Have you ever thought what the students of your school would say about their experience there 20 years after? No? Maybe you should….
In an ironic twist of events, I found myself back in my hometown of London, Ontario this week. I hadn’t been back in close to 15 years and with some free time today, I decided to go visit my elementary school where I journeyed through grades 4-8.
As I pulled up the driveway, memories came flooding in of busy cars, parents dropping off kids, the harsh winter bolt from the car to the building; but more importantly I felt a deep sense of pride and a peace that I haven’t felt in years. Just seeing the building itself grounded me in a feeling of comfort and home and I wondered how many other former students felt this way and how many of my own will fill the same about their current experiences.
I walked up to the front doors and as fate would have it, there stood a man hoping to gain access to register his kids for the school year. He had just moved to Canada and was looking for a school for his children. As I explained to him that schools aren’t open for another few weeks, he soon realized that not only was I now a teacher but that I was a graduate coming back to just to see my old school. It was just the opportune moment for him to ask ” What was it like here? Is it a good school?”
Now this is where my mind started racing and the memories of my incredible teachers – Patricia Leschied, Jennifer Day, James Hull and John Arnett- came flooding in. Teachers who taught me perseverance, excellence, quality and showed me that I could be anything that I put my mind to. I spoke to how much fun I had learning here, to the close friendships and bonds I made (some to this very day), to being pushed to my limits due to high expectations, to care and understanding of my new culture and the turmoils of growing up, to new experiences scaffolded not for safety but for growth and mostly for the feeling of community and belonging. This school and these educators grew us into the people we are today – educators, police officers, engineers, doctors, politicians, environmentalists and librarians (from those I am still in contact with). There is no more powerful a sentiment than the legacy an educator leaves behind and that didn’t go unnoticed by this man nor myself.
As he thanked me and walked back to his vehicle, I stood there in awe wondering if my teachers knew this impact? If I as an educator truly understood the impact I leave on these children everyday. Will they be coming back to our school like I did today and praise the growth we fostered in them, the love we poured into their hearts and the strength we gave them to be who they are? I no longer say, I sure hope so…..I now say that is my goal and the legacy I want to leave for all of the students that I have the privilege of guiding along their life journey.
Today was one of those days when I hit the ground running and while its 8:30pm, I’ve yet to stop. As educators, you know this type of day well:
Running late as you drop off dog/children
Forgetting your lunch at home
Forgetting things and having to walk back and forth
Drinking 5-times the re-heated coffee
Lessons not the way you’d envision
Losing your keys
Worrying you aren’t doing your absolute best
No bathroom break until you reach a point where your body just understands…it’s not going to happen….and you lose the urge….
You hold all of this in as you go through the day and have an awesome time with the kids.
Today was one of those days and as a coach I had students depending on me to be at our first cross country meet after school. So starving from the lack of lunch, mind hyper-focused on making sure I have everything for our meet….I pushed through.
These are the things we do as Educators. We put our all in for our students without question. We do it out of love for them and for their futures.
I got home at 8pm exhausted and with a fast food order because cooking wasn’t happening either, and as I flopped on the couch, my cell phone buzzed.
It was a text message from the parent of one of my runners:
“Hi Miss Ariss,
Thanks for taking the time to train with the kids for running. ***** had a great time at the meet today.”
Attached was a beautiful picture of one of my little runners, ever so proud, holding her ribbon.
I burst into tears! Yes, we all have these days, but when we receive notes like this, it puts everything into perspective.
These little reminders that our hard work is making a difference, that our care and love for our students is noticed and appreciated, and that no matter how exhausted physically I am, my heart has never been more full.
So often we hear how we must fill one another’s buckets, to be kind to each other, to treat others like we would want to be treated….but rarely, if ever, do we think to do the same for ourselves.
