If you read the lyrics closely, it does express life and profession well.
Competition by kids is a subject that is loaded with strong opinions on all sides. Competition has gotten a bad reputation because of external forces. You currently see games canceled because there are no referees or umpires. This is impacting the youngest kids all the way to high school. I coached baseball for many years and a little softball in my career. I have seen poor officiating but never to the point that I was ejected. In all of my years, I only received one ejection and that was trying to protect another coach and keep him in the game. Competition is not bad as an ideal but I fervently believe that it is the adults and external forces that have given competition the current visual. Competition can be a strong motivator and can give children a positive self image. Like with many other areas, extremism has created a toxic environment. The opposite extreme has been the belief that by eliminating all competition kids will be better off and more successful. I disagree because I see simple competition permeate every adult situation. From getting a job to the success of a small business, competition is at the core of our everyday lives. As a teacher, my job is to help students navigate competition and provide a safe environment for success and failure in equal measure. For example, when we ran a race in class I was always aware to put kids of similar abilities against each other. It allowed for kids to compete but not feel like they were devastated by the race. I had very few tantrums or kids feeling bad over the years. Success and failure have always been discussed openly in my classes. I have had a motto for many years that covers what I ingrained into my first-grade classes all the way to my high school teams. “People will not judge on your failure or mistake but you will be judged on how your respond” If you have ever been in my classes or on my other teams, you have heard this and know that I truly believe it.
After about nine years in elementary, I decided it was time to move to high school. One of the deciding factors was our annual field day. We were told that it would be different moving forward. We changed it to “Discovery Day.” We were instructed to create activities that in no way expressed competition. The first year, I decided to create sand candles. I really enjoyed the activity but the loss of field day tugged at my heart for the kids. I knew that we were doing a disservice to the kids by not helping them navigate competition and use it as a life-long lesson. We did have some physical activities but there was to be no hint of competition. My last year of elementary I discovered 4-sided soccer. It was a game from Africa and a really fun way to play soccer. We split into very even groups and started to play and have fun. No matter how hard I tried, the kids kept score and as kids rotated through my station they all kept score. I was fighting the score keeping when I was told by the principal to see them after discovery day. I thought it was a fun day and the kids all had a blast. However, I was reprimanded for allowing the kids to keep score. In spite of my protestations that I wasn’t keeping store, I was still in trouble.
That discovery day taught me that staying in elementary was going to be tough. This may have been my biggest push. I loved the work I did with kids but I knew I was going to need a new environment. I did find a location and even found a great outlet for those other activities. Later in this journal I will go into Intersession at Rangeview which was the high school equivalent of Discovery day. I liked the concept but not as a replacement for field day. I have not told this story to many people and may come as a surprise to those I taught with in elementary. I still hold to the ideal that competition is not bad but how it is handled can be a detriment to our kids by those who are anti-competition to those who are overly competitive.
This was one of my favorite bands in College. I saw them once over at CSU in Moby Gym.
There are things that young teachers learn the easy way and some are learned the hard way. The difference is often dependent upon if the teacher listens to the parent, students, or colleagues. One of the hallmarks of a new teacher is the confidence that come from teacher training and a controlled student teacher setting. Teaching is a profession that expects the same results from a first year teacher as they do from a 30 year veteran. Even with quality induction programs, rookie teachers are often stressed and find listening is rushed and incomplete. I was surprised at how stressful these first couple of years was for me. I did spend that first couple of years listening in meetings and getting the lay of the land. If there was anything I brought from industry was how to navigate larger groups in a work setting. I have witnessed people lose their career while in social settings with superiors. Even though I am a long winded talker, I do know that there are times to listen.
