They Give Me Hope

It took a lot for me to get started on this piece. I wouldn’t say it is writer’s block; it is more that I am just so bored of myself. Homework reform, relationships, student voice, being mindful, be nice…blah blah blah. I certainly believe in all of the aforementioned topics; to me, they are the DNA behind any successful school. It is just that I am tired of my own “voice”.

How many times can you say the same things?

I want to write something fresh, something different, something profound.  I want a piece that brings a fresh topic to light, that is backed by research and offers an actionable plan, like Katie Martin does in her educational masterpiece, Learner Centered Innovation.  

I want to write a piece that hooks the reader, that tells a story that breaks down a complex topic, and has the reader nodding up and down thinking “Of course! That makes perfect sense!” It is a skill that Jennifer Gonzalez demonstrates week after to week in her blog, The Cult of Pedagogy.

I want to write a piece that leaves you feeling like you know the author and want to hang out with him. One in which you can feel the passion, the anger, the lack of fear in the repercussions for calling out those who do our profession a disservice. I want to write like Gary Armida does.  

I want to write an instructional piece, one that offers proven strategies, written in an easily digestible manner. I want a piece that can help teachers give their students the greatest gift they can give: the love of reading.  I want to write like Laura Robb.

I want to write something that influences a generation of educators. A piece that changes hearts and minds. I want to write like Rick Wormelihttps://www.stenhouse.com/authors/rick-wormeli.

I want a title you can’t resist, that speaks to people, that gets attention, that is referenced and talked about, a piece that makes a difference.

The problem is I just don’t know where that piece is, what that piece is. I am struggling with my own version of the imposter syndrome.  Who the hell am I to write, to preach, to tell others how I think they can do it better?

So here I am setting my timer for 30 minutes a night, banging out what I hope is not another regurgitation of previous pieces based in experience, but lacking research.  Does anyone really give a shit about my stories or what I think?

I push through fighting the early spring blues that many of us in education face. Summer is still too far away; the flaws of those we work with are more pronounced after spending so much time together. The realization that the end to another year is fast approaching and there is still so much to do. The fear that we haven’t done enough, professionally, personally, or spiritually as another year slips away.

The push to positivity seems a bit harder for me this year. It could be all the loss our District has faced recently. Too many have been taken too soon, including a coworker who a few short months ago had no idea she was facing her own mortality. It’s hard to stop thinking about the cruelties life can offer when you see someone everyday then they fade from existence, but remaining in your mind where their face continues to appear often burning brighter in death than it did in life.

It could also be the fact that my oldest is finishing his senior year and will be leaving the nest shortly. I am wondering how many “lasts” we will experience with him this year. It is a startling realization that the next phase in life is near for my family and me. I look forward to what the future has to offer, but can’t help mourning the wonderful past we shared.

It is tougher some days to bring your ¨A¨ game, but as educators we do not have the luxury of rolling out the proverbial ball; the interactions we have with students matter too much to give anything less than your all.

Monday night, I had a hard time planning the leadership council session. Leadership council has become one of my favorite teams and most useful learning experiences I have had in my entire career. The leadership council is a diverse group of High School students that meets monthly with my superintendent and I. We provide the students with leadership activities, articles, and experiences, but the best part of these meetings is when we work with the students to implement their ideas on how to make North Rockland High School a better place for kids.

My melancholy attitude did not change walking into the high school the next morning at 7:00 am.  Self doubt crept in as I wondered if any of them would show? Will I be able to connect? Will I pronounce Davan’s name right? Will I give them an experience that they deserve, one that is worth the added stress missing classes adds to their school lives?  

As the students departed the bus and entered our central office building, I couldn’t help but smile, remembering that I get to work with these amazing young people, amazing leaders, for the next two hours!

The day started with breakfast sandwiches and the tear jerking video highlighting some of retiring basketball star Dwyane Wade’s accomplishments off the court. As the video played I stole a glance around the room and noticed few dry eyes, even my superintendent.  Some seemed a bit embarrassed as the lights came on exposing their emotions. I told them not to worry if the video made them cry, replaying the scene in my car the morning when I first watched it explaining that it had me balling for a good five minutes before I dared to enter the house.

My honesty helped open them up, leading to good conversations in which we discussed how important it is to use whatever platform you have to do some good.  It matters less if you are a great athlete, business person, author, litigator, or actor. It matters much more what type of person you are and the lives you touch.  

After a brief mindfulness activity, we were ready to move on.  My boss had suggested an activity that would be a take on the ¨I wish my teacher knew¨ movement created by 3rd grade teacher Kyle Schwartz She discovered so much valuable and often heartbreaking information when she got her kids to respond to the aforementioned prompt. Mrs. Eckert thought we may be able to gain some insight into the minds of our kids by using this angle.