At the start of the year, I asked my students to apply for classroom jobs. Along with their application, they were required to provide me with a resume and a cover letter detailing their strengths and accomplishments. The cover letter proved to be the single most difficult task my students were ever asked to complete and not because of format, but because they couldn’t provide even one thing they thought was a strength was about themselves. I gave them suggestions from what I knew of them over the past two years, had parents weigh in and even had their peers discuss, yet I quickly realized that it didn’t matter if the whole world told them they were amazing, it meant nothing if they themselves didn’t believe it.
Over the past few years, I have been doing my own research on self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love because its something that I even in adulthood still struggle with. I grew up believing that in order to be loved, I needed the approval and the love of others. I didn’t know that I could be capable of providing myself with the same love I provided others. I was so focused on ensuring everyone else around me was always lifted and loved, that when I experienced one of the most devastating life experiences, my bucket was empty, there was no one to fill it and I realized I had to learn to fill it myself.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to start 2016 with a focus on filling our own bucket. I looked through our Health curriculum and created a unit on self-affirmations which targets the following outcomes:
examine how health habits/behaviours influence body image and feelings of self-worth
recognize that individuals can choose their own emotional reactions to events and thoughts
expand strategies for effective personal management; e.g., develop and implement a personal budget, assess the power of positive thinking
evaluate the impact of personal behaviour on the safety of self and others
I started my class off by gathering in a small circle and having a discussion on perception. We talked about the difference between real life and life portrayed on social media, we looked at before and after photos of photoshopped celebrities, we talked about societal expectations and how we can continue to be our true self.
As a middle years teacher, these discussions are crucial and I quickly realized the severe importance when we started talking about the inner negative voices we hear day in and day out that tell us we can’t do something, that we need to be this or that, or that we will never be what we want to be. I passed around the same colour sticky notes and had them take some time and anonymously write down some of the things they say to themselves on a daily basis.
What followed next was beyond what I ever expected. I asked them if they wanted me to read them out loud so they can know they aren’t alone and they all said yes. As I started to unfold the papers and read what they had written, I was heartbroken. At 11 years of age, they had already absorbed society’s expectations on how their bodies should be, how unworthy they are of love, how not good enough they think they are at everything, and the most reoccurring theme : Where can I go where everything is perfect? PERFECT….I read this word over and over.
I was so taken aback that I started to cry mid-reading which led some of my students to cry with me. To me, they are “perfect” in every way possible because they are all unique and bring so much of who they are to our classroom. I told them that the reason I am crying is because to me they are none of what they wrote about themselves, that I value each and every one of them and I wouldn’t want a single thing about them to change.
They were shocked to know that everyone else has these negative thoughts too and yet they would never think that way about one another. My reminders of to always be kind to one another really hit home because now they knew that their peers were also carrying these negative self-images of themselves around and they didn’t need to add to it.
Now that we know these thoughts are there, the next step is to challenge them with questioning their validity and logic, to put them into perspective, create goals and to start countering them with positive self-affirmations daily. We will brainstorm and each student will create their own meaningful personal self-affirmation every week. We will focus on these during our meditation time every day and save them in our own buckets (mason jars).
I don’t have the solutions, but I am hoping that by providing them with the strategies and awareness that they can and should love themselves before relying on the love of others, that they may have a head start as they get closer to those even harder teenage years. I want for them to value themselves for the amazing human beings that they are and for the joy they bring their families and our classroom community.
If someone were to ask me what I thought my greatest strength as an educator was, they may be surprised when I say it’s not technology as that is what I am most vocal about. While I love technology and use it purposefully in every way I can, it’s not what I would identify as my greatest strength or contribution.
In my five years as an educator and my varied experiences ranging from teaching Grade 2- Grade 6, I have discovered that my strength lies in my strong connections with students. When reflecting on this, it occurred to me that my passion for working with children has always been innate and it took removing myself from the comfort zone of corporate life and embracing what I truly love to understand that education is my calling and purpose.