I had an incident in my first year of teaching that highlights the value of listening. I am very good at minimizing religion into school settings when pressed by others. I have never had to deal with problems around student, staff, or my religious beliefs in classroom. I did have a learning experience that was an eye opener for me. I am taking no stand but I do want to honor people’s beliefs. I can honor them and still not make it a big deal. I knew of Jehovah’s Witnesses but was unaware of their beliefs. One tenet of their their beliefs is to not celebrate holidays. Since I was teaching elementary there are often times when we did things around holidays. Obviously, I didn’t do anything with religious holidays but we did do things around other holidays. Because of the year round schedule I avoided most holidays but we were approaching Mother’s Day and I found a really cool activity to make snow globes using glitter and baby food jars. I put that we were going to do something special in my weekly newsletter. Daniel’s mother met me the next morning before class. She was very nice and explained the situation. I told her that I would think about it and let her know at the end of the day. The value of listening was paramount to turning a possible conflict into a great connection to the parent. When she returned in the afternoon I asked if Daniel could do the same activity as an art project and when it was time to do the card, Daniel drew a picture of his whole family as his part of the art project.
I was able to accommodate Daniel and his mom was grateful because she had had multiple battles with teachers of his older brothers. It is never my job to judge or comment on a family’s belief but it is my job to make every student feel welcome and that they belong. Over the years I am sure that I have slighted some students but I made a conscious effort to accommodate all students. It brings me to a point I just heard that clarified it and made it crystal clear. “We judge ourselves based on intent but we judge others on the impact.” I think that one point of clarity put meaning to what I have always striven for. If I could share anything to a young teacher, it would be this and that we have be aware of our impact.
I hear from students that they will change their habits when they get into the “real world” but school isn’t as important. I always try to have a discussion with them that they are better off establishing good habits now when it is easier. All of that reminds me of a story! When I was a student teacher and working at a school that was a half hour away I learned the value of good habits. My cooperating teacher was a lady named Barb Smith and we taught at a school in Castle Rock which is south of Denver. She was a second career teacher like I was and we had a lot in common. She had a habit of getting to school at 6:30 and school didn’t start until 8. It made sense for me to be there at 7:30 and prepare for the day. She also left right at the end of the day and I remember beating the busses out of the parking lot. I had been working for a week and she seemed annoyed but I couldn’t figure out why. On the Friday of the first week, she told me at lunch. She said that she got here at 6;30 and left at 3;30 to avoid the Denver traffic. It made perfect sense but I was not a morning person. She was very blunt and said that if the student teaching was to work that I would have to follow her schedule. She gave me the weekend to think it over.
Monday morning came and I was in the parking lot at 6:15 and haven’t been late to school for over thirty years. Yesterday, I couldn’t sleep so I got to school at 5:30. I no longer live thirty minutes from the school so it would be easy to sleep later. I live about six blocks from school and I am here at 6:30 every morning. I learned two lessons that day. First, it is important to listen to folks that have more experience and have more wisdom. Those are not necessarily dependent on age and sometimes the best lessons have come from new teachers with wisdom. Second, I learned the value of good habits. I still may be the best procrastinator I know but I really do have good work habits and I think they have served me well in my job. There are times when I probably do too much but I would rather land on that side of the ledger than not do enough. As I look at the end, I find I have to start moving away from some things and that may be one of the toughest parts of this year.
The story for today is a celebration and post-mortem of introducing students to technology. In the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to transition to the Technology Special at Montview. One of the first things we decided on was the skills that students needed. This was at a time when standards didn’t exist for technology in the classroom and it would take several years before they came to fruition. We decided on three strands that would meet their needs in other classes. Word processing, presentation, and mathematical thinking became our/my focus. I added a fourth of visual communication because I have a strong belief in the power of art in students’ lives. This seemed simple enough. Using ClarisWorks allowed us to cover the presentation and word processing. It even pulled in a little math with the spreadsheet. PowerPoint was at 2.0 and not yet owned by Microsoft so we did things in Hypercard & Hyperstack. Art was expressed with KidPix and was a great time for students. I also introduced Lego Logo from MIT for mathematical reasoning and programming. We moved turtles around with ease and drew shapes and learned the structure of programming, debugging, and completing products. We even went down the path of using the software Stella as a way to begin to understand systems thinking. It was a great time to be a teacher and fun to be a student.
