Teacher Leader…or Lack Thereof?

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“BE A LEADER!” We utter these words almost daily to our scholars. What exactly do we mean when we say this? Don’t we have specific expectations of what it means to be a scholar leader? These last couple of weeks have had me thinking. How can teachers exclaim these words and struggle being a leader themselves? Aren’t we supposed to “lead by example”? That’s what we tell our scholars, isn’t it? Is there gratification in not being a teacher leader? Are the standards of expectations we have set for ourselves the reason they are so low for our scholars? I have been engrossed with these wonderings all week.  

Let’s think about this. What exactly qualifies a teacher as a leader? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that standing at the front of the classroom is not a certifiable characteristic of leadership. There is much more to being a teacher leader than simply that. In my reflection, I began to think simplistically about the characteristics I’d expect to see in my scholar leaders in order to decipher how this might transfer to educators.

When I’m identifying leaders in my classroom community, yes, I look for the general character traits such as respect and responsibility. These are at the very foundation of what a leader should display. But, sometimes it seems that even these are too much to ask of some colleagues. I’m not certain why this blaring lack of professional responsibility is agitating me so much these days. Typically, we get into a slump and we climb our way out. This year has been disparagingly different….challenging, to say the least. I’ve had to stop and think about why I’m here to begin with. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was told that I would never amount to anything as an educator, but thankfully, my scholars communicated otherwise. It is because of not only my scholars, but the many experiences I’ve had along the way that assure me that leadership is much MORE than simply respect and responsibility.

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The obligations of teacher leaders have the potential to bear heavy weight. As schools continue to work towards improvement, teacher leaders stand at the helm, advocating for quality, equitable education for all young scholars. However, with systemic issues such as poverty, homelessness, drugs and violence at the forefront of many scholars minds, it becomes more and more difficult for teachers to encourage and motivate them to be effective learners and in turn, becomes equally challenging to be effective, efficacious educators. Teachers are becoming more and more overwhelmed working to support scholars as they struggle to deal with the realities of their own lives. The days seem to be getting longer and harder the closer we get to the end of the school year. Morale is low, complaints are high, students´ instruction is done just complacently enough to say simply that it was done. It is clear as I walk the halls that many of us are tired and some even burned out. Our scholars are feeling it too, expressing their frustration with outbursts and disrespectful behavior because they lack the skills to express it in any other way. Relationships between teachers and their scholars are suddenly falling apart. How we deal with this sudden decline in school climate can be the difference between how successfully we lead our scholars or not. I leave the building perplexed, wondering how the year has come to this.

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I would venture to say that being a teacher leader is indeed challenging. In my eyes, however, it is a welcomed challenge. We are in a position to be change agents in this field, but this requires commitment. Commitment to change and commitment to the charge. Teacher leaders are charged with the task of identifying the issues hindering the academic growth of scholars and whether the instruction they are receiving is effective or not. More than that, teacher leaders encourage and motivate not only scholars, but their colleagues to be the best instructional leaders they can be. Growing leaders, however, requires that teachers be open to learning new things, habits, concepts, and strategies. However, in that new learning, one must be willing to modify the old. I have been feeling as if this is wherein lies the thin line between one who simply teaches and one who teaches to lead. Quite honestly, itś the difference between whether you are teaching because itś your job and teaching because itś your passion.

Listen, ¨BE A LEADER!¨ This time, the exclamatory charge is for you…the educator. And while you reflect on that, I would like to pose the following question as well. ¨Why are you here?¨ This might be a loaded question, however, in developing teacher leaders, I believe it is a very important question when the lives of children are at stake. In reflecting on this question, think about not simply why you are teaching, but why you are teaching here…in the urban school. If you are teaching for the comfortable hours, weekends off, and the extended breaks, then teaching is probably your job. If you have reached your wits end and find yourself in a constant battle with your scholars or have given up trying, then teaching is probably not the place for you and you should think about moving on. If you are teaching in the urban school because you believe that success is achievable regardless of background, color, disability, behavior, or other barriers…that, my fellow colleagues, is your passion. If you will go above, beyond, and to the ends of the earth to build and grow relationships with your scholars…that too, is passion! Seriously, reflect on this question long and hard. Be honest with yourself. Why are you really here? The answer may be difficult to receive, but it requires your immediate response because how you answer will reveal whether you are a teacher leader, or lack thereof.