It’s summer break and those connections have become evident to me from the amount of emails and messages I have already received from parents and students. I also recently read this article “13 Reasons Students Hate Teachers” which made me wonder what it is that I know to be true about kids and what I have learned from teaching that I hope makes a positive difference on the life of a child.
I’m five years in with so much more to learn, experience and grow. These five years however have taught me the following about kids:
1. They are free-spirits.
They say what they feel and notice, do what they want and enjoy the small things in life that most of us adults gloss over. They can mix and match outfits without care or worry about judgement because they love the colour. They dance, play, laugh and can talk up a storm when comfortable because it’s fun. They will pick flowers (weeds) for you because they were pretty and draw you pictures because they look up to you without concern. They live life to the fullest which is something that can cause unease with adults who are unable to go with the flow or appreciate their whimsy.
2. They are funny.
When was the last time you sat down with a group of kids and really and truly listened to them? When did you spend quality time at recess or lunch and just chit-chatted? I will guarantee you that some of the jokes and life experiences they have will have you in stitches. We often overlook that “free” time during school to catch up on emails, photocopy papers, run errands, but if we slowed down and took that time to hear and be a part of their stories, our own lives would be made so much brighter.
3. They are human.
This point is the one that I hold closest to my heart. They are not robots or machines churning out worksheets, booklets and dioramas. We do not get them fully charged every morning nor do we get to plug them in upon arrival to school in order to do “work”. They have full and complete lives that do not centre around school and we must honour this. There will be days where they are tired, hungry, upset, anxious, worried, scared and those are the moments we must stop what we are doing or have planned and talk to them, work it through and support.
4. They are honest.
Yes, you read that correctly, they are honest. If a child trusts you and knows you have the best of intentions for them, they will tell you the truth whether they are in the wrong or not. Without a solid relationship built on trust, honesty cannot be forged. The reason most people lie is because of fear and if they knew that the person they are being honest with cares about them and is not out for punishment but is there looking out for them and wanting to help them be better, they will tell the truth.
5. They are not looking for a boss.
I am a leader, confidante, guide and a trusted adult who is there to support them in learning about the world around them. I am not their boss nor do I ever want to be. This is not to be confused with being their friend either because that too is not my role. A student once told me ” Everyone always nags, nags, nags. Thank you for getting us and giving me a chance to do things on my own.” As an educator, I guide them in the right direction and in making the better choices. I teach them the tools they will need to succeed in life and I will be there for support in the areas they are struggling in both academically and socially.
6. They all have special needs.
Every single one of us is unique and all of us have areas of strength and areas of growth. There hasn’t been a single individual I have ever encountered in my life that didn’t require assistance in some way and this is the same for all students. We provide varying accommodations for all students depending on their needs at certain times which takes a strong educator to identify and apply. Every child deserves an education that allows them to be pushed to the barriers of their understandings. This requires dedication and hard work on our part as educators to ensure we are providing varied activities, assessments and content which target every child with what they require to learn.
7. They possess emotional strength greater than most adults.
When I hear the life stories of some students, my first thought is usually “how are you still able to bring yourself to our classroom everyday and engage in the learning because I know I couldn’t do it.” School is the safety zone away from whatever else is going on in life for a large majority of students that enter our schools. Some stories we know about while there are many others we may never know about however despite the turmoil, they show up everyday. I applaud and honour their strength and every day in our classroom is a celebration of life and learning because school is the one place in the world we have the power to make that possible.
8. They are curious.
They want to know what, how, why, where and who over and over and over. If they don’t, then their natural curiosity has been stopped at some point or they have learned that the schooling system doesn’t give much time for curiosity so why bother. It is our responsibility to ensure they retain that curiosity because it is the foundation for deep learning. They are curious because they care, are interested and looking for a way to understand. If we honour and harness this by not only allowing but encouraging it, they will engage in meaningful and relevant learning.