We have talked about the celebration but we also need to address the post-mortem. Several years ago several things happened to put a stake through the heart of technology instruction. We had funding shortfalls and teachers and programs were cut. The first to go was none core subjects and included things like art, PE, music, and technology. There was a huge outcry for the arts and PE but technology became an orphan and easy to dispose of. This gave way to an era of “they grew up with technology so they already know it.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Students that enter my classes now are significantly further behind than students of fifteen years ago. Students have a couple of isolated skills but when it comes to a full depth and breadth of technology, they are lacking. During that time there have been pockets of teachers that have kept some of this alive. I have a friend at a school close by that has been fighting this trend and doing an amazing job with her students. Gwynn Moore teaches at a K-8 in the district and I get excited every time one of her students find their way to my high school class.
I would love to see the trend reversed and Technology and Computer Science become a top priority in every school. I want a day where students will have quality instruction that is not based on their location and hope that their school has a passionate teacher. Technology and Computer Science have been threads that have wound their way through my 30-year journey. I am honored that I have been lucky to be in schools that have honored CS and supported my crusade. It all came to a culmination last year when I was named the Project Lead The Way National Computer Science Teacher of the Year for 2021-2022. Some of my friends say that it was because I was a good teacher, still, others say it was because I have been leading this thirty-year crusade. I have a much simpler explanation. I have been in the right spot with good administrators and even better students who found a little of the passion I feel. Many groups are making pushes to make quality CS ubiquitous throughout the country. It is the reason that I hope that my crusade is not coming to an end but just changing venues….
Schools are always in search of trends and community needs. Our job is to provide an educated and prepared workforce. We spend a lot of time preparing students for careers that don’t even exist and it is sometimes a guessing game. My day is spent teaching cybersecurity and was nowhere on my radar when I started teaching in 1993. As a result, we are occasionally wrong. For example, the time I got a class set of Palm Pilots 2 months before smartphones came out and made Palm Pilots obsolete. We also have a tendency to hang on to ideas and equipment that are not working just because “we bought them and we need to use them.” All of that is the prelude to one of my favorite stories of wasted money.
There is staff that is shared between buildings and has to travel. There are many terms used but in our district, they were called itinerant and worked between two or more buildings. Some elementary nurses are an example of people who sometimes work in two buildings. Often the itinerant folks are neglected and don’t have all of the equipment they need. These people also were a part of the Student Services Division and had regular funding streams but also had federal dollars to support the programs. In the mid-1990s a new but clunky device came onto the market. Laptops were beginning to make headway in the computing field and were fast overtaking written communication among professionals. One year a district-level administration decided that all of the itinerant folks needed laptops. So laptops were handed out to all and told they could now use these instead of the machines in offices to conduct business. What a great idea and innovation and more importantly honored the hard work these people did. Here is where things get a little sticky. 1) there was no training other than turning it on, 2) there was no wifi so they still had to go to a machine to do email, 3) they required everything saved on 3.5-inch disks, and 4) they were a Windows 3.1.1 machine in an Apple district so no one knew how to use Windows 3.1.1.
We spent a lot of time as technicians trying to show folks how to use this new fangled device. There was also a consideration of the disks and student confidentiality. The final group was folks who were within sight of retirement and were going to learn one more thing just for a couple of years. During the time we had one left in a parking lot, one left on the roof of the car as they were leaving, and one left a restaurant. This final point is that we were finding these machines in closets for the next 20 years as they were discarded and ignored. Within a year after they were given out I do not remember seeing anyone use them. We had to wait another few years until network wiring was in place and at least laptops had some value when attached to a modem. I named this approach to buying in honor of the person who bought these but I won’t share out of respect and that there are still a couple of folks who might remember him.
As a part of the retirement blog, I will be posting a video/song a week that really speaks to my beliefs and hopes about teaching for 30 years.
One of the distinct joys of teaching is the opportunity to watch students learn new skills that will carry them throughout their lifetimes. Reading instruction is the best example I can think of. It is how kids start to build an understanding of the written word and an opportunity to interact with ideas, beliefs, and experiences that are beyond themselves. I was an avid reader of science fiction when I was in junior and high school. One my favorite memories of school was the junior high school librarian that kept a shelf science fiction in the back for some of us to read. My junior high school principal didn’t think science fiction was “quality” literature so we had to read it incognito like banned books. Mrs. Paluka, (yes, that was her real name) always felt that getting kids interested in reading was the most important obligation of her job. As a kid I was transported to outer space and encountered things that were fantastical but now are common place. I think of Dick Tracy when I answer my phone on my watch.
