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Pure honesty

Having just learned that my school district will be closed for the rest of the school year, I am allowing myself to feel a bit nostalgic about the past year and years of teaching. No, I have no intention of quitting, probably explaining why I feel sad that my kids are lost to me until August.

One of the things that I will miss the most is the honesty that I encounter on a daily basis. Younger kids are much better at it than fourth or fifth graders. Kindergarteners will say they love me by midday or at the end of the day. When they ask my age and I reply, “115,” they always laugh and report that I’m probably no older than 40. Older students are a bit more careful due to peer pressure and the learned behavior of restraint.

Young ones are also forthcoming about any and all information that they have. This will include details about Mom, Dad, Grandma, Uncle Izzy and everyone in between. Sometimes, that information is uncomfortable or excessive but I never suppress them. At the most, I will suggest that Uncle Izzy probably doesn’t want us to talk about that.

The phenomenon that I love most is honesty associated with what they seek to become when they grow up. Very often, I will hear that children want to be police officers, firefighters, teachers, join the army or study to become astronauts. Most of the time, the kids who want to join the army have parents or grandparents who served. Likewise, those aspiring to be police officers have those public servants in the family.

But the best honesty is the non-verbal kind. Tell a child that she is a whizbang or superstar at math and she will never leave your side or fail to finish first. Advise a child that you appreciate his being a helper in class and he will always be there to distribute papers, organize a project or deliver a hug.

We’ve all encountered enough dishonesty in our lives to appreciate this respite from deceit or trickery. As of now, I’m counting the weeks until we’re back in session and have a child tell me that he wants to help in any way he can. Shalom.

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One of the words that I use most often with students is “focus.” It appears that many of us have lost our focus in terms of what we should be doing, saying and demonstrating.

Looking around me, I see evidence that some of us have and some have not remained focused on what true priorities must be. If you’re inclined to whine about using toilet paper other than your favorite, by no means should you expect me to be sympathetic. You’re lucky to have any at all.

The same is true of liquor stores. Some are open and some are not. But if you’re going on and on about how they are essential, maybe you should take another look at what you need to survive. Alcohol may numb or desensitize you but it does absolutely nothing beyond that.

Someone’s terrific idea of opening stores an hour or two early for seniors is remarkable. If you’re there and more agile than some of your senior cohorts, why not offer to lift their bags or return carts in order to save them a few steps? Yes, of course, the hand sanitizer must be incorporated.

Let’s spend more time appreciating those who are working tirelessly on our behalf. Someone was recently shown giving cookies or some other token of appreciation to the trash collectors. What a great idea! If you see a firefighter, police officer or health care professional, take the ten or fifteen seconds to thank that person for their dedication and sacrifices.

This is not the time to be lazy, angry, stubborn or anything else that would interfere with protecting you, your family or the remainder of the world. While we may be confined to our homes, we have immense powers to help others through our words and acts of kindness.

Because we have individual relationships with God, I would never be so presumptuous as to recommend expressing gratitude to that God. But you may discover that doing so is gratifying and satisfying. It may also provide the best feeling of reassurance that you can imagine. Shalom.

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The enchanted child

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching is the process of identifying what strategies work best. Much of it is trial and error, but the majority is simple classroom common sense.

The most obvious indications of success are the responses I receive from my kids. Many of them, especially the youngest, will directly and descriptively say what they like or don’t like.

I like your nails. I like your hair. I like that you bring us candy. I like talking to you. I like listening to you. I think you’re smart.

It goes on from there. What they cannot articulate is that I feel it is imperative to speak to them as if they are intelligent human beings. They are. And the best proof of their understanding my respect for them is the enchanted child.

Virtually every day that I teach, I experience a magical child. This is usually a boy but now and then the magical child is a girl. It continues to amaze me that almost every class has one.

This child will tug on my sleeve or tap me on the arm. Next, he or she will ask a question or make an observation or volunteer information. In each case, the enchanted child will deliver a silent hug, the first of three or seven or twelve throughout the day. Child will express love or advise that I am the best substitute or best teacher in the world.