9. They want to love school.
Note that I didn’t say they all love school but that they all want to love school. Every year they walk into the unknown with a new class and a new teacher which could make or break their entire year. They start the year hopeful and excited because they truly want to learn, want to have friends and want to be a part of the community. We, as educators, have the ability to ensure this excitement remains all year-long for all students. Some start the year with self-imposed labels from previous years: “I’m always in trouble”, “I can’t do math and I am not smart” or “I have no friends, so I don’t want to be here”. We need to see these as cries for help and work with students to ensure they get past them. We need to find out the reasons and causes and together come up with the solutions to help them because deep down, they want to love school.
10. They are longing for connection and meaning.
They want to know that this place they have to go to every day where they spend the majority of their time is for a purpose. School has to connect to their life which means it must integrate the same tools and ideals they use outside of the building, build on their understandings and curiosities as well as be relevant for their future. No longer do we live in isolation and there is no reason why our classroom doors should be closed. Kids are connecting via social media, Minecraft and YouTube videos,to name a few, and yet school remains this isolated entity. They want to know how others around the world live, work and learn. They want to know that what they are learning has a deep purpose and is not just repetitive busy work. If there is a disconnect, they will disengage. The best way I found to do this is by explaining the “why” and having those full classroom discussions about the relevancy and purpose of the learning happening but most importantly by being flexible enough to change everything if need be to ensure it truly is meaningful to them.
The education of our youth goes far beyond just delivering curriculum and providing assessment after assessment. They are children and we are so lucky to have them in our lives each and every day. I cherish the learning I receive from each of them and I am so honoured to work with every child that enters my life. The above is my own personal roadmap and while I know not everyone will agree, it is what I follow in my heart and what I have learned to be true.
This reflection will be framed in a different format than my usual posts. This is just how I feel I can accurately reflect on the year that has passed as it contained such force and fundamental change that I have compartmentalized most of it by time frames.
January – February 2014
I felt it…that feeling in the pit of your stomach that digs away at you. It whispers quietly at first, but it quickly becomes so loud that you have to listen: “Dana, you need a change.” I loved my school, my co-workers, my district and most of all my incredible group of students who had been my little family for three consecutive years. I remember first meeting them in January of 2012 as they were told they would have a new teacher and a brand new classroom. They had been in a combined grade one-two and extra funding had come up enough to hire a full time teacher for them. There I stood in their old room and watched as each one came up to me, introduced themselves by name and told me their favourite colour. I still remember their anxious faces and their half-smiles as I walked with them down the hall to what would become our new room. “THIS IS OURS??” they exclaimed with joy and squeals as the doors to their new home opened. I nodded yes and in that exhilarating moment, I knew in my heart that I also had found my home.
So when that whispering feeling of change started coming around, I panicked. Ignorance is bliss as they say and so I ignored it.
March – April 2014
I knew that no matter what was to come in the future, my students and I were to be separated at the end of this school year as they moved on up to grade five. I went into full “make the most of every moment” mode and these months brought us so much innovation, creativity, inquiry and excitement in learning. I did my absolute best to ignore that feeling to the point where I wasn’t doing much beyond working. I planned, I connected, I shared, I communicated, I read, I tweeted, I moderated, I presented, I travelled to conferences, I blogged and I taught and learned with my all of my heart for and with my students. These were the most exhilarating moments of teaching I have experienced (all of which have been documented in my blog and our Twitter account Miss Ariss’ Class). I poured my entire being into teaching and making every minute count. However, that feeling of change didn’t go away and it was wearing me down as the days went on. I learned that no matter how hard you want to run from the feelings that scare you, it is often those that need to be felt and addressed. I finally stopped and really evaluated what I wanted and needed: Leadership mentors, group collaborations, constructive feedback loops for growth, opportunities for larger impacts on educational change, learning PD for my own growth and a more permanent home-base both professionally and personally
Change was happening and that feeling became so loud within that I finally started listening. Sometimes in life, things happen for reasons beyond our control but when we look back upon them, we often see the real meaning and the learning that can occur from them if we have the right attitude. As much as I loved everything about my career, I knew in my heart that my time in my little community, where I felt the safest and happiest I have ever felt, was ending. I could continue to ignore my personal and professional needs for growth and stay in my comfort zone or embrace that feeling and move forward into uncharted change. Those who know me well….know how this story will end.
