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True Summer

May is a fast-paced mix of emotions.  We honor mothers and veterans, celebrate graduates, and say goodbye to the children we have taught all year.  There are times of exhilaration, moments of sadness, flashes of fear, and bits of relief sprinkled throughout the month-long roller coaster ride.  And then, in an instant, the ride comes to a screeching halt leaving us feeling dizzy, looking for our land-legs, and wondering what just happened?

During the first few days of this new season, you may catch yourself checking school email or thinking about planning next week’s lessons.  But then, the sweet relief of summer will wash over you like a cold wave of water.  In those moments, I hope you take a chance to start getting back to your true self.  You know, the self you were last summer, before you had to teach students each day, grade stacks of papers each night, attend meetings at all hours, and answer emails in between.

My prayer for you this summer is that God helps you relearn to forsake the multi-tasking of the school day and simply be present in each moment.  This will look different for everyone.  It could mean enjoying a meal without simultaneously working through a to-do list.  Being present could mean putting away the phone to play with the kids, choosing to be undistracted by emails, texts, and tweets. It could mean looking into the eyes of a loved one or friend and really listening when they speak rather than nodding intermittently while scrolling through Facebook.  It could mean being silly and spontaneous in a way you never could be at school.  Whatever being present looks like for you, I pray it will move you away from the survival mode of school into the thriving mode of summer and towards your best self.  May these moments bring you contentment and rest.

Will You Remember Me?

It was late spring, and I had just finished reading Where the Red Fern Grows to the class. Whenever I showed any emotion, Levi was the first to make some sort of wisecrack, and that day was no different.

“Pass the Kleenex,” he snickered in his nasal voice, rolling his eyes as I closed the book.

“Very funny,” I said, still sniffling.

Another fourth grader said, “I will never forget that book, Mrs. Miller.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.  “There are some stories that we will always remember.  They just endear themselves to us, and we know they will always be part of us.”

Just before dismissal that afternoon, the students were standing at their lockers getting their backpacks.  Suddenly, Levi ran over to me, leaned right into my face, and whispered, “What about me?  Will you always remember me?”

I thought he was poking fun at my comment from earlier in the day.  But there was not even a hint of a smile on his face, and he was peering straight into my eyes.  He was quite serious.

I stooped down, looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, Levi, I will always remember you.”

“Good,” he said, and he ran back to his locker, grabbed his backpack and got in line, as if nothing had happened.

It took from August until May, but I had made a difference to Levi.  Yes, he was always joking in class and was the first to point out every mistake I ever made.  But right then, in one tender moment, I could see that it was important for him to know I would keep the memory of him tucked in my mind over the years.  I was so glad he asked because, if he hadn’t, I might never have realized how much that mattered to him.  Or to me.

In the last days of the school year, when you feel sentimental or overwhelmed or just ready to be finished, look around your room at the faces of all of the students you have poured yourself  into day in and day out.  Most of them will never say it, but rest assured you have had a tremendous impact on their lives, so much so that even the wisecracking ones are thankful for what you’ve taught them and are really hoping you will always remember them.

It’s All in the Flick of Your Wrist

Field Day with my fifth grade class included moments of laughter and fun as students displayed their athletic prowess (or lack of it.)  For example, when competing in the softball throw to see who could throw the ball the farthest, several boys and girls threw very long distances.  Others unfortunately released the ball too late and threw it high in the air where it became lodged in the branches of a pine tree.  Some other students  threw the ball upwards but slightly to the right sending it sailing over the top of the chain link fence that separated the school property from the neighbor’s yard.  As luck would have it, Arlo, the smallest boy in the class, climbed trees faster than most squirrels and retrieved the softballs quickly.  Clinton who I was confident would jump hurdles someday, willingly jumped the fence and got the other balls, and in no time we were throwing again.  I practically lost my voice cheering for students.  In between, “You can do it!” and “You’re awesome!” I gave some advice for ways students could improve their accuracy.

As we neared the end of the day, we walked to the Frisbee Toss.  The last person to throw was sweet little Roxy who was a perfectionist and a very good student.  I watched her as I stood at the other end of the field and waited to catch the Frisbee.  As Roxy stepped forward to attempt her toss, she yelled out, “I don’t know how to throw it!”