Somehow, it’s never occurred to me to ask why the student feels this way. During childhood years, the process of articulating many emotions is underdeveloped or completely absent. More importantly, I never want a student to feel pressured to justify feelings.

The most wonderful part is that I never know who the mystery pupil will be nor do I know what will cause him or her to materialize. By this time, I’m convinced that this is one student who transforms each morning from yesterday’s class to today’s.

It’s supernatural and fantasy and as pure fabrication as it sounds. But how else could multiple classrooms create so many princes and princesses? Shalom.

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The best days

It was 9:00 am and students began to drift into the classroom. Several groups formed to discuss the sad reality of having a substitute teacher for the day. One young man walked slowly and deliberately toward me.

“Hi,” he said. “I know that you’re our sub today. I just wanted you to know that I want you to have a very good day.” After regaining my grip on reality, I thanked and assured him I was certain that we would all have a totally great day.

Many times throughout the day, I looked up to find him standing next to me, for one reason or another. Some inquiries were legitimate requests for information. In other cases, I’m certain that all he was seeking was a smile or other form of acceptance.

Very often, I wish that I could see into my students’ heads to determine what they really need or want. Is it a vote of confidence? Is it information? Is it direction and guidance? Or is it simply the smile that says, “I value and treasure you as you are.” Maybe I should assume that it’s all of the above.

When it was time to go home, my student bravely approached and delivered a formidable hug and thank you. Returning the thanks, I notified him that he added substantially to my totally happy and rewarding day. It’s my standard procedure to use sophisticated language, regardless of age. If kids don’t understand a word, they will not hesitate to let me know.

Several other students came by to hug me and in each case, I thanked them for being part of a terrific class. It was clear that my young man defined and set the tone for our day. Maybe the lesson is to emulate his strategy. All I’ll need to do is notify my classes first thing in the morning that I’m going to do everything in my power to make today the best one they can experience. Happily, it’s true. Shalom.

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What not to do

Entering my eighteenth year of substitute teaching (with several breaks at full-time employment), it’s extremely simple to come up with those lessons that are crucially important to learn. Listen to your students. Provide life lessons as well as those contained in the curriculum. Ask for both sides of a story before accusing or punishing students involved in a dispute.

Something a bit more difficult is learning what not to do. Some of these are obvious, others not so much. The first is telling a group of children on the playground not to run. You may as well ask them to stop breathing or blinking their eyes. Walking is never a desirable option when running achieves the same outcome in half the time.

Second is not to waste your time requesting that students stop screaming (also on the playground). Try as I may, I can’t determine where the impulse to scream originates. But I’m beginning to believe that it’s contagious – once one student begins to scream, you can easily hear four or five or twenty more.

Another piece of advice is not to ask students to keep track of their clothing or other possessions. Recently I witnessed a child repeatedly removing his shoes and leaving them anywhere. It was personally amusing to notice that his socks didn’t match. Another student proceeded to drag a perfectly good jacket throughout the entire playground. Maybe he knows that he will outgrow it in a few minutes and it really won’t matter at all.

Another profound waste of time is to instruct students to look only at their own papers. This doesn’t mean that all kids are cheaters; it simply means that they all want to perform well on tests or other activities. If they believe that a neighbor’s work is superior in any way, there is little chance that they won’t sneak a peek.

Finally (and sadly), I never anticipate that a class of younger students (kinder, 1st and 2nd) will listen to instructions and get them right on my first attempt. Yesterday I had a class of 1st graders who were completing an activity on vowels followed by “r” and I must have issued the instructions eighteen times (there were 18 kids in the class). Who wants to listen to the teacher? Isn’t what my neighbor is doing more important than vowels? And so, I patiently repeat and repeat.

No-one ever suggested that the job was going to be easy. But as I continue to understand the lessons I must learn, frustration quickly dissipates. Shalom.



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Feeding brains

What would you expect a class of first graders to do when they are placed in a tech class filled with personal computers? Most of my reactions were surprises because I must have been out of touch with first grade tech sophistication.