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Someone Notices

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Recently, I had a guest visit my room while I was out for a department meeting. There were actually two guests that day in my room for the morning; the guest teacher covering for me and the guest teacher for our Physical Education teacher. My plans included the regular morning routine; the morning message, attendance, lunch count, the Pledge and my Scholar Statement, and finally, our morning meeting. Because I was going to be out for an hour, this morning’s meeting would entail a scholar reflection. You see, the week before while I was out for a different meeting, another guest teacher was intrigued by the Scholar’s Statement and curious to hear what this meant to my scholars. So, she asked them. She shared her insight with me the next morning, stating, “ They didn’t have a clue!” I was stunned since we had spent about a week discussing the statement before reciting it. Little did I know, a week later, the Statement would get someone else’s attention.

Now back to this particular day. As I entered the gym to pick up my scholars from class, I am again stopped by this guest teacher. “Your Scholar Statement is right on!”, he shares. He goes on to say that he’s been to many schools over the last year and a half, but the growth and progress of this school is paramount! He compliments me, the rest of our staff, and our administrator, explaining that my Scholar Statement is evidence of the growth and shift in mindset he has witnessed since his last visit to the school.

What’s interesting about the Scholar Statement is that I wrote it one summer, about 3 years ago, while reflecting on the start of the new school year. I was concerned about my students mindset. Having heard so many times over the years how they feel they aren’t capable and will never be fit to make it to college, I had to figure out a way to influence a change in mindset. That day, while on the elliptical, the Scholar Statement was born.

It was then that I committed to always address them as scholars rather than “students” in an effort to ingrain in them the belief that they have the potential to succeed as much as any other 5th grader, regardless of their background or circumstances. The statements “I can’t!” and “I give up!” do not dwell in my classroom. Because, you see, these statements present themselves as cop outs; excuses for giving up. The Statement is our daily reminder that failure is not an option and acknowledges that although we all learn differently, we are all still very capable of learning and being successful.

I must be honest… I was completely flattered that someone had noticed my heart and passion for teaching my scholars,  all in the span of about 30 minutes. I didn’t write the Statement for accolades, after all; but rather as a means of instilling self worth and confidence in my scholars. That’s all.

Sure, it’s nice to receive compliments; to be recognized for the hard work that is put into each day. But, the reality is many times, when you expect to be noticed, you won’t be. Sometimes, what we do can be a thankless job! You get to the point where you simply expect nothing. So, when this visiting educator publicly acknowledged me and my work on his personal social media page, I was doubly flattered. It was incredibly humbling and touched me at my core!

There is a take away here. While the compliment that day brought me a moment of exhilaration, I knew I had to get my mind prepared to fall back into the usual frame of mind. Look,  let’s be honest. Compliments won’t always be verbalized. So, be confident in the educator you have trained to be. Believe in your ability to touch lives. Encourage yourself to do more and be more every single day, rather than waiting for that pat on the back for the amazing things you do. Know that although you may not always be acknowledged for the things you do…someone notices. When you’re the last one at school in the evening…someone notices. When you’re weekends include attending a scholar’s game, competition, or family event…someone notices. When you go the extra mile for that one struggling scholar…someone does notice. We do so much more than teach content and give assessments. More than we can probably keep up with ourselves. Just continue nurturing and molding your scholars into the strong, confident thinkers and problem solvers they are meant to be and remember… When you think no one notices, someone really does.

When Nobody Else Compliments You, Then Compliment Yourself

 

Promoting Diversity

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The issue of diversity has been raised in many different venues and circumstances. It is certainly no surprise that it be raised as an issue in school districts across the country as is the particular case in the district in which I teach.

As discussions ensue regarding how our schools promote the diversity that is prevalent within the district, for me, this drew attention to how the diversity of my fellow colleagues is promoted as well. It’s been weighing on me heavily for some months. How can one possibly expect teachers to promote the diversity of the children and families for which we serve when they don’t promote the diversity among the colleagues they work with each and every day?

I wanted to share my growing concern, so, expecting nothing in return, I wrote the following letter to leadership:

I am writing to express my growing concern over a topic the district has identified as an increasing need in our school community. I’d like to be clear that this is not an attempt to berate or rant about my colleagues, school, or the district; only to share feelings I’ve been harboring as they relate to the topic of “promoting diversity”.