While motioning to her with my hand, I yelled back, “It’s all in the flick of your wrist!”

“Whaaaaaaaaat?” Roxy called back.

“FLICK YOUR WRIST,” I repeated.

Roxy looked befuddled.  She stood for a moment, and then, because she was obedient and an overachiever, she pushed up the sleeve on her throwing arm and licked her wrist three times.  Next she lobbed the Frisbee as far as she could and came running down the field to join me and the rest of the class.

We all laughed together as I explained that I had said “flick your wrist” not “lick your wrist.”  She rolled her eyes at the realization that she had licked when she should have flicked.  To this day I cannot see a Frisbee without thinking of Roxy.

No moral here, just a funny story. 🙂


The end of the school year can be stressful and emotionally draining.  Between the sleepless nights spent reviewing the mental “to do” lists and the sadness of saying goodbye to your students, not to mention completing report cards, you’re just tired.  Add to that packing up every single book, paper, crayon, and manipulative you own, and you’re just about ready for the funny farm by the school year’s end.

Several years ago, I did the sleepless nights, the good-byes, and packed up my whole classroom (for the third time in three years), but I didn’t shed a tear.  Now that’s strange for me, I thought,  but I was so excited about my sister visiting the next day that I didn’t let it bother me.

On her first day in town, we went straight to the chiropractor.  Going there is like a going to a spa, and it just made sense to “get our heads on straight” at the outset of her stay.   On this particular morning, my chiropractor was running a bit late with another patient, so we took a seat in the lobby and began chatting away.  With time we both noticed the Rachel Ray Show was on the television and in this episode she was revealing the winner of her Dream Kitchen Contest! The lucky winner was a young entrepreneur who had started her own cooking business.  She was a 12-year-old cupcake-baking girl, and she won some amazing new kitchen appliances. As we watched a moving video of her baking and decorating colorful cupcakes of all kinds, the background music swelled. As a new refrigerator and double oven were wheeled out onto the stage, tears of joy started streaming down . . . my face.

Oh . . . NO! I thought.  Do not cry in the chiropractor’s office over a girl you don’t know who makes cupcakes and won a double oven!   A lady sitting across the lobby glanced at me and shifted in her seat. One look told me of her discomfort at my innocent display of emotion. Had she never seen anyone cry at a Rachel Ray show before? Then my sister saw my tears and started laughing quietly.  To help ease the tension, she said, “You know, for me it’s the Little House on the Prairie Christmas special when Mr. Edwards travels on foot for hours through a blizzard to bring Laura and Mary their gifts (tin cups of their very own).”

Soon I was thinking back to when we were children.  We watched that show all the time. I said, “My favorite Little House episode is the one where Mrs. Ingalls teaches school for a while only to find that one of the older students is bullied because he doesn’t know how to read.  She painstakingly works with him to help him learn to read. I think that very episode is the real reason I became a teacher.”

And then it happens.  I come undone.  In the chiropractor’s lobby.  With my sister. And the lady who has shifted in her chair. RIVERS of tears (caused by the sleepless nights, the packing, and the goodbyes to twenty-eight students) are running down my face. And then memories of the past twenty years of teaching are flooding my mind.  Tears are flowing uncontrollably, and I can do nothing but let them come.

Just then the chiropractor swings open the door, looks out in to the lobby, and calls my name.  “Julie?” She does a double take after seeing me and asks, “Are you okay?”

Through the tears, I explain that all of the joy and sadness of my whole teaching career have come over me in an instant while watching the happy and well-deserving winner of the Dream Kitchen Contest on Rachel Ray.  As I follow her into the next room, I see a patient lying on the traction table who is wondering, based on my crying, if there has been a catastrophic global event while she’s been getting her adjustment.  I offer her a brief, reassuring explanation and hurry into Room Two where I try to convince the chiropractor that I am mentally stable, even though I have cried off all of my makeup in the waiting room.