Do you think they would be doing nursery rhymes or the inevitable children’s books such as Dr. Seuss? That would be incorrect. How about children’s games or puzzles? Once again, that’s incorrect.

One expectation was that a few students would have difficulty logging into the computers. Happily, I was a little correct. A few students (mostly girls) had difficulties with log-ins and site access. Just to be fair, a number of boys had some challenges as well.

The rest of my expectations were serious misplaced. One student was watching the construction of a video game control. One was walking around the tech classroom, helping fellow students log on and visit the sites they chose. Most of the rest were doing math games or similar educational pursuits. This may be because they understood the consequences of doing otherwise. Or it may be (we hope) an example of the quest for knowledge.

Happily, kids are equally excited to visit the library, the art class or the music room as they are tech. This may be because all exposures to knowledge and experience are desirable. As I must remind myself daily, most of my kids have only a fraction of what they ultimately need to know. They treat the process of being in tech as they do reading of a book.

Because tech was never part of my own educational development, I have no memories that replicate those of my first graders. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Some of us naturally excelled in math while others of us wrote dazzling essays. Everything in between is good, from algebra to zoology. Our most important mission, whether it’s hands on a keyboard or listening to percussion, is to instill an enduring love for learning in all shapes, colors and sizes. Shalom.



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Light from within

My recent reading included a reference to “light from within” as a means of describing one of the book’s principal characters. The metaphor concerned a young person who was relentless in his search for the illumination derived from knowledge. It was a reference worth pondering, particularly as I spend a considerable amount of time around small people who are stretching their intellectual legs.

We have all known people large and small who fit this description. Remarkably, I can easily remember the names of those who emanated light while my memory often fails me for more recent events and people. Brilliance is quickly identifiable and I define it as a spirit of optimism, enthusiasm and a thoroughly positive approach to life.

It’s especially exciting to witness this type of brilliance from a young person. He or she is usually smiling and displays a sunny disposition, regardless of circumstances, class procedures or weather. Learning is a joy and every new idea is a reason for celebration.

When I recognize how much this child is in the minority of student population, I stop and wonder what we are doing or not doing as educators to foster excitement from learning. Is it too much adherence to curriculum and too little encouragement for creativity? Are our rewards and recognition systems adequate? Do we suffer from rampant parent apathy that discourages children from displaying their new-found learning?

Most likely, it’s all of the above. As classes increase in size, we have less time to devote to individual students. In other words, we don’t have enough minutes to spend with all of our participants, particularly the brightest.

For my part, I am constantly searching for the beacons of light from within. While all of my students need and deserve attention, the ones who are inherently illuminated must have their brilliance reinforced. There is always the possibility that the slower and needier students have the potential for exuberance and I search for that as well.

We must feed the fires of hope and inspiration. These are the players of the future whose talents and radiance must prevail. Shalom.

Holocaust · Writing, author, books, editorial, philosophy, kindle

Everywhere schools

As part of my relentless search for truth and resolution for World War II and the Holocaust, I was fortunate to encounter a book called The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe and Lilit Thwaites. This is a remarkable book of courage and determination, full of brilliant language and poignant observations. But I was stopped in my tracks by a quote from one of the educators in Auschwitz. The quote was this: “Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established.”

As an educator and historian, this piece of philosophy creates magnificent images for me. The first is an opportunity to create schools wherever we are. No need for brick and mortar institutions – kids are everywhere. We see them in stores, restaurants, parks, playgrounds, museums and anywhere else you can name. And each time we do, there always exists the potential for creating a school. And simply for the sake of clarity, I define a school as an entity where knowledge of any type is transmitted and received.

How about this for an example? You’re in a grocery store and the lady in front of you observes that she left her wallet at home and seeks desperately for a method of payment. You quietly let the lady know that you’ll take care of her groceries. The child in her cart observes, wide-eyed and smiling.

The same grocery store and you’re in line to check out. A lady behind you has a small child and only one or two items. Once again, you quietly let the lady know that she is welcome to get ahead of you in line, for the purposes of getting out of the store with haste.

