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Thank a teacher

Do you remember when you learned how to play, “Rock, Paper, Scissors?” How about “Ring Around the Rosy?” In spite of the fact that today’s elementary school students now encounter cell phones, tablets, Internet and social media, some customs  (happily) don’t change.

It’s nearly impossible to see kids acquiring the habits or expressions that we had as children. As I watch and adhere to curriculum for all grades, I primarily observe the traditional subjects. We do math, reading, history, writing, science and specials such as art, music and physical education.

But I’ll continue to explore the non-traditional learning. Much of it is derived simply by observation. First and second graders who see fourth and fifth graders play tag soon learn the rules. The same is true for unacceptable actions such as kicking, slapping and punching.

Where do they learn kindness? Every day, I watch one or two or more students displaying extreme care and gentle actions toward each other. My best (charitable) guess is that some is experienced and emulated at home. But having seen and spoken with many parents, some of the positive behavior must be acquired elsewhere.

This includes helping a fallen classmate get on his or her feet. It’s also sharing food with someone who has none. My favorite is when one child is crying and two or three rally to provide comfort.

For the rest of the positive, compassionate gestures, thank teachers. The teachers are the ones who receive and deliver hugs, all day and every day. We appreciate gifts large and small, rudimentary and sophisticated. We congratulate and celebrate all accomplishments. And we love all of our students enough to teach them how to play musical chairs, heads up Seven-Up and hangman.

One could easily make the case that the informal, non-subject learning is the method by which young people grow into responsible, loving adults. As I play my part in this process, I am ever grateful for an opportunity to demonstrate the power of kindness. Shalom.

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Nobility

One of the many lessons I’ve learned in the classroom is the power of helpers. Every day that I teach, I have one or two or more students who immediately present themselves for designation as my assistants.

This doesn’t include having them teach or enforce discipline. In some cases, I have the rules of enforcement squad who will work toward establishing order. The jobs they complete include such tasks as line leader, attendance sheet runners and IT helpers who are adept at in-class technology.

What’s magical, however, is what happens to kids once they are able to help. The rowdiest of children become docile and pleasant when they are instructed to be role models. This translates to words such as “leaders” or “captains” or “assistants.”

And those students who are always helpers will remind me whenever I see them of their elevated status. In some ways, this dynamic is no different than the rest of life. Some of seek to be better, smarter, more successful, wealthier, happier or some other advanced position. Some don’t, I realize, and unless I am instructing them and they are in my space, I have no jurisdiction. It’s very rare, inside or outside the classroom, that we encounter those who aspire to mediocrity.

Often I wonder what part of our brains is responsible for distinction. Is there a genetic, still small voice that urges us to do more and improve? If that’s the case, where is that voice in the case of under-achievers and criminals?

My best guess is that there will always be that student who wants to occupy a noble distinction. As an educator, my job is to remind students that they all have the potential to do or be whatever they choose. If enabling them as helpers contributes to that growth, I have succeeded at establishing the first step.

Friday was popcorn day and my sweetest, most devoted pupil rushes to advise that he left his popcorn money in class when he left for recess. After I confirmed that he didn’t need any popcorn money, I escorted him to the classroom. He thanked me profusely and ran to secure his treasure. Ten minutes later, he returned from the popcorn vendor, walked up to me and wordlessly handed me one of his two bags of popcorn. Somehow, I think I must have done something right. Shalom.

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It’s a matter of choice

Whenever possible, I find ways to provide opportunities for those around me to make choices. Not only does it make my life less decision-laden, but also it signals to others that my opinion is not the only one that is important. Often these are not serious, life-changing decisions. Would you rather have beef or chicken for dinner? Would you prefer restaurant A or B?

This is extremely important in the classroom where the decisions impacting children are generally made by others. It’s time to get up. It’s time to go to bed. Now we’re going to do math or science or physical education.