The students read an article about the movement and then were asked to brainstorm individually for two minutes all of things they wish their teacher knew about them.  We had a brief discussion, but let the kids know their answer would remain private, as we just wanted them to start thinking about the topic.

This was a bit heavy; you could see the stress on these young adults’ faces as they captured the struggles, fears, and challenges they face as high schoolers in 2019. Therefore, we decided to loosen it up a bit by creating some discussion circles.  

The students were in three different groups, consisting of 7 or 8 students.  The rules were simple; the only person who could talk was the person holding the ¨mic¨, in this case a foam Red Dragon from my alma mater, SUNY Cortland.  Our first topic was movies and, to my surprise, we found out that Goodfellas has resonated with this generation as well!

We moved from movies, to books, to TV shows, before switching to school related topics such as:

  • Favorite teacher and why
  • Something great a teacher did for you
  • Biggest stress about school
  • Favorite part of school
  • One thing they would change

They explained that it doesn’t matter what you teach, how much work you give or don’t give, if you are an easy or a hard grader, the teachers they care about, the teachers they want to please, the teachers that make a difference are simply the ones that ¨know who you are as a person¨  and ¨the ones that are excited to teach.¨

Side Note: They confirmed that school lunches suck, prompting my superintendent to invite the head of food services to come to the next meeting so the kids can offer suggestions about how to make it better.

They want teachers to know they are not just a student. They are sons, daughters, grandkids, athletes, artists, actors, workers, boyfriends, girlfriends, readers, and learners.  School is certainly their job, but not their only job.

They talked about memories from elementary school when teachers made a difference, and one shared a time when a teacher crushed a dream. I felt my blood start to boil as she went into detail about the teacher who embarrassed her and made her feel less than. I couldn’t help myself and asked who the teacher was. My boss shot me a be careful what you wish for look. We both let out an audible sigh of relief when we realized the teacher was from a local catholic school and not one of our own.  

The kids continued opening up, explaining  all the pressures they face, the pressure to constantly be present and responsive on social media, at home, in school.

The conversations were great and the perspective they offered invaluable, but it was time to focus, time to channel the information into something that could be used to effect change.

The intended end game was for the students to write a letter of advice to our District’s crop of new teachers. With about 45 minutes left to work together, I was not optimistic we would finish, but I was determined to get a good start.

Working with writing consultant Angela Stockman has helped me add tools to my writing tool box, so I figured this was an excellent time to test out some of her make writing strategies.

All of the students were provided with a packet of sticky notes and, once again, the timer was set for two minutes. The students were charged with writing as many responses as they could come up with in two minutes, each on an individual sticky note.  

Two minutes to come up with as many sticky notes with different thoughts on what teachers should know about what it is like to be a kid growing up in 2019.

Two minutes minutes to come up with as many sticky notes for a time a teacher did something amazing for you.  

Two minutes to come up with as many sticky notes with advice for teachers.

Once the students competed this protocol we created a spot on their tables for them to organize the notes, combine the like thoughts, and identify the most relevant ones.  

As I watched them working together to categorize their notes, as I read their responses, as I listened to them speak I couldn’t help but to feel hopeful. I felt hopeful because of the incredible insights they offered. I felt hopeful because of how  these young people just seemed to get it. I felt hopeful that I was on the right track after all. That my ideas, my thoughts, my feelings on what really matter was accurate.

As the work continued with my kids I quickly forgot the trepidation I felt a few short hours ago.  Once again I was motivated to fight the good fight to make schools better, to laugh at the absurd things we still do, to have the courage to evoke change. These kids, my kids, reinvigorated me! They helped me gain back the confidence needed to do what is right, even those times, those topics, in which you are in the minority.

As the time wound down, an amazing thing happened. The students, on their own, decided they were going to finish their letter to new teachers, regardless of the time constants. They divided and conquered, breaking down the letters into paragraphs based on the three areas, using the text they had already created on the post its. Before you knew it, these amazing young people had crafted argumentative letters to new teachers explaining to them what is truly important as a teacher who is responsible for molding the minds of our future.  

I learned so much this week from my students, most importantly that when you listen to them you learn, that if you truly want to make school better, you will value what they have to say.

I also learned:

Sarcasm is never good:

Just let them go when they have to.

Kids will learn more when they know you care:

Mental health is a bigger issue than you think:

I went to work on Tuesday feeling dejected, somewhat beaten down, lacking confidence. After spending two hours with these amazing people, my hope is restored.  I am ready to take on the world. I am ready to use what these kids taught me to make things better.

I left that meeting a better person, a  more informed person than the one that entered it.  I was better because of what my students taught me. I have hope for our school system, for our society, for our world because, despite what we say as old people, kids today are pretty freaking amazing. In fact, despite what we think, they are actually better than we were. Because of them I have hope!  

Here are the letters they wrote in 30 minutes without any editing proofing or revisions…pretty amazing stuff!

Letter 1

Letter 2

Letter 3


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