I share this story because I want to thank you.  Thank you for being the type of teacher who loves your students so much that on certain days, and especially at year’s end, you come undone with the love of them.  Thank you for the sleepless nights, the Dr. Seuss celebrations, the trips to the library to find books for your reluctant readers, and for pleading for the right services for students you know need and deserve them.  Thank you for staying late when you could have gone home early, for having difficult conversations with parents, and for creating a classroom where kids learn well.  Thank you for giving students second, third, fourth, and in some cases fortieth chances, for making learning fun, and for having a sense of humor on the days when things just don’t go as planned.   Thank you for rarely taking a bathroom break, for lending change to the student who “didn’t know there was tax at the book fair” and for listening to children retell the longest stories about what actually happened at recess.  Thank you for designing amazing lessons, spending your own money to buy supplies and buying extras for the kids who don’t have their own.  Thank you for teaching hard even on the days when it seems only a few students are listening,  for coming up with crazy ways for students to retain information, and for attending endless meetings.  Thank you for putting your heart and soul into your instruction and for believing the best about your students.

For all you do, you are appreciated and admired.


I Forgive You

“Oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, you’re in troooooouuuuuuuble!” said one fourth grader to another.

“What’s going on?” I asked, turning on my heels and heading toward them.

“Joaquim just gave her the finger,” Sasha said as she sat wide-eyed, pointing.

“Is that true, Joaquim?” I asked, wondering why he would do that to shy, reserved Dana.

“Yes,” he said, avoiding eye contact.

Joaquim admitted the truth.  His gesture was unprovoked.  He was just in a bad mood.

“That’s no excuse,” I said, and I asked him to apologize.

He walked over to Dana’s desk where she sat writing. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Dana looked him in the eye and said sincerely, “I forgive you.”  Then she smiled and went back to her work.  Joaquim was startled.  He looked confused as he walked back to his desk.

Dana’s words were so refreshing.  In the ten years I had been teaching, I had never heard a student utter the phrase I forgive you. Typically, the offended student remained angry and mumbled, “That’s okay,” or said, “Whatever.”  But nobody ever said, “I forgive you.”  Nobody. Dana had not done anything wrong, but she had quickly and earnestly forgiven Joaquim.  She had done it without grimacing or complaining or reminding everyone that she didn’t deserve his gesture.  Nope.  Just forgave him, plain and simple.

I want to be more like Dana.  Sometimes I mistakenly believe I can control a situation by holding my offender hostage, not letting him off the hook by forgiving him.  But nothing could be further from the truth. Dana proved it.  She was completely in control, and she single-handedly moved the class from controversy back to schoolwork with her kindness.

More than any other time of the school year, during this last month, we all need and should extend forgiveness.  As we work with tired co-workers who have been giving of themselves all year and students who have shared a classroom and a lunchroom and a playground all day every day, we would be smart to make Dana’s three words a part of our daily routine.

Action Step:  So many students act out at the end of the school year.  Squabbles occur every day. It’s the perfect time to teach students to say, “I forgive you.”  We can do this by modeling with our own behavior or by role playing as a class.  Teaching forgiveness is not part of the academic curriculum. It’s not necessarily even part of the new social-emotional curriculum. But it should be. Wouldn’t you agree?



That’s a Relief

Whenever they were together there was bound to be trouble.  The two boys were always up to something and while it usually wasn’t dangerous, it rarely resulted in any academic learning.  My goals were to seat them as far apart as possible during instruction and be on heightened alert for commotions when they were together.

One morning they walked casually up to my desk and handed me a small box.

“When me and Milo were together after school yesterday we saw somethin’ that made us think of you,” said Travis.

I looked down at the small package and wondered what could be inside.  Given their history, I was a little nervous it might be alive.

“We went to Walgreens by ourselves and when we saw it, we knew you’d like it,” said Travis.

“So we put our money together and bought it for ya,” Milo added.

I let out a sigh of relief that it was from Walgreens as that pretty much meant it wouldn’t be a snake or a frog.

Travis and Milo looked at me, eyebrows raised, and waited for me to open the gift.

It was a squishy, blue . . . stress ball!  I laughed at how well they knew me.

They nodded and smiled at my reaction. Then they went back to their separate seats and (no doubt) began planning something to cause me stress!

From that time on, I couldn’t get quite as upset with their shenanigans as I had in the past. The stress ball remained on my desk and each time I saw it I was reminded that sometimes the people who stress us the most can also bring us great delight.