I believed in these things that I saw in action from Mrs. Paluka. I took those ideals to my classroom and wanted to give students the same adventure, background, and understanding of their world that I had. The simple act of reading can bring all of that to a child and so I took my job seriously and wanted my students to find the same love that I have. I was teaching reading in a time of the Phonics vs Whole Language battle era. I think both have merits but instead of focusing on the system, it made sense to focus on the child and matching instruction to them. I don’t want to fuel the argument that still exists but one simple fact that was true is that the goal of both was to make meaning. That brings me to Amanda. You may remember this first grader from an earlier story and so she is making a second appearance. Her mother had an older daughter who was in high school that was reading Shakespeare and she was also a believer in solely phonics instruction. To the point that she bragged that Amanda as a first grader could “read” anything we had at Montview.
Amanda and her mom brought the reading argument to a head one afternoon when she asked me to let Amanda read Hamlet in class during reading. I sat there stunned as if I had been hit with a well placed Shakespearean insult. I was frozen and was taking a second to fathom the depth of the request. The brief moment allowed her to draw Amanda over and handed her the copy of Hamlet she had brought with her. Amanda dutifully read a portion that her mom had picked at random. Amanda did a very good job of barking out the words phonetically. By this time I had regained my senses to the point of asking Amanda what she had read meant. Her mom broke in and said it didn’t matter because she had “read” the text. I tried to break the awkwardness by saying that Amanda and her sister could read it home and it would also give them time to be together and bond. That did not help. Her mother repeated that she wanted Amanda to read Hamlet in class. I tried to kindly tell her that I had a Minor in English and I had read Hamlet numerous times and I still didn’t fully understand all of the meanings of Hamlet. I went even further to say that Amanda would read Clifford the Big Red Dog in my class and that by the time she reaches high school and is doing Hamlet she would have the background knowledge to grasp meaning. I thought I was being helpful and witty but Amanda’s mother did not.
I was called to the office by the principal shortly thereafter and I was prepared for blow back from my discussion. When I got there the principal asked what had happened and I explained everything. I was surprised when she thanked me because Amanda’s mother had pulled her out of school to home school her. I did not know until then that Amanda’s mom had been a thorn in the side of the principal and she was grateful. When we felt that we didn’t have to worry about her again, three weeks later, our joy came crashing to earth again. She had decided to re-enroll Amanda because she was too hard to handle at home. In one of the most deft handling of a parent I had ever see, the principal told her there wasn’t room in my class and that she would have to go onto green track in our four track year round scheme. The genius of this move was that green track had just gone on break and that Amanda would have to be at home for another three weeks before she started again. My hope is that Amanda now enjoys reading and fully understands Hamlet. She would be in her late thirties so I can only hope that all turned out well.
The greats have debated the importance of a name for centuries. Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet asked about if it really matters: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Dale Carnegie countered: “A person’s name is, to him or her, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” How does this enter the classroom you might ask. I tend to agree with Carnegie about the importance of using a student’s name. I think it makes a connection and tells the students that they are valued and as a teacher I am honoring their family, parents, and often culture.
Now that we have dealt with the philosophical we can talk about the practical. Over the years I have had students with the same name and so we try to find something distinguishing that I can use. Often it is as simple as adding a last initial. One year at Montiview over 25 years ago I had two students named Jose. So far all I have to do is use a last name and then it occurs to me that we have an added twist. we have two Jose Riveras in my class. Luckily I was able to move to the middle initial. So now I had Jose G. and Jose R in the class and we moved along blissfully unaware that there was about to be another wrinkle. After a month we got a new student which was a common place occurrence at Montview. Don’t get ahead of me, because you know where this is going. You are only partially correct! Our third Jose Rivera transferred in and now we had two Jose G. students in the room. I was looking for a physical attribute that I could use that would not offend. I knew if I called one “tall Jose” I was implying that the others were short and might be offended. Luckily I went with: Jose Brown hair, Jose Black hair, and Jose No hair. Nobody was offended and we survived.
