle with trying to make things perfect, chances are you’re avoiding doing some things you can actually do well, because you might not do them perfectly.  Release yourself from that trap by reminding yourself:  “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Whether it’s implementing a new strategy in your classroom, adding a new kind of exercise to your daily routine or learning a new language, don’t let the fear of imperfection keep you from trying.


Thank You, Mr. Perry

When I walked into the school, Mr. Perry made me feel welcome. He held the door, greeted me with a smile, and said a cheery, “Good morning.” Even though I only worked part-time at the building, he made me feel like I was an important part of the staff. He happily directed me to the rooms where I met with teachers. He walked the halls of the school like it was a castle. He spoke to students about their education and behavior and treated them like family.

Reading about him, you might think Mr. Perry was the principal, but he was actually the custodian. He could have begrudgingly done his job, complained about the endless work, and kept to himself. But he intentionally shared his smile, his wisdom, and his amazing work ethic with everyone he encountered.

Two weeks ago, he unexpectedly passed away. Even though he never wrote a lesson plan or brainstormed ways to increase student engagement in learning or attended a professional development about new curriculum, Mr. Perry made me a better teacher. I will always be thankful for the lessons he taught me about doing my job with my whole heart. I hope I can impact the lives of the people I work with, in his honor.  Thank you, Mr. Perry.

Did I Say that Out Loud?

During an afternoon math lesson, several unruly students asked for help completing their practice problems.  Their classmates chattered away as I redirected one student after another while re-teaching.  Interruptions and redirections were so routine that often I silently said, “Lord, Give me strength.”   I prayed so frequently that it became reflexive, and just before saying it, I rolled my eyes and let out a long sigh.  Several minutes into re-teaching the lesson, the secretary buzzed our room asking me to send one of the students to the office to go home early.  Then she reminded me it was my class’s turn to practice bus evacuation.  I rolled my eyes and let out a long sigh, but just before I could speak my silent prayer, Robert said, “Looooord, give her strength!”   A huge smile spread across his face and I realized my prayers had not been silent after all.

We are heading into the ultimate “LORD, GIVE ME STRENGTH” portion of the school year.  The next few months are fraught with testing, squirrely student behavior, extra school events, and more.  We can roll our eyes and sigh, but we should also make sure we pray asking God to give us strength.  Who better to ask than Him who knows our needs, understands our weariness, and has a limitless supply to give?

I Pledge Allegiance

The school-wide announcements ended, and students in my classroom stood to say the pledge.  Having been taught that pledging allegiance is serious business, no students attempted to finish yesterday’s math homework or sharpen a pencil during this time. Instead they looked steadily at the flag.

As I was placing the attendance sheet outside my doorway, several of my students came running down the hall on their way back from returning our class’s library books.  Not wanting them to distract the other students, I said, “Just stay there and say the pledge.”

They stopped and (out of habit), looked for the flag, but couldn’t see one in the hallway.

Realizing there was no flag there, one of them asked, “But, Mrs. Miller, where will we look?”

I replied, “Look in your hearts.”

Expressions of surprise and then understanding spread over their faces as they stood in the corridor visualizing the red, white, and blue and pledging their allegiance to the land that they love.  I think they understood the pledge a little bit better that day.

Veteran’s Day is the perfect time to teach your students what it means to pledge allegiance to the flag.  Since many kids have no idea what they are really saying, we should take the time to teach them.  Veterans have made so many sacrifices on our behalf.  Teaching the next generation what it means to pledge allegiance through our words and actions honors veterans today and in the future.

Who Are You Cheering For?

Fans watched young football players take the field on that fall day in 1978.  My fifth grade friends and I stood on the sideline wearing our blue and white sweaters with matching skirts and cheering for our team, the Lions.  Wanting to get the crowd involved, Mandy (our squad’s captain) led us in a cheer:

“Give me an L!”

“L!” we shouted.

“Give me an . . .”

After a few more letters, we enthusiastically asked the fans, “What’s that spell?”

The crowd responded with a doubtful “Lions?”

Certain they could do better, Mandy began the cheer again.  Just then, I saw my mother leave her seat in the stands.  She looked concerned as she jogged down the stairs over to our rowdy group.

“Girls,” my mom said calmly as we gathered around her, “lions is spelled l-i-o-n-s.”

“That’s what we said,” we insisted.