Those of you who home school your children understand this quote better than most folks. An inherent beauty of home schooling is the fact that the entire day is filled with teaching, from cooking breakfast to cleaning house, to walking the puppy, to communicating with visitors.

For the rest of us, we can find a plethora of teaching moments. Explain to your child that dropping clothing and household items at Goodwill or a thrift store enables those with limited resources to buy those things. Because giving cash to panhandlers can be expensive if practiced constantly, use the periodic donations to explain to children that it’s a good practice to help those in need.

Educating is a privilege and pleasure, no matter where, when or how. Think of it as I do – one more addition you can make to the beautification of the world. Shalom.

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Troubled child

Most of the days of my teaching life are routine and consistently without incident. This day began like most others – kids who needed to be rowdy or disrespectful to the substitute.

But unlike any previous assignments, midday this class will add a potentially violent fourth grader. The instructions are quite clear – carry the walkie, call for help if he shows any signs of acting out or melting down. Predictions are that he will do so.

Two hours before his entry, I’m planning my strategy. For one, I will be extremely positive and reinforcing. With that plan, I hope to avoid conflicts, defensive actions and most of all, needing to call for help.

And then he appeared, rather placid and soft-spoken. Soon I saw him lashing out, bouncing around the room in a position suggesting attack mode. This was followed by his repeatedly slapping his own face and constructing paper airplanes.

For the duration of the day, he was participatory, compliant and almost helpful. He left for a while, escorted by a teacher familiar with him and his previous behavior. My student also mentioned the Holocaust (from a fourth grader!) and was pleased to learn that Zyklon-B was the chemical used in concentration camps.

Based on the commentaries from other teachers, I am certain that this student presents a real, proven danger. Why was he mainstreamed? What was the rationale for putting him in this class? The classroom teacher is quite young. How does she manage this troubled child on a daily basis? One teacher reluctantly offered that this student’s father worked in the district.

Clearly, there are many questions that must remain unanswered. But I learned quite a bit (as always) from the experience. My habit has always been to expect the best and finest from the world and I was rewarded for that perspective.

Teachers around me were supportive, helpful and eager to be summoned in the event that it became necessary. They displayed the sense of community that I often find lacking in elementary school campuses. And I learned that I was sufficiently flexible to handle any situation that I needed to address. Even though I never had any uncertainty about this ability, it’s comforting to know that I could have succeeded. Shalom.

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Words we say

Very often, I have an opportunity to learn from the educators and assistants who surround me. Yesterday was one of those events, where the education assistant was firm and thorough, reinforcing the need for student continuity and consistency.

Halfway through the day, I heard her say something that troubled me. “I’m not here for you to like me. I’m here to teach you something.” Be certain that I didn’t respond visibly; there was clearly no information needed from me and I behaved accordingly.

The first thought to occur to me was how students would receive this information. Does she not want us to like her? If we listen to what she’s saying, should we stop liking her? Is it a choice? Are we not supposed to like authority figures?

Under no circumstances am I overestimating the thinking patterns of our children. In this case, they were kindergarteners. But I do believe that we need to be intentional and judicious about the words we use.

My gut feeling is that asking children to process a choice between liking the assistant and obeying her is not a viable one. From my position as the educator in the classroom, this lady had a pretty short fuse. She became impatient with a number of students and raised her voice quite often.

Yes, I know that I’m not in this class day after day and I don’t see the behavior patterns. I also don’t know what’s going on in this lady’s life. Some of these students must be pushing her buttons every day and the behavior is both unacceptable and consistently annoying. Maybe she’s feeling as though she has the majority of responsibility for these children and is simply tired. There are many facts that I just don’t know.

What I do know is that I would never say what she did to my students. Although sometimes kids don’t like the directions that I give, I don’t want them to view disliking me as an alternative to following those directions. Maybe it’s just the teaching taste fairy. All I know for certain is that being intentional is a much better alternative than saying words that aren’t productive or constructive. Shalom.