What if You’re the Only One?

The life of a struggling reader is not easy.  I learned this in a fresh way when I taught small groups of primary-aged rookie readers who were baffled by print.  Each day we gathered around the table in my tiny office and attempted to dive into that day’s lesson.

Even in this small setting, the students’ dread of reading was palpable.  Each of them wondered, “What if I’m the only one who can’t read well?” Students who hid their shortcomings in a group of 28 peers had no way to cover them up in a group of five.  But that didn’t keep them from trying:  from the more basic method of insisting they needed to use the bathroom (“It’s an emergency!”) to the more elaborate approach of feigning blindness while squinting and feeling for the furniture, they gave every excuse possible for not trying to read.

Once I had convinced these students they could wait a few minutes to use the restroom, and that they could see well enough to read the large print, I could observe their clumsy reading strategies. There were the “expanders” who sounded out words until they were incomprehensible, and the “skippers” who hopped over every word they didn’t know.  There were the “robots” who read without expression, the “gazers” who stared at a word and looked up wide-eyed waiting for me to supply it, and the “impulse readers” who guessed every word based on its initial sound.  I could easily list at least twelve more such hit and miss strategies, but you get the idea.

While they possessed many strong skills, their illiteracy masked their identity, and they weren’t receiving many accolades for work done well in the classroom.    They rarely completed tasks because they could not work independently.  They were lost during lessons because they could not keep pace with their peers.  They distracted other students because it helped pass the time.  They rarely, if ever, heard edifying words even though they had much to offer.

Witnessing these groups of struggling readers plodding through print outside the larger classroom, I saw their plight in a new light.  I watched as they agonized over pronunciations, tried to remember which letter made which sound, and slogged their way through the shortest of sentences.  When I realized how they must feel , I asked myself, “What if I’m the only one?”  Not the one who can’t read, but the only one who says something positive to them each day.   The longer I thought about it, the more I realized I might be the only one who looked these kids in the eyes and said something complimentary about what they contributed to their learning, to their classroom, and to the world.

I decided that every day I would lock eyes with them and say something to encourage each one, being sure to say their name and their claim to fame.  Even if it did not have anything to do with reading, I needed to proclaim what was good:  “Juan, you are really improving!”  “Melissa, your creativity is inspiring!”  “Tyrone, you are so respectful.”  It helped all of us.  I was always on the lookout for their strengths, and they were happy for the positive attention.

The beauty of this “strategy” is that it works with people of all ages.  In fact, the older the student, the less often they hear, and the more often they need to hear, hopeful words.

If we all try it, no one will be left wondering if they are the only one.

Action Step:  Who in your life needs to hear more positive words?  What could you say to lift them up?  How might it help change them, and you, for the better?


Paula’s Hammer

I thought I would make it through the whole class period, but I was wrong . . . again.  It was nine o’clock.  With only ten minutes before the class was dismissed, it happened.  Paula began spouting a string of less-than-complimentary adjectives at the poor fourth grade classmate who had irritated her.  To spare her victim further verbal abuse, I asked Paula if we could chat for a moment, and she followed me to the window.  I told her I knew she was upset and that it was okay to be angry, but that she had to try to control her emotions a little.  Then I talked with her about building a birdhouse.

“Paula, if we were going to build a birdhouse out of wood, what tools would we need?”

“A hammer?” she asked.

“What else?”

“I don’t know,” she blurted out angrily.

“Maybe . . . a saw? A screwdriver? Some nails, and sandpaper?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“You’re right, Paula.  We would need all of those tools.  It would be silly for us to only use a hammer. With a hammer we can only pound things.”

Paula nodded, but was definitely wondering what my tools tutorial had to do with her angry outburst.

“Just like we would need a tool kit for constructing something new, we have to have a mental tool kit to help us solve our everyday problems.  Depending on the situation, we might need to take out the “pliers of patience” or the “level of love” or the “clamp of kindness.”  Just like building a birdhouse, we can’t solve every problem with a hammer.  It’s not your fault if it’s the only tool you have right now, but we can work together on adding some new tools to your kit so you’ll be happier in class, right?”