“No,” said my mom.  “That’s not what you said. It’s l-i-o-n-s.”  She turned and walked back to the bleachers leaving us in our huddle.   Suddenly one of us realized our mistake.  Red-faced, we did the only thing we could: we turned around, began the cheer again, and spelled the word correctly, as if we had said it that way all along.  Standing there, I couldn’t believe I’d been so caught up in the moment that I’d neglected to think about what I was shouting. My cheerleading squad was the first in history to cheer for . . . the LOINS.

My mom did the right thing that day.  She heard us making a mistake and rushed to kindly show us the error of our ways.  She did not shame us.  She did not yell at us.  She just let us know that what we were saying was not really helping our team.

I’d love to say that was the last time I parroted a word or phrase that someone else spoke before me, but it wasn’t.  Sometimes, caught up in the moment, I repeat what I have heard to anyone who’s willing to join in and “shout it out” with me.  It’s easy to do.  Instead I need to listen, think, and then speak.

How beneficial  to students in our classes, to our co-workers, and to our world for us to hear gossip or see a mistake-in-motion and step in to kindly say, “let’s get cheering for our team again.”  Our classroom team.  Our teaching team.  Our school team.  Our world team.

More than ever, students need to see us modeling this behavior.  Rather than being quick to shout out, what if we all listened, thought, and then spoke?  How would it change Facebook posts, tweets, texts, and classroom conversations?  What might the ripple effects be?  Imagine us all working together to show kids the best way to cheer our teams on to victory.

Don’t Allow Yourself to be Driven Crazy

Are there things in your classroom that drive you crazy?  Are any of them systems you put into place?

The second question may sound silly, but it’s worth asking yourself.  Sometimes we design systems that look good on paper.  Then the students arrive and the arrangements don’t work the way we imagined.  Many times I’ve blamed my students when I should have tweaked my program or retaught my expectations.  This is true of systems at school or at home.

For example, let’s just say that this morning I walked into the kitchen and found my daughter’s breakfast dishes in the sink again.  Dirty dishes left two feet from the dishwasher drive me crazy.  Has she not learned that the dishes must be in the dishwasher to become clean?  I should have called her over to the sink, stated my confidence in her motor skills and coached her through rinsing and loading the dishes.  But instead I did them myself because it was, well, easier.  The problem is that the same thing will occur again tomorrow morning.  We can expect the same result in our classrooms when we see a problem and then do what the students should be doing rather than tweak the system or re-teach the kids.  This is a formula for driving ourselves crazy.

If you can identify something that’s driving you wild, consider how you can tweak it.  In your classroom, a tweak might involve assigning new seats, changing the time of a given activity, creating classroom jobs, or rethinking dismissal routines.  Maybe all that’s needed is re-teaching what a specific process should look and sound like.

In the long run, everyone wins when our systems work well.  There are so many things in the world we cannot control. Don’t allow yourself to be driven crazy by the things you can.


Another Reason You are Important

When we’re adults, we tend to define ourselves by our professions.  “I’m a nurse.”  “I’m an insurance agent.”  “I’m a teacher.” But what about when we were children?  I never recall saying, “I’m a student” unless it was to get a discount at the movies.  But as children we are defined by how adults see us.  We believe what we are repeatedly told.

Of course, there are students we can’t say enough good things about like the kids who are hard-working, helpful, or obedient. But then there are others who are bossy, inconsiderate, and loud. It can be quite a challenge to turn their negative actions and unusual quirks into positive words.  For them we must be extra intentional.

And that leads to one more way you are important.  Every day you help students realize who they are.

Take Victor who regularly makes sarcastic remarks.  While the comments are irritating, his strength is getting people to laugh.  Maybe someday he’ll be a comedian.  Encourage him to write riddles and jokes.  Give him a platform for sharing them (after you’ve read and approved them first).  Tell him, “You are funny, and you have a talent for helping people see the humor in situations.”

Or take Bella who is on-task but never speaks aloud in class.  Maybe she’s a deep thinker.  Give her a notebook and ask her to journal her thoughts.  Tell her you’ve noticed that she thinks before she speaks and has tremendous self-control.  Tell her how much the world needs that and ask her to share some of it with the class.

Or consider Tyrique, whose bossiness gets him into trouble several times a day.   He may be a natural leader.  Give him something to supervise so he can put his leadership skills to good use.  Then tell him what a fine job he did.

Sometimes we fall prey to defining students by their actions and habits rather than by their talents.  It takes courage to compliment the child who constantly interrupts, the one who rarely speaks or the kid who seems to know it all.  But those kids need to hear your definitions of them most of all.  What words do you hear yourself using to describe them?  Who will you define today?