May – July 2014
I can only describe these months as an absolute blur. Somewhere between full-time teaching, numerous educational conferences, presentations and travelling….I found the courage to listen to my heart. I took a huge leap of faith and accepted a new position at an incredible middle school a few hours away. Many would call me crazy for leaving a permanent teaching position, but they would not know who I am and what teaching truly means to me. Its not about positions, status, rank or authority; for me, teaching is about continuous growth and learning. To truly be an effective educator, I needed to continually embrace the difficult situations and decisions in my life and learn from them in order to grow and develop into who I am as a person which has a direct affect on my teaching, because I teach from my heart. I cannot remain in my zones of comfort and expect my levels of teaching to grow. I needed to widen my experiences in order to become the educator I need to be for every student that I have the privilege of working with.
I make this sound as if it was easy when in reality, this truly was the single most difficult decision of my life. I had built a safety net and it was never harder to accept the truth that nothing in life ever stays the same. I became almost paralyzed with fear; I was so afraid of losing the only family I had come to known, so afraid of moving away from everything that I had built and created, so afraid of what was to come, that I completely became focused on the impact failure could have on me by making this decision. I forgot how much I would champion making mistakes and learning from them to my students, but the difference was that we had built a safe environment for failing. I didn’t feel so safe as my entire life depended on succeeding with this decision I had made. I turned to the safety of my closest friends and family, who rallied alongside me and supported me in every way imaginable. By July 1st, I was living in a new home, in a new city and preparing for a new school, new colleagues and my first group of “new” students in three years. That is a lot of NEW and it happened within a span of barely two months. This was that feeling in the pit of my stomach realized: Change.
Questions, questions, questions swirling in my mind all the time!
Where is our room?
Who do I contact for this?
Where can I find?
Will I connect with a new group of students?
Will I make an impact on their lives?
Will my colleagues accept and welcome me?
Can I really do this? Oh wait… I AM DOING THIS!
September 2014 – December 2014
When I first started this reflection I didn’t fully grasp or realize the amount of learning accomplished during the final half of 2014 until I started looking at the photos I had taken. I have grown immensely both personally and professionally in these past few months by being active in my new community and surroundings, by embracing the uncomfortable, by being honest and open about my strengths, strong passions and areas of growth but most of all in my own self-confidence as an educator.
I found myself surrounded by communities of support, expertise and varied experiences in an environment prime for growth. This is what I had hoped for and I knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but I have never been one for easy. I have come from close to 5 years of independent teaching in small rural schools. I have always planned, coordinated and constructed all of my own materials, units, and assessments based on my own student needs and most recently, students with whom I had looped with for three years and knew like family. I now was in a team of six grade five educators collaborating together on the learning for our students, in a school almost seven times the size of my previous.
Reflecting on the start of the school year, I see now that underestimated the transition into this. It has been years since I needed to share who I was, my true self, with other educators, as when working within a small district everyone knows everyone. My other collaborations have been with educators who follow me on Twitter or read my blog and have a strong sense of who I am. The individuals within my comfort zone, who are my rocks, all know my deep passion for learning, know how excited I get at the thought of planning a unit with my students and finding those connections for them, know that I am honest, genuine and will ask a lot of questions because I have a need to know the why behind everything I bring into my classroom, but that mostly I care…about everything and everyone all the time.