While adult life consists of many mandatory acts such as getting an education or training, getting a job, finding places to live, etc., we adults make other numerous daily decisions. My opinion is that this requires practice and acquired expertise.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to require difficult choices of my students. That would include such subjects as curriculum or reading material. Some books are part of board of education guidelines but I enjoy being with students in the library where they can explore new subjects, learn different blocks of information or simply journey the exciting path of reading for pleasure.

My choice-making strategy doesn’t render me a renegade educator. Here’s how it works: It’s Fun Friday. Do you want to have self-directed activities, computer time or craft-making? Would you rather use crayons or markers or colored pencils?

Not surprisingly, I get copious positive reactions from my students. In a few cases, they want to remind me what they normally do in this time slot. Straying from the familiar is sometimes difficult. In others, they celebrate the occasion to exercise free will.

Our mission should be to prepare our young people for their roles in adult civilization, without stress. Causing them to choose between parents or places to live goes far beyond what they are able to handle. But little choices facilitate big ones, especially if they are between two rewards. Shalom.

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As good as your word

The appointment was for 3:00 pm. We had diligently cleared an area to work and prepared our electric bills for the past year. This was the preface to a scheduled 3:00 appointment with a solar panel salesman who had energetically petitioned for an appointment to discuss the feasibility of solar panels for our home.

We observed 3:00, 3:30, 4:00 and 4:30 come and go, with the salesman failing to appear. From my standpoint, it was an opportunity to save some time. So far, I have yet to see the practicality of solar panels, especially because of the cost and the fact that our electric bills were the lowest I’ve seen in many years.

Ultimately, that’s not the point. Having spent the majority of my career in sales (with the hiatus in the classroom as the only exception – and aren’t I selling knowledge and learning?), I can safely say that I never no-showed an appointment. That’s not to say that I felt confident of the legitimacy in all my appointments, but I would never think of not appearing.

This is a sad commentary, on the integrity of the representative and maybe that of the company and/or its products. If you believe strongly enough in a product to make it available through door-to-door canvassing, you must have some conviction of its value. And there’s the fact that he neglected to secure a phone number when he set the appointment a week ago.

Any of the usual situations could have been in effect. He may have been ill. He may have had a sick family member or two. He may have gotten delayed on a previous appointment. He may have been run over by a road runner. But my best guess is that many have lost the professionalism that I feel is crucial to a viable sales career.

We’ll ultimately see if he shows up again or not. And if you want to make the case that his brand of salesmanship suggests large numbers for negligible chances of success, I understand that as well. No matter your conclusion, I maintain that we are only as good as our words. Telling someone, anyone that I will be somewhere at a certain time is tantamount to a promise. And breaking promises is a habit that I simply can’t support, for myself or those whom I am fortunate enough to educate. Shalom.

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Meet me for lunch

For reasons that I haven’t quite determined, I often think about the person with whom I would have lunch if it could be anyone in the world, past or present. Although there doesn’t seem to be any immediate benefit from the exercise, the long-term gains are significant.

Time and space are irrelevant to this activity and as a result, at the top of my list would be my mom who died many years ago. To be sure, the downside of this lunch would be that it would end and that I would be required to lose her again. The second challenge would be to estimate what I would ask her and what her responses might be.

Some of the others on my list include Leonard Bernstein, Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon – who changed the world in their own spheres. My best guess is that all of them would have wisdom or information that I would deem valuable and available nowhere else.

No, I don’t recommend that you expend any significant amount of time in fantasy, imagining the conversations that you would have with the person whom you would most like to meet. But I do suggest that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, for these reasons.

Sometimes we postpone or delete meetings with those who are still within our worlds, for reasons justifiable or otherwise. We’re too busy, we’ve been told no the last time we asked, it’s the wrong time of year, etc. If someone is in your world whom you treasure or respect, make the effort to connect. Because life is uncertain at best, your chances of meeting that person may be more limited than you know.

The possibility always exists that you may be responsible for an action that will powerfully impact the other person. That human may treasure the fact that you were thinking about them. You may be the exact person to answer a question or listen to a story that they need to tell. Under no circumstances do I have any dreams of making significant impact on the universe I inhabit. But I do like the fact that my invitation to lunch (or coffee, or dinner) has the potential to brighten the day of another. Shalom.