Paula smiled and said, “Yes.”  Even though what I had said was difficult for her to hear, she felt understood.  And in the end, that’s what you want from people who only have a hammer.  Sadly, many of our students (and some of the adults in our lives) have not been taught to use different tools to help them work through teasing, frustration, and the complications of daily life.  It’s part of our job to teach students to use a variety of “tools” or coping strategies in the classroom.

By chance, have you encountered a person like Paula lately?  If it’s a student, you might consider having the same sort of talk with him or her.  If it’s an adult, the conversation might not be possible. But one thing is certain.  It is easier to love and understand someone when you realize they only have (or choose to use) one tool.  If that’s the case and a conversation is out of the question, just reach into your own tool kit and take out . . . your pliers, level, and clamp . . .


You Look Tired

I was trying to finish teaching a lengthy math lesson to my class of rambunctious students.  I had just asked a particularly disruptive student (who I’d already spoken to at least twelve times) to sit down and get to work. I glared at him as he sauntered up to me, shook his head and said with a smile, “Hmmmm . . . you look pretty tired today, and do you know how I can tell?”

Before I had a chance to respond he tapped me twice with both of his pointer fingers, right on the dark circles under my eyes. “It’s because of these two things right here,” he said.  I immediately started laughing because I knew I did look tired, and that day, he was the reason why!

If you look tired, it is likely because of the students you have spent this year teaching and redirecting.  The beauty of it is that you teach and redirect them so well, they have no idea that they are the reason you’re starting to look like a raccoon.  🙂

Working with children is tiring, but you do it with such grace, class and style.  It may seem discouraging for them to point out your exhaustion from time to time, but be thankful you are so good at what you do!

Practical Application:  When you have some time off from school, schedule (actually write in) time just for yourself on the calendar.  You have been so busy taking care of others.  Don’t forget (or feel guilty) about taking care of yourself.


You’ll be Thankful You Read This

Every November I reminisce about the years I taught fifth grade when my classes performed Thanksgiving poems and plays.  We practiced.  We created props. We learned historical poems and memorized humorous skits and then presented several shows for the parents just before Thanksgiving. 

One particular year, rehearsals were going smoothly.  Speaking parts were being perfected, props were being designed, and the students were having fun.  But then, just two days before the performances, Squanto got the stomach flu and spread it to the pilgrims who started dropping like flies.  On top of that, Miles Standish announced that his family was leaving early for Thanksgiving break and he wouldn’t be there for the plays.  (And you know I had specifically asked before casting if anyone was heading out of town early!)  But the show had to go on, so with great resolve I took my role as director to a new level assigning understudies for the sickly as well as the would-be-absent main character.  During that day’s rehearsal, I did everything I could to direct the students to act in just the right way and say just the right lines at just the right times. In a lull between several of my redirections, one of the remaining healthy pilgrims asked, “Why don’t you be in the play, Mrs. Miller?  You could play every part.”    

Because I knew this student well and because I am quick-witted, I said, “Thank you for recognizing my acting abilities and realizing that, with my skills, I could play every role well!” I turned with my nose in the air to continue barking orders.  An instant later, I realized how funny it would be for me to perform the poems and plays as a one woman show. I started cracking up and soon we were all laughing.  Without actually calling me a control freak, the little Pilgrim had made a good point.  I laughed at the time, but later I pondered what he had said and decided his little quip was really an early Christmas present to me.   His words made me realize that each of us is supposed to play just one part.

As we enter the time of year when we run from one activity or relative’s home or retail store to another, it’s easy for us teachers to set up our director’s chairs and start giving orders to everyone to “play their parts.”  We begin to over-direct or want to control things like menus (“But I always bring that casserole”), or seating arrangements (“Please don’t make her fiancé sit next to Uncle Ned!”), or schedules (“But we always eat at noon on Thanksgiving”).  Our bent to control circumstances so the show (or the dinner or the gifts) will be perfect can overtake our rational minds and begin to steal the joy of the season.  Just as an actress cannot play every role in a production, neither can we control every circumstance of our holidays.  If you start feeling like you’re directing a big production this Thanksgiving or in the days that follow, take a deep breath and think about what you would look like playing everyone’s part.  Then laugh for a minute and be thankful that everyone has their own part to play this holiday season.