You know that it can’t be the end of the story. We moved through the first part of the year and I was blissfully oblivious as a young teacher. Then came the night of parent/teacher conferences that revealed the entire story behind the proliferation of Jose Riveras. All three mothers came in at the same time so I knew that I was going to have to keep the kids sorted out as I went through the group. I did well for the first two meetings and I prepared for the third fully confident that I was in control. The important thing to remember is that all three kids were great students and a dream to teach so I didn’t have to have any difficult conversations. I love simplicity as much as the next person but what happened next may have gone too far. I was meeting with the third mother and as she prepared to leave I made a comment about having three students with the same name. What she said next made my whole night and also showed the importance of family. She said that the boys were all cousins and that they had all been named for their grandfather. I asked why they had all chosen the exact same name and if it caused any problems. She said that they all lived in different towns when the kids were born and never imagined that they would end up in the same city much less the same class. This caused me to lean towards Shakespeare on this critical issue of names. “What’s in a name? That which we call Jose Rivera by any other name will learn just as well!”
- I was reminded of this story as I was attending a Colorado Rockies vs Arizona Diamondbacks game. During the first two times at bat the Diamondbacks designated hitter hit a home run. Obviously he was not one of my three students but it does tell me that every time I write a story or am out in the world I am reminded of more fun things from the last thirty years.
Today’s story starts with an interesting twist. Yesterday was our first snow day of the year. I know what you are thinking and in fact it was 96 degrees outside. Our HVAC chiller was down and so it was sweltering the day before and would have been worse yesterday. We moved to asynchronous classes on the second full day of classes and many students hadn’t even gotten full access to their online learning tools. We are all praying for quick and skilled HVAC technicians. On to the story of the day….
There are students that stay with you forever and become part of the folklore of a career. I have made a conscious effort to focus on the the students that have added a positive twist to that folklore. Elliot was one of these students. He was one of nicest and joyful students I have every had. He also looked like a bowling ball on a couple of toothpicks. I was teaching literacy to second language learners. at the time Primary grades in the morning and intermediate grades in the afternoon. Elliot was in my morning group and earlier in the year when he was in his regular class the fire alarm went off and the teacher warned me that he was afraid of loud noises. I was always on alert and since most fire drills are planned I was able to prepare. Back in those days the fire drill horns were in the hallways except in the mobiles and those were in the rooms. Guess where I was teaching? Teaching in the mobiles had some advantages that I loved but the in-room fire horn was not one of them. The other factor that is needed for the prologue is that there are occasional fire drills run by the local fire department and those were unannounced.
An unannounced alarm came my way one day and when it sounded I went into action. I got to the the door very quickly but not fast enough to contain Elliot. He was out the door, down the stairs, and on his way home. I was in a panic because I hadn’t lost a student yet and today was not going to be the day I did. I told the other students to follow me! We went out after Elliot as a group. He was about 50 yards ahead of us and it took about a block and a half before Elliot’s adrenaline ran out. He was hunched over trying to catch his breath when we got to him. We gathered him up and assured him it would be okay. As we returned we noticed the principal counting the classes on our side of the building. She counted once and then again and did not get the right number. By this time we were huddled behind one of the mobiles and waited. The fire department representative and the principal went back inside to hunt down the missing class somewhere in one of the other playgrounds. When she did we just casually strolled back to out assigned spot. She came back out and counted and came up with the right number and so we were all released back to our classes. She was relieved that we hadn’t lost a class and I was relieved that I hadn’t lost Elliot. I never found out if she knew which class was missing and I never asked. We just all went back to our daily lives. As I think about it now, Elliot would be in has late 30’s now I hope he is doing well. He did leave me a great memory and I hope he has fond memories of our time together.
Sharing rooms with others is sometimes challenging. It requires patience, compassion, and consideration. When I started I was in a year-round school and so 4 of us shared three rooms. You were on track for 9 and off for three. It was even better for us because we were in rooms 1, 3, & 5 so we just moved down the hall over the course of the year. There were some very important lessons I learned about teaching. Critical to teaching year-round is packing everything into a rolling cart that was 4 feet wide and 6 feet high using space wisely. We lived by the rule, “when in doubt, throw it out!” We also learned that if you haven’t used something in 18 months, you didn’t really need it. The other important lesson was consideration and sharing. The work day to move out/in was split into morning and afternoon. The morning was the time to pack and clear out of the room and the afternoon was the time for the person coming on track to set up their room. We worked like a well-oiled machine. When we were cleared out, we finished the day in another space completing paperwork or planning for the next block.