I learned that when working within a large group, fostering a relationship beyond work is essential for the dynamics because once everyone truly knows one another a foundation of trust and an environment where vulnerability is welcomed can be built, however that this also takes time. Effective collaboration doesn’t happen overnight, it needs to be built step by step by each individual party. My sheer optimism and strong will to ensuring meaningful things happen despite obstacles, is who I am however this is something that is shown over time through sincerity and action. I am learning how to communicate my passions, thoughts and ideas outside of my comfort zone and am pushing myself to hear (not just listen) and understand more and more.
These few months also taught me about the power of student connection and relationships. I had worried whether I would be able to connect with a brand new group, but as the weeks went on I started receiving hugs, drawings, jokes, stories from home, open discussions about their lives and genuine interest in mine, shared laughter and that feeling of knowing these are the amazing kids I am so lucky to know and work with every day. I love the community we have built and will continue to grow.
Just a few weeks ago, I decided to surprise my previous students by attending their Christmas Concert at my old school. I snuck into the dark auditorium hoping to grab a seat when one of them noticed me from behind the stage. Within a few seconds, they all popped out from behind the stage and began furiously waving to me. I can’t begin to describe that moment, but a lot of tears were involved. The kids I am honoured to meet and work with throughout my career are what make being an educator the most meaningful to me.
This term also brought forth a lot of Professional Development and new projects which I am so honoured to have been a part of. Collaborating with other PSD70 educators on the first ever #EdCampPSD70 and co-keynoting the opening with Kelli Holden in the presence of so many incredible colleagues was truly humbling. Kelli and I reconnected again in November to present at ATLE on the use of SKYPE in the classroom.
I was also honoured to be asked to present an IGNITE session by Dean Shareski, who ever so kindly arranged the presentations to start alphabetically which in turn had me presenting first. This required me to dig deep into who I truly am as an educator and helped build my confidence in sharing that with the larger community of educators. Despite the nerves, it was an absolutely thrilling experience where in five minutes I shared my passion for education and spent the evening learning about the passions of others.
I was introduced this term to many new forms of PD focused on #MakerSpaces and #MakerEd, which I had implemented in my previous teachings but never had the opportunity to dig deeper into. From a Saturday road trip to Calgary with my AP and three other teaching colleagues to attend a one day MakerFaire to an ERLC hosted MakerSpace session where I connected with local librarians on the new creation of Innovation Labs in our city. I am so excited to share these experiences with the kids as they completed their first Innovation Week projects in December and will be visiting the labs in January. Not to mention continued collaborations and discussions surrounding Alberta’s Curriculum Redesign which I am currently a part of the committee for my new district in working on the competencies in learning.
In remaining true to myself and constantly having a need to learn and absorb, I along with my #Cdnedchat team continued our weekly collaborations continued and our chat is livelier than ever on Monday evenings! I also jumped in to three separate book clubs with Google Hangout reflections with various educators within my school and across the world to expand my learning and push my mind further. One of the book clubs focused on Leadership through being a part of my district’s Exploring Leadership committee.
Present – 2015 and beyond
My biggest take aways from 2014 have been to always listen to your heart, no matter how scared you are, and that how change is viewed depends solely on how you approach it. Is it an adventure filled with learning opportunities or will you view it as something horrible and choose comfort?
I learned how to truly be vulnerable and to rely on others when I need to. To not be afraid to say I need help or I don’t understand this can you show me. Reach out to others and in doing so, you open the lines of communication and make your connections just that much stronger.
I was reminded by my own inner fear and worries that we all face insecurities, hardships and stress. Our job isn’t to add to that, but to lift it off of one another. Be kind to all, especially the ones who may seem to have a hard exterior because somewhere down their path of life their experiences helped to shape that. Our students may come to school with brave faces, but they are looking to us to create the safety of an environment conducive to learning, just as we need in our own professional lives.
So what does 2015 have in store for me? I won’t even venture a guess, but I certainly hope my years continue to provide me with continued learning opportunities, strong supportive networks and a deeper understanding of my purpose as an educator.