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Sharing seasons

Every year at this time, I begin to recall holiday celebrations of my childhood. Christmas was never observed in my home, entirely because of religious preferences. In spite of that condition, I remember perennially asking my dad for a Christmas day, although the answer (that I’m sure I anticipated) was always no.

There was never any question as to who made the rules in our house. Knowing that, I realized that it would have been a waste of time to ask my mom for a second opinion. He was also the one who refused to let me have jeans, always wanted my hair to be cut very short and expected my grades to be consistently above average.

While it never occurred to me then, as I ponder all of those edicts now, I am grateful for the consistency and specific directions of my youth. Many of the discipline issues that I encounter as an educator are a result of blurry areas of reasonability and a lack of predictable standards.

We always had food on the table, a warm and comfortable home and clothes on our backs, even though they may not have been the clothing of our choice. In addition to those material advantages, we also clearly understood the differences between right and wrong.

You never talk back to a parent. You always clear the table after a meal. You do your homework prior to watching television, a reality made difficult by the fact that the family television room was where I slept. We didn’t have weekly or monthly allowances, we knew to come in when it got dark and it never would have occurred to me to disrespect a teacher or any other adult.

While my parents weren’t religious observant, I now appreciate the fact that we weren’t going to observe the religion of anyone else. Gifts were seldom presented, at holidays or otherwise, but I now realize that this was due to some tight financial conditions. Nonetheless, the gifts I received communicated that  I was loved and cherished, a feeling that is not intrinsic to the modern-day cell phones or tablets.

No, I wouldn’t trade my youth for that of today. The clear understanding of right and wrong, good and bad and acceptable or otherwise were the definitions of my upbringing. If many of the kids I teach don’t display that type of clarity, I completely understand and work toward the development of their fundamental integrity. Shalom.

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Suck it up

One of the realities that I’ve been embracing recently concerns blame. It’s much easier and more convenient to blame others for those events that occur in our lives, making us victims rather than participants. While I am not suggesting that we take responsibility for everything that takes place in our worlds, it’s much wiser to take some instead of none.

Obviously, we’re not creators of national disasters, weather, crimes or political bluster. But when we look at our individual worlds, it’s easy to understand how uncomplicated it is to assign blame to those around us rather than being analytical or realistic to accept that we are in fact the cause.

Here’s an example. You’re beginning to feel that your partner is dumping on you about issues large and small. It’s quite easy to issue statements such as, “You’re grumpy,” or “You’re resistant to reason” or a variety of other accusations. In addition to alleviating any chance of feeling guilty, you also get the opportunity to feel victimized. The reality is that being a victim is toxic, to you and those who love you.

No, I am not suggesting that you withhold any information about your feelings or reactions. As an educator, I am fully aware of the value of asking questions in the classroom. “Are you having a bad day?” “Is something going on that you would like to discuss?” “Did someone say something to hurt your feelings?”

In the adult world, that type of behavior is much more productive than holding others liable for misunderstanding. My goal is to ask, “Did I sound angry or unhappy?” “Did we get off to a bad start today?” or “I’m sorry if I was impatient.”

To be sure, asking those questions and making thoughtful statements is sometimes very difficult. But if the liability or joy of any specific situation is shared rather than dramatically characterized, life becomes much more enjoyable. This is a work in progress for many of us but as is the case with so many of our growth events, the consequences are well worth the effort. Shalom.

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A song to sing

Although I’ve been teaching for nearly seventeen years (with a few breaks), until recently, I believed that I had identified many of the best methods of engaging students. Thanks to a request from a fifth grader, I increased my strategies, with happy results.

An important consideration is that I was in music class. The music teacher is out on leave and I assumed the responsibility for her classes. In each one, I invited students to participate in an impromptu talent show.

What an amazing display of talent! At least half of each class wanted to perform for his or her classmates. While a few displayed some stage fright and reticence, most had the presence and initiative to get up and dance, sing, cheerlead and do gymnastics.

