I have been thinking about writing this blog for quite some time now. For those that do not know me I am a white, 50-year-old teacher that was raised in Central Texas. That is relevant because I have spent the past 20 years living and teaching in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border. In case you have never been here we are located just north of the Rio Grande river with no real valley to speak of and the vast majority of the population is Latino and Hispanic. It is completely different from anywhere I have lived in my life and I would be lying if I said there was a smooth transition when I first moved here. But it has become my home.
In the past year or so the border region has become a focus of politicians and even more so in the last couple of months when Donald Trump and others have made the immigration question a focal point of the upcoming election. Now I hate politics but sometimes one has to get involved and take a stand and it riles me up and pisses me off when I hear anyone insult and make false accusations about the people I have grown to love. You see the demographics of the classes I teach are at least 99% Hispanic and I sometimes wonder where the other 1% are. But I never see it that way. When those students walk into my classroom they aren’t Hispanic to me. They’re just my students. Some of them are citizens and some are immigrants. Some of them may even be undocumented but I don’t know and I have never asked in 20 years. It is my job to teach the students that come through the door of my classroom and I am going to do my best to give every one of them the best education I can. Furthermore, I was raised as a Christian and the Bible taught me that when we don’t get a choice in who we help. We’re supposed to help them all. So I teach them. If they can’t speak English, I teach them. If they were born in Mexico, I each them. What’s more is I grow to love them. Every last one of them. Some of them have gone from being my students to being co-workers and lifelong friends. Much has been said about the quality of people who come to us from Mexico. They have been stereotyped as criminals, murderers and rapists. Donal Trump said that “Mexico doesn’t send their best.” Well, I disagree with Mr. Trump. While I know that not every person that comes across that border is the model citizen I can point to numerous students that have not only excelled here in the United States but are going to continue to excel and become role models and make this country better than it was before. Students that I know were born in Mexico that attended school and graduated from Texas schools that are attending Ivy league schools and are graduating with degrees in Engineering, attending medical school and are going to stay right here and make a huge contribution to our society. They come from a proud culture and heritage of hard work and determination.
I don’t know much about politics and I don’t know what is going to happen after the next election. But I know I am not going to turn my back on the people I love. The teachers I teach with and the students I teach have become my family and in the Hispanic culture we stand up for our family. I’m not asking you to change your mind about policies but I am going to ask each and every one of you to remember the people you are talking about are my people.
“Kindness can transform someone’s dark moment with a blaze of light. You’ll never know how much your caring matters. Make a difference for another today.”
― Amy Leigh Mercree
Recently I agreed to be a part of a committee called RTI which means “response to intervention.” It is a program designed to help students who need a little extra help with their classes or behavior. I didn’t really think much about but I need hours for my Masters internship so I thought, why not!
This past week we met for the first time to review the files of the students that had been identified. At first there was nothing unusual, just a few kids that were habitual trouble makers and we were trying to come up with ideas to help them to be successful. Everything was going pretty well until one of the members brought up a kid that he had just enrolled the previous week. The assistant principal said that he was only a freshman but he did not want to be in school and was so adamant about it that he was causing a scene in the office. When the principal spoke to the student one on one he was asking him if he was having trouble at home or in school and when he pressed he saw the student start to break down and cry. As we talked in the committee we discovered that he had been a good student early in junior high but something happened during the 8th grade caused him to snap. It was all I could do not to cry in the middle of the meeting. I can’t hear stories like that without thinking about how we can somehow make a difference. I had a new perspective on the committee. I suddenly found myself wondering what could be so bad that would cause a student to hate school so bad that he wanted to fight? I sat there and thought about him and wondered how many other kids there were like him?
It reminded me of something that I have thought about quite a bit over the past four or five years. That is, that we as teachers really have no clue what our students are going through or have gone through. Since I have been in my current teaching position and school I have had one student painfully admit that they had been sexually abused in the past, three or four admit that they had thoughts of suicide and at least six that lost a parent or close family member while in my class. I imagine that if that many have actually admitted it, then there are many others that are too ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone.
It reminds me that as a teacher my job is to teach these students Chemistry or Physics. But as a human being it is my responsibility to help them deal with life. In my opinion there are some things that are more important than academics. Sometimes students have real issues and if I can somehow help them with that then I consider that to be successful. If I can make a connection with a student maybe I can make a difference. Numerous former students have told me that school was difficult for them and that I made it more bearable for them. Those are the stories I cherish and long to hear. Lately I have been thinking about my future and what I will do once I get my Masters degree. I still don’t know exactly what the future holds but part of my decision will based on how much I will be able to help students.