This issue of “promoting diversity” has been weighing on me for the last couple of months. At our last all day district leadership team meeting, I walked in and was halted at the door. I can’t explain why I was struck so suddenly on that particular day, but I was. I simply stood there looking around, noticing for what seemed to be the first time, that I was the only minority in the room. This issue has been weighing on me for some time since. As discussions regarding “promoting diversity” ensue and after a great deal of reflection, I feel it is important to share my personal concerns. I’ve considered voicing my opinion on several occasions but have chosen only to listen instead because I am only one voice. I’ve kept my opinion stifled as I didn’t want my concern to be misinterpreted as anger or to come across as an agitator. However, after leaving this last meeting, I’m compelled to share because I guess sometimes, one voice can speak loudly.

Over the last couple of years, I have become more and more troubled behind issues of diversity. In our current attempt to “promote [the] diversity” of our students, we seem to struggle in the same area as colleagues. Having grown up being the “only one”, I know what it feels like to be a target, to be left out, to be ignored, and as a result, I admit, I am very guarded about my feelings and my opinions. I’d like to think that because of my experiences, I am more attentive to the cultural perspectives of others and am diligent about creating a positive, culturally sensitive atmosphere in my classroom and in my school community. Contrary to my efforts, however, I have been perceived as “mean”, “intimidating”, “inattentive”, and even “unsupportive”, when really I am only misunderstood. I imagine many of our students harbor many of the same feelings. I believe these misconceptions are a direct result of cultural biases and misunderstandings that could have been avoided by simply taking a moment to sit and speak with me as a person. It is how I approach each and everyone of my students and it is why I am able to develop such strong relationships with them. In this same manner, I believe the staff in this district have an opportunity to grow and learn from the diverse experiences of others.

I agree that there is a strong need to “promote diversity” in this district. Having been (and still am) misunderstood and misinterpreted, I think it is imperative to have teachers who are new to the district exposed to cultural sensitivity/diversity training upon being hired. I also think re-instituting the “Courageous Conversations” book study, or something bearing similarity, is not only a great consideration, but a necessary element for helping teachers understand not only our students, but each other. The implications of such work could have a long lasting effect on our district by displacing the “eggshells” many of us attempt to avoid on a daily basis and, in turn, strengthening staff morale. I further believe that there is a great need for minority leadership representation, whether it be in an administrative role or as teacher leaders. In a district that is predominant in minority population, it seems only appropriate, in my opinion, that there be a more visible minority presence in leadership roles.

I thank you for taking a moment to read my concerns and allowing me to have a voice.  I am looking forward to seeing the growth and development that lies ahead.

Respectfully,
Dr. Kelly Bullock Daugherty
Educator/Teacher Leader

While I wasn’t expecting it, to my surprise, I did receive a response rather quickly. Although it wasn’t as heartfelt and compassionate as my letter, my voice has now been heard, and that’s what I really wanted. I was told, in short, that although diversity is more than race and language differences, my concerns were valid and would be noted for future discussion(s). That was the basic extent of it. I must admit I was left feeling…well, obscure and numb. I had to remind myself in that moment…”no expectations”. So, if nothing else, I accomplished my primary goal.

In terms of what will happen next, I’m not certain. It is my hope that my personal thoughts will insight conversations beyond that of student needs and include the entire school community. In order to see a change, one has to advocate for change. So, if this letter invokes deeper conversations and induces change, then my task will have been accomplished.

No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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A Priceless Gift