When the novelty of the new school year wears off, it’s a good time to begin collecting happiest moments.  I became a collector this summer at Ollie’s, my favorite frozen custard shop.  I planned to order a side of salted pecans to use on future ice cream sundaes, but I was feeling extra hungry so I asked the server to “make it a double.” I was thrilled when, after paying, he handed me a container of pecans four times the usual size.  Was it Ollie himself serving me? My eyes widened. “Wow! Thank you,” I said. I walked to the car thinking this is today’s “happiest-so-far-moment”.

Since then, I have been on the lookout for happy moments such as the expression on my daughter’s face when she meets a challenge, a phone call from an old friend, a walk with my husband or the chance to lend a hand to someone in need.

There is so much bad news in the world today that we need to be intentional about focusing on the good.  Too many kids (and adults) wait for big occasions to be happy.  Teaching students to seek out and celebrate happy moments helps them stay focused on positive events that are happening all around them, and it keeps us looking for them, too.

Be on the lookout.  When you see something that makes you smile, proclaim it as today’s “happiest-so-far-moment”.

The Important Thing You May Have Left Off Your To-do List

My favorite denim shorts are 16 years old.  They are full of holes, but I cannot part with them. They’re just too comfortable.  They’re a symbol of the freedom summer brings. They represent carefree summer days spent walking on the beach, riding my bike, or driving across town for vanilla custard covered in pecans and caramel.

As school begins again, summer’s sweetness starts to slip away.  Days spent in the sand and pedaling down winding trails become a memory.  Learning curriculum and writing lesson plans are the new norm. Yet it’s crucial to integrate summer things (or at least one of them) into the new routine to create a sustainable balance.

My summer thing is taking a walk.  I need to end the day by putting on my shorts and walking around town.   And not just for the exercise.  The walk is time to clear my head and put things in perspective.  It’s my time for me.

As teachers we often leave doing things for ourselves off of our to-do lists.  We think doing more things for our students will make us better teachers, when in reality, neglecting ourselves makes us less effective.

How about you?  As you begin the new school year, what’s one thing you can keep for you on your to-do list?  Name it and claim it as your “summer thing” that’s too comfortable and too valuable to let go.  Write it on your daily to-do list in bold letters.  Your list isn’t complete without it.

Just a Teacher

There is one day (other than Christmas Eve) that I have learned to avoid shopping in DeKalb, Illinois. That is move-in day at Northern Illinois University.  The lines are long, and the aisles are crowded with stressed-out parents and self-conscious freshmen bickering about the things that are “needed” and “not needed” for a dorm room.  There’s nothing pleasant about it.

Yet there I was.  As I unloaded my groceries onto the conveyor belt, I heard the cashier ask the two young college men in front of me what they were going to study at Northern.

“Political Science? Mechanical Engineering?” asked the clerk.

“Us?”  replied one of the young men.  “Oh, no.  We are just going to be teachers.”

“Oh,” the clerk replied as she finished totaling their items.  The men paid and walked out of the store, while I stood momentarily frozen at the checkout.

As soon as my groceries were paid for, I speed-walked to the parking lot, where I spotted them loading their purchases into the trunk of their car.  I am not one to talk to strangers, but in this instance I couldn’t stop myself.

I walked up to them and said, “Excuse me.  I don’t know you, but I couldn’t help overhearing you in the checkout lane.”

They stared blankly at me.

“I noticed that when the clerk asked what you were going to study at Northern, you answered that you were ‘just going to be teachers.’ I want you to know, I am a teacher, and.  .  .”

One of the young men stopped me and said, “No, no. We didn’t mean to disrespect you.”

“Oh, you did not disrespect me.  I know the value of what I do. You are young and don’t realize it, so I just wanted to tell you that long as you live I never want you to think of yourself as ‘just a teacher’.  You two have no idea the power you will have to shape minds, to inspire, to care, to mentor and to change the trajectory of students’ lives.  You don’t see it now, but you will.  And in the meantime, I want you to promise me you will never, never refer to yourselves that way again.  There is no such thing as ‘just a teacher’.”

Maybe they thought I was loony, or maybe I actually inspired them, but they both promised.   I said goodbye and walked to my car, feeling exhilarated.

Only later, as I drove home, did I realize how much I must have sounded like, well . . . a teacher.

Guess what? You are not just a teacher either, and you are not just any teacher. You have been specially created to cross paths at just the right times and the right places with the right students to their change their lives forever.