This is a pretty exciting semester for me. I am finishing up my Masters degree and in December I will be walking across the stage with that degree in my hand. My mama will be there hopefully and I know my dad would be proud of me of he was here and I’ve got to say that I am pretty proud of myself. But once I am finished is when the real decision time comes. With a Master’s degree will have more choices and can even become a principal but that would mean leaving the classroom. Right now I can’t even imagine a life where I wasn’t in the classroom. I know it sounds weird to some but it is where I feel most at home when I’m not at home. Nothing makes me happier than standing in front of 30 high school kids waiting to see what s going to happen next. It is the one place I feel that I can really be myself. When I’m in the classroom I can be funny, serious, smart, kind, loving, strict and even angry and most of my kids understand. The classroom is my sanctuary. When I’m there with my kid and everything is running smoothly everything is right with the world and I love it. But the main reason I love being in the classroom is because when I look at those kids in front of me I see hope. People talk about how bad our kids are and how they worry about the next generation but they just don’t see what I can see. I can look back at the students that I have taught and see so many of them making a difference in the world. I think I am fortunate to live in a time where it is so easy to keep up and stay in contact with people so easily. I see wedding pictures, children, posts about their careers and each time I just think how proud I am to be a part of their story.
I am sure if the right job comes along I will take it but it’s not going to be easy. I was watching a documentary called the American Teacher the other day and they quoted some statistics that 46% of teachers leave teaching before their 5th year and that in the next 10 years over half of teachers in the work force today will be eligible for retirement. I felt like a special breed. Someone who can walk through the Blackboard Jungle and not just survive but thrive and go back for more. One of these inevitably I will walk out of the classroom one last time but it is not this day and until that day I am going to enjoy every second of it. So I want to dedicate this to all of my students but also to all of my fellow teachers that have persevered and love their job!
For the past week I have been seeing Facebook posts about teachers getting their rooms ready, parents sending their kids to school and students leaving for college. It’s one of my favorite times of year. We all see it differently and it brings so many different emotions.
Very young students are still enthusiastic about the first day of school. They love getting those new backpacks and crayons and it’s all so exciting! It is the parents that have difficulty letting the young ones go. As they get older it becomes less cool to be excited about school the zeal turns to dread and you have to tear them away from their X-Box kicking and screaming.
College freshman are the most extreme. As a high school teacher I have seen it for years. There is the one group that cannot wait to put their high school years far behind them and get started with this new chapter in their life. Some see it as the goal that they have been reaching toward for years. Others see it as the opportunity that their parents never had. A chance to make them proud and at the same time, rise above their current circumstances. Still others just see it as a chance to escape and be on their own and free for the first time in their lives. But not everyone sees it this way. There are those look at college as the wind and waves of a tremendous storm that is about to swallow them. They know the benefits and the opportunities but also recognize that they are leaving their comfort zones, their families and friends. They are leaving high school where many of the decisions were made for them. They realize that this is a time when they will be tested and they will see what they are made of. The beauty is that most of them will conquer that fear and anxiety and rise to new heights that they never imagined and will learn so much about themselves in the process.
That is one of the reasons I love the first day of school. If I could borrow a line from Forrest Gump, “the new school year is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get!” It’s so true. Generally students are the same year after year but individually they are so unique and every student that comes through my door has something different to bring to the table. Some are funny, some are artistic, some are intellectual but many don’t know what they are. Many of them are floundering around trying to find their niche in this world. They may not find it completely in my class but hopefully, together we can take a step toward finding who they are. What I see is that all of them are beautiful and powerful and my job is to help them figure that out. My mind is filled with anticipation about how I can make their life better and how can they change mine. I know that personally I can never really change the world but I have the opportunity to change the world for about 150 students and they in turn can make a difference. I can help them see things they have never seen and they can help me see life from a new perspective. The magic of a new school year and the first day of school is that the possibilities are endless so let’s get it started! Let’s have a great year!
Last night we learned that a wonderful actor and comedian Robin Williams took his life at the age of 63. That coupled with the reality that the new school year is fresh on my mind took me back to a time when I was a new teacher. It was 1988 and I was fresh out of college and I had no clue what theory I would use or which educational philosophy I would follow. I didn’t know about the Lesson Cycle or the 5 E model. I just wanted to teach. Then the very next year the movie Dead Poets Society came out. As soon as I watched it I knew that’s the kind of teacher I wanted to be and today I want to share with you all of the things I learned in this movie that have made me a better teacher.
1) Humor- Obviously Robin Williams was a master at humor but everyday in my classroom I become a comedian at least part-time. When students are laughing they are not bored and they want to come back. I always think that this might be the only place they are all day where they can have fun. If I can make my students laugh at least once a day then I feel that I have had a successful day.
2) Unconventional teaching- In the movie John Keating was constantly doing something that would seem out-of-place in an English classroom. As a matter of fact he would literally go outside the classroom to teach. There are scenes where students look at each other and you can see them asking themselves, “Is this guy for real?” or “Are we allowed to do this?” I love it when my own students get those looks or when they actually ask me those questions. Unconventional teaching strategies are often misunderstood and criticized but very rarely ineffective.
3) Passion- John Keating had a passion for the subject he taught and he made that completely clear on his first day of class and he didn’t apologize for it. I don’t think any subject can be taught effectively without passion and enthusiasm.