Well, I’m halfway through winter break. It’s days after Christmas and soon, the New Year will be rung in. I’ve been thinking a lot about myself as a teacher and the many scholars I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. Have you ever wondered if you have really made a difference? How often do your scholars tell you, “You’ve really touched my life. I get it now! Thank you!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a scholar tell me this during the year they were on my roster. In fact, I may have received a few side eyes and under the breath name calling instead and well, that’s okay. I’ve always been passionate about all of them, regardless of how they may have received my presentation. Oh, yes. Of course I received cute little letters and nice pictures telling me how wonderful I was, but nothing that revealed a life changing epiphany for any of my scholars. Something amazing happened during this break which seems to be happening more and more frequently. I was with my family making some Christmas gift exchanges, when I heard my name, “Mrs. Daugherty! Mrs. Daugherty!” I turned around to find a handsome young man walking up to me. I tried to distinguish his face, but man… our scholars change so dramatically as they mature, it becomes difficult to distinguish their matured look. He forgave my puzzled expression and politely greeted me with his name, “It’s me. Justin.” (Justin is a pseudonym provided for confidentiality purposes). My eyes grew big and my heart filled with such joy! I’d taught Justin in the fourth grade. He shared that he is now a senior at an out of state prep school, but he’d recognized me walking through the store. We talked for a moment and my heart inflated with so much pride in that moment listening to all he has accomplished. He was always a bright young man and I knew he was destined for greatness, even in the fourth grade. I must admit, I wouldn’t have recognized him if he hadn’t said anything to me first. I’ve taught hundreds of young people, in three different systems. Names and faces tend to run together for me after so many years. But young Justin, I remembered. He’s excelling just as I knew he would 8 years ago if he remained focused. He is a scholar athlete being looked at by local colleges for entry next year. Another one that made it and was compelled enough to share his successes with me. Needless to say, after we went our separate ways, I couldn’t stop smiling! Later in the evening, I began to think to myself “Who the heck was MY fourth grade teacher?” For the life of me, I cannot remember! In fact, there are only a handful of teachers that I do remember. I remember them because they either said something that made me think or they did something that caught my full attention! These teachers helped mold my life. They helped me think about whom I was and who I wanted to become. They had fully invested in me and my future. Here’s my point. As educators, we work hard, day in and day out, to make a difference in the lives of children. We make plans, we grade papers, and we work long, hard hours, for little to no pay or respect for any of it. We demonstrate, encourage, motivate, and mediate. We watch over and protect, wipe tears and reassure. We realize that some have never received a caring touch or a kind word before we entered their lives. We do all of this because most of us are in this for the outcome, not the income, knowing that more often than not, our scholars will leave us never disclosing the impact we’ve made on their lives. It dawned on me in that very moment that I was one of the teachers Justin remembered. I had said something or done something to make him remember me. It is, in my opinion, the highest praise a teacher can possibly receive. To be acknowledged by a young person you’ve taught and to hear of the wonderful things that are happening in their lives is very fulfilling. To hear that they made it, against all odds and despite their circumstances because I said it was possible all those years ago is the most priceless gift this teacher, or any teacher, could receive.

The saying goes, to whom much is given, much is required. Our purpose is to help our scholars see beyond their current circumstances. We are tasked with leading them away from poor choices and the path of destruction towards better choices that lead them to the path of their desired destiny. I’m here to tell you that this is not an easy task by any means and yes, we will, unfortunately, lose a few along the way, but not for lack of trying. We simply need to remember that there are many more “Justin’s” in our classrooms than not, waiting and wanting to learn how they too can make it. They may or may not tell you that you have had an effect on their lives. Well, at least not at that moment and really, that is okay. But, when that day comes, when you’re walking along in the store, and you hear your name being called by that one scholar you reached years before, you too will receive the same gift that Justin afforded me just the other day. And that gift, I assure you, is… priceless.

A Special Thanks from Transitions

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A year ago TODAY, I launched this educational blog. Twenty-eight posts later (24 of which were written exclusively by me), I continue to transparently share my educational experiences and life lessons. It remains my incessant hope that through my sharing, I will incite other educators to reflect upon their own instructional practices and, in turn, result in a change or modification of those current practices as well.

I have grown a great deal through writing this blog. Opening myself has not been easy, however, it has helped me to learn more about myself as an educator and as a person. It has helped me to look at my instructional practices differently. It’s helped me become a stronger educator without a doubt.

So, today, on this one year anniversary, I want to say thank you on behalf of Transitions Educational Consulting. Thank you for engaging with me through my blog. Thank you for following and offering comments of support and encouragement. Thank you for sharing my experiences with others. Thank you for helping me grow and opening yourselves to new opportunities for growth as well.

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Your support is very much appreciated! Keep reading, keep following, keep sharing. Thank you again.
#Transitions #ExpectGreatness

 

Transitions

Failure is Not an Option!

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Well, I’m through my third week of school. Things are going well for the most part. Probably one of the best starts to a school year that I can recall. I have 20 WONDERFUL scholars who, in these first few weeks, have reminded me why I remain in the classroom.