But it wasn’t always the chatty, gregarious kids who did the performing. One young man who was a special needs student bravely stood up and demonstrated the sword maneuvers of which he was most proud. Another timid young student sang a fight song in a tiny, barely audible voice. Happily, the entire class stopped talking and listened attentively to her, offering sincere applause when she finished.

Some of us clearly have the need to display our talents and proficiencies. But to say that this is the sole motivation is only half truth. There is a powerful amount of adrenalin made available, whether you are a solo, group or ensemble.

And there is one more component, that of self-satisfaction. I tell students daily that everyone is good at something, inside the classroom or outside of it. One young man made the effort to confide in me that he was an artist, not a musician. He went on to say that his energies would best be directed elsewhere and I assured him that it was a great decision. To liberate the pride available through singing or anything else is to teach confidence, accomplishment and excellence.

Two days of my work are never the same. One day it’s curriculum, one chore after another. The next, I am watching little people stretching their artistic legs and identifying their places within the creativity community. Shalom.

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Best and worst

Someone recently told me that they had heard of a substitute teacher who had an awful class. Reportedly, this was the worst class in this teacher’s long career. This same group of students just left my classroom and I thanked each one for being awesome.

It’s difficult to believe that there are “bad kids.” Some of them present formidable discipline issues. The kindergartener who hit me (and other teachers) had serious problems with the school setting and at home. But calling him bad, to me, is a contradiction. If our responsibility it to educate and inform, we transform unacceptable behavior into that which is customary and appropriate.

And so, why was this such a horrible experience? Maybe this educator has exhausted her patience. Maybe the kids were having a difficult day due to weather, extracurricular activities or on the playground. Their classroom teacher is a dedicated, empathetic professional. Ultimately, I guess I’ll never know.

What I do know is that children have an innate talent to determine the character of their educators, permanent or temporary. While I won’t suggest that my character is superior in any way, I do believe that our methodologies must all be unique.

Yes, I’ve had difficult classes in all grades. As recently as last week, I had a stubborn, hostile student who wouldn’t listen to any of my suggestions. But he later reminded me that I was the teacher he missed most and the one he hugged several times as the class began. A colleague suggested to me that this was a student who was behaving out of routine rather than individual stimuli. By the end of the day, he was compliant, affectionate and happy.

It doesn’t work for me to take full responsibility for negative behavior. Too many causes may contribute to attitude and actions. But I am responsible for being careful about my reactions. If my class believed that I found them to be the worst, they would somehow manage to live down to my expectations. Shalom.

 

 

If I may assist you with any of your writing endeavors, it is my pleasure to do so. You may reach me at csbutts19@yahoo.com.

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Heavenly hugs

Johnny silently hugged me as he came through the door of the classroom. Throughout the day, I looked his way and most of the time he delivered a happy, loving smile. The school day continued that way until it was time for the final goodbyes.

This was a second grade class consisting of children who knew me well as this was the fourth or fifth time I had spent the day with them this school year. Partially because of the population, partially because of their age and maybe because it was almost the end of the week, they were extremely chatty, except for Johnny.

He was distressed at the noise level, covering his ears and shaking his head. But due to his support for me and his discomfort, he constructed a notebook paper sign that had “STOP Talking” in the largest letters he could create. And he began waving it in the classroom at the noise-making students.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the sign had any effect. Several other students wanted to assist me in my silencing efforts, writing “Be Quite [sic]” and marching around the room. But Johnny was relentless, waving his paper and smiling his regrets at the disrespect we were witnessing.

It was time to leave. Once again, Johnny silently approached me and delivered his hug. It was my opportunity to remind him how much I treasured him because he was so very special. In return, he smiled again and proceeded out the door.

Many teachers never have moments like these or they fail to recognize the gifts that they represent. But I am so very fortunate to be hugged. If he grows up to remember that at least one educator cherished him, I am luckier still. Shalom.

 

 

If I may assist you with any of your writing endeavors, it is my privilege to do so. You may reach me at csbutts19@yahoo.com.