4) Thinking for themselves- He challenged students to think for themselves. Too many time in education we try to tell students what they should think. We give them lessons with the right answers and move on and don’t allow them to question or see a different side. By teaching students to think for themselves we prepare them for the real world. You can see this portrayed in the last scene of the movie that is so well done when the boys fight that internal battle of whether to take the easy way out and go with the flow or literally take a stand for what thy believe to be right.
5) Caring- Keating genuinely cared for his students and made himself available to them. There is an old saying that says, “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I fully believe that students learn best from someone that cares and in whom hey can place their trust.
6) Disagreeing with colleagues- One thing that I didn’t see the first time I watched the movie was his interaction with a colleague. The other teacher questioned his teaching technique and they had a discussion. They ultimately disagreed with each other but remained friends to the end. In education we must have discussion and debate. There will always be differences of opinion but when we communicate we can solve problems and move forward. I think today we call it collaboration. But the bottom line is that we can disagree as colleagues and still work together to reach the goal of teaching students. I am fortunate that I am able to have open discussion with many of the faculty at my school.
I owe a great deal to this movie and to Robin Williams for portraying the character so well. I can only hope that my teaching has had a lasting impact on the students that have come through my classroom and been in my care.
It is no secret that the American public is completely and totally enamored with celebrities. Whether singers, actors or sports figures we place these individuals high on pedestals and although it has been this way for many years I feel like it has gotten even larger with so many celebrity gossip magazines, T.V. shows and websites. And I will agree that some of these celebrities are inspirational and are worthy role models. Some have overcome great odds and have become the best at their jobs. But the biggest problem I see with this type of hero-worship is that we forget the people who really built America. The people who have also worked hard to be the best at their chosen profession and do so without ever having accolades, recognition fame or fortune.
Being in a profession like teaching I see this all the time. I have had the privilege of working with so many great and awesome teachers. Teachers and coaches that have worked hard and spent countless hours becoming the best at what they do. They teach and inspire literally thousands of students in their careers and most of them will never be recognized with much more than a small token when they retire. Many like myself are driven by the fact that they didn’t have the opportunity when they were growing up. Coming from homes where they were the first college graduates in their families. And teachers aren’t the only ones. There are ministers that give hope, law enforcement that provide protection, small business owners that genuinely want to help their customers while making their own living and the list could go on and on. I think about my own students that I have taught. Most of them will never know fame and fortune although I am confident that many of them will become the best in their chosen fields by overcoming great odds and rising from humble beginnings.
Lately I’ve been asking the question, “Is the United States still the greatest country?” There are many arguments against it. But it is these people who continue to do their jobs at a high level and to the best of their ability that will ensure that America will remain great. The foundation of this country is the common people who do ordinary things extremely well. The average joe that sees his job as anything but average and the people who keep pushing forward through difficult times. I encourage you to tell someone you appreciate the job they do today. As a matter of fact anytime you see someone do something that get little or no credit let them know that they inspire you. We may not all be heroes but we can be role models and we can maintain he integrity of this nation and continue to make it great.
There is a quote that says, “Everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” That quote is sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein although it is uncertain whether he coined it or just repeated it. At any rate he lived the quote. He didn’t speak until he was four years old and didn’t read until he was seven and eventually was expelled from school. Some of his teachers actually thought he was mentally challenged. There is evidence that other famous scientists and inventors struggled in school. Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin were all below average students in formal school settings. Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. Woodrow Wilson didn’t read until he was twelve years old. Orville and Wilbur Wright both suffered from depression. What does all this have to do with the purpose of education? If someone was looking at our education system in the United States they would probably conclude that our goal and purpose is to teach every student to learn the same thing in the same way and if they don’t then they are labeled as slow or below average. In my opinion we need to work harder and finding out how student’s learn and what they are gifted to be.
Let me share something I saw from the 2008 Olympic Games. NBC did an analysis of Michael Phelps which explained why physically he had the perfect body to be a swimmer. With long arms, relatively short legs and big feet he was literally born to be a swimmer. Most of us would agree that there are other athletes that were born to play their sport. Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tiger Woods are just a few that come to mind. Some of you will remember when Michael Jordan tried his hand at professional baseball. He was a good player but far from the best. My thought as I was watching this piece was, what a tragedy it would be if Phelps had never gotten the opportunity to be a swimmer or if Michael Jordan had never played basketball. The difference was between being good and being the best. How many times have students in our schools been dismissed or left behind because we didn’t find the best place for them to fit in or we tried to make them fit into a role they weren’t ready for. One of our main goals of education should be to help students find their strengths and gifts and help them build those strengths and skills. In order for this to happen we as educators have to be open-minded and flexible. In our current system we try to put everyone in the same classes and take the same tests on the same timeline. We do all of this while trying to prepare them for a diverse world. It is no wonder that many students, teachers and parents are frustrated because we are not allowing for the truth that everyone is different. Student’s that don’t succeed in the current system take on the perception that they “aren’t good enough.” Instead of exercising so much energy on student weaknesses, let’s focus that energy on what makes them strong. This could take more work, more preparation and more time but it seems to me that the benefits far outweigh the investment.