Initially, I had 18 scholars on my roster. I had looked over my roster prior to the first day of school and was excited to see that I was apparently receiving a break this year from some of the customary behavior challenges I’d been used to. After working with some very challenging children in the recent past, including a visually impaired child with a sharp tongue and a tenacious attitude, I welcomed the break. Educators working on the front line will be able to relate to my exaggerated exaltation. However, as expected in the world of education, things change ever so quickly and as such; I received my nineteenth scholar on Meet the Teacher night. He is a returning student who is extremely excited to be back with us! He shares his love of school and especially reading with me on that evening! This is too good to be true!! I have to be the luckiest teacher of the year!

My twentieth scholar arrived bright and early Monday morning just after I began my introductory instruction. He is also a transfer from another school in the district. I have not received his permanent records as of yet, which is not uncommon with transfers, but in conversation, he shares with me, in a rather boisterous voice, that he is not good at math and he is very shy! This statement left me looking confused since he is far from shy and has displayed some mathematical problem solving skills. Yet, these observations, coupled with his over activeness and frequent off task behavior had now become an all too familiar scene to say the least. A prologue to the main event if you will. As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. This scholar requires a lot of time and attention and I slowly realize, HE is my purpose this year.

On the first day of school, I read a book to my scholars, entitled “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day” by Dr. Seuss for our first morning meeting. I used to read this book to my own children when they were younger. I found it appropriate for my fifth graders because every year, a handful of scholars enter my class claiming they don’t know anything, much like my twentieth scholar. The story is about creative teaching and thinking. The tale celebrates originality, differences, and uniqueness, but also reassures that each of the scholars in the story has everything they need not only to be successful when taking high stakes assessments, but also to be successful in life. What an amazing way to begin the school year! We acknowledged each other’s differences but I also assured all of them that they too are bright, intelligent scholars that can and will be successful, but they had to trust me, trust each other, and most importantly, trust themselves.

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In the days to follow, we would talk a lot about our school “PRIDE” (that is, Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy) and our Scholar Statement. We would discuss in great length each attribute of PRIDE and each line of the Scholar Statement. This is my second year using the statement and I have found it to be a great guiding principle in my classroom. The statement reads as follows:

I AM A SCHOLAR!
I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.
I CANNOT fail and WILL NOT fail,
because failure is not an option.
I am in control of my future and my destiny.
I AM A SCHOLAR!
I AM THE FUTURE!

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I had no idea what a powerful impact this would have on my scholars. I mean, last year, we (my colleagues and I) always spoke of the attributes of our PRIDE principles, however, most of us assumed our scholars inherently knew them, especially by fifth grade. We were very wrong in our thinking. This year, our PRIDE principles are more visible around the school and in each classroom. The attributes are discussed and modeled frequently throughout the day and school year. I have noticed this year that the school wide PRIDE attributes, coupled with my statement, had begun to do something amazing to my scholars. Something I didn’t see or hear last year and something I hadn’t seen coming this year at all. They instantly began holding each other accountable for displaying PRIDE and never giving up. I was in absolute awe the first time I heard it. Let me frame this for you by offering just one example.

Every afternoon, we do a spiral math review. This review is a culmination of skills previously learned and some newly introduced skills as well. Because math is so intimidating to most of my scholars, their initial reaction to any questioning of their knowledge results in a shrug of their shoulders and the response “Um, I don’t know.” Oh no. Here we go again! I think to myself, “I just wish these children would believe in themselves the way that I believe in them.” I proceeded to respond encouragingly when from the back of the room, I heard, “Don’t give up! Failure is not an option. Persevere!” I stopped in shock as I slowly looked to see who was speaking. Someone heard me! Someone understood me! It felt like for the first time, my scholars got it because they all chimed in to encourage their peer! Since that moment, when anyone gets stuck, including me, and we feel like giving up, we support each other by saying out loud…”failure is not an option”! This has become our daily reminder to keep trying.

This was a powerful moment for me. There are so many times I become discouraged concerning whether I am making a difference in the lives of my scholars. I wonder whether my expectations are too ambitious for them and whether I am doing everything I can do to help them succeed. How many times a year do you do the same thing? We do this all the time because we are passionate about what we do and we believe in the capabilities of our scholars. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking about who’s life we can screw up today. That is not the case at all. But on this day, at this moment, it was that voice. It was that very moment when that young scholar’s voice in the back of the room reminded me why I am still in this classroom. I actually knew exactly why that Monday morning, when that twentieth scholar entered my room. I still have some lives to change. We ALL have some lives to change! Our scholars believe in us and they depend on us. No matter what the obstacle, we need to remember not to EVER give up on them because their failure…our failure… Nope! Failure is just not an option!

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