I had the joy of working with some of the finest teachers I have seen and we developed a rhythm to the process. However, there was one minor exception. (You knew this was coming, right?) The teacher that followed me had a ritual of preparing her room and I am sure that she would have been the same to anyone but I still can’t help feeling a little insulted. After I had left the room, she would “cleanse the room” before she moved in. This ritual meant the burning of a stick made from sage. That was bad enough but if you have ever smelled burning sage, it has a similar smell to other things that are now legal in Colorado. One of the times this happened a parent was walking down the hall and smelled the sage. She made a beeline to the main office and the principal to report that a teacher was smoking pot in the primary wing. Lucky the parent understood but the teacher was never allowed to have the door open again when “cleansing” my room.
As I promised as I began I said I would name names but sometimes I withhold the names but those that taught with me thirty years ago can guess! Tomorrow involves a break for freedom!
I taught in a year-round school so we started in the middle of July. As you might expect the temperature was in the upper 90s for a lot of the first month of school. We had a protocol for students that may get hot. Step one was to give them water from the drinking fountain and step two was to sit against the wall in the shade. I had about 25 first and second graders and they loved to run and play. They would come in exhausted and it took a while to calm down, cool down, and drink a lot of water before we began the next lesson. All of these things were well planned and carried out to perfection on most days.
About a week into the year in late July all of that changed. Our plans were foolproof and were a smooth operation. However, if you have ever met a six-year-old, they just scoff at your plans and implement their own. About halfway through recess on a particularly hot day the phone rang in my classroom. I answered the phone to find one of the paraprofessionals in a panic. She said that we have a problem with Amanda and that could I come and pick her up. I was starting to realize that the paraprofessionals also had never had a man in the primary grades. I was required to ask the next question but I really didn’t want to ask. I sheepishly asked, “why?” She then proceeded to explain that she did what she does when she is at home. Again, I don’t want to ask but I go ahead and ask, “what does she do?” I had a feeling what was coming but I waited anyway. “She took all of her clothes off and is running around the playground.” It was at this time that I came to my senses and asked, “how would a 30 year old man picking up a naked child from recess and redressing her, not end up on the 5 o’clock news?” Brenda then realized the new challenges to having a man in primary and I agreed to come out and watch the others while she dressed Amanda.
The good news is that this was resolved to everybody’s satisfaction but stay tuned to this blog because we are not done with Amanda. You will see her resurface over the next few weeks.
A hot day in July 1993 was my first day as a teacher in my own classroom. I was teaching at Montview Elementary in Aurora, Colorado. It was a year-round school in the northern part of the city. It was the oldest portion of the city and had a high transiency rate. I vividly remember standing at the door waiting to open the door. I was 45 seconds late after the other rooms on my side of the building. Our classroom doors open to a kindergarten playground. Students lined up along the wall and were ready to enter the class. Our paraprofessional made sure the students were lined up and ready. My fear had frozen me when the bell rang. I still feel the butterflies as I write this. The only thought in my head was “am I the kind of teacher the kids deserve?” I have had the same thought for the last 5,133 class days. That works out to 1,593 class days in elementary and 17,700+ class periods in high school. Conservative estimates indicate that I have made over 50,000 decisions in teaching over the last 29 years. I run those numbers to highlight that the most critical decision was to open that door on the first day.
I am starting year 30 and will add to those numbers. I think the second hardest decision will be to close the door on May 26th at the end of this year. It will take me much longer than 45 seconds, I am sure. Many people view teaching as a job but I see it as a crusade. To go back to that first day 30 years ago, it is funny to think about the looks on their faces when I emerged. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever had a man as a teacher. I also remember that it was much easier to get down on the floor. These stories will be short but hopefully fun to read. Not to give too much away as a spoiler, but tomorrow includes nudity…….