What Are You Modeling?

Think back on someone memorable, an adult who made a big impact on you when you were a child.  What do you remember well about that person?  Do you remember something they said?  Do you remember something you saw them do?  Do you remember a pattern of things, or single moments?  If you’re like me, you have a variety of answers, depending on the person you are remembering.

Now, think about these two questions:  What do you think the adult was intending to teach you?  What do you think he or she was hoping you would remember?

When you are a teacher (or in any way a significant adult in a child’s experience), it’s almost impossible to say for certain what choices are making a permanent impact, positive or negative, on your students.  I truly believe that the best thing we can do is to continue striving to live our own lives with integrity and character, and build positive relationships with the children in our care as well as the other adults in our lives.  But once in awhile, it’s good to reflect upon those things that our students might be seeing us do and hearing us say.

Yesterday, I was at a quilt show with family, including my 2-year-old niece.  She is impressively aware of her behavior and is visibly developing self-control.  Someone who doesn’t know her would be surprised at how few times she touched the quilts.  And each time she touched the quilts, her momma picked her up and talked to her about how she shouldn’t touch the quilts, and since she touched the quilts she would have to be carried for a few minutes and then she could try again.  And after a few unhappy moments of being carried, my niece would say, “Don’t touch the quilts.”  And my sister would put her down, and my niece would toddle around and look at the quilts (and people, and everything else) and keep her little fingers away from them for a good long while.

One time, I was pointing very closely at something on a quilt, and almost immediately, my niece touched a quilt and was picked up for her “momma time-out.”  I realized, when we pointed so closely to the quilts, it might look like touching.  So from her toddler perspective, it was possible that we were telling her not to touch the quilts, but we were modeling touching the quilts.  I decided to test this theory a little bit, so when she was just about done with her “momma time-out,” I picked her up and cheerily taught her how to point at things we like.  Then I set her down and followed her around for a few minutes, letting her choose what to point at.  A bright and cheery “Don’t touch, but point” became my mantra for a few minutes, and we oohed and aahed at bright colors and boats and butterflies.  It mostly worked, but it just as easily might not have, depending on if I was right about what she was noticing, or a multitude of other factors as well.

The point is, as a teacher (in any capacity of relating to kids), it’s good to examine not only my own choices and intentions, but also what I might be modeling unintentionally.  I might be wrong about their perceptions.  In fact, I certainly will be wrong sometimes.  I can’t read their minds.  But you will be close enough to right often enough to make this a very helpful thing to think about, in the classroom and beyond.

First Principles

It is raining…and raining…and raining some more today.  In fact, it rained so hard this morning that my school district canceled for the day, due to dangerous levels of street flooding.  So I’m just at home, catching up (finally!) on The Last Ship, watching the rain, and thinking about what happens when the “establishing” has gradually and subtly changed in to the “building” of a classroom community.

It’s easy to take a simple system and adapt it to fit your classroom community.  Make the chart, using colors that you like.  Put the right names on the clips.  Find a good place to hang it in your classroom.  Explain to the kids what it all means, and start moving clips around, in response to whatever happens: up for good things, down for bad things.

It’s easy.  Except…it doesn’t work.  At least, not the way I want it to work.  In March, you will still be moving the clips and giving the consequences.  I want students who are different in March than they were in September.

I want students who have more or better strategies for solving problems and expressing big feelings in March than they did in September.  Because, I want my students to be kinder, more compassionate, more responsible people after spending 180 days in my classroom.

I want classroom management to be less work for me in March than it was in September.  Because, less minutes I spend managing behaviors means more minutes I can spend teaching readers and writers and mathematicians.

If those two things are my goals, if those are the things that are important, then my “system” needs to be more complex.  It needs to be based on a way of treating people, principles about how we interact with one another.

Principle #1:  Children are not born innately hurtful.  They are simply born innately self-centered.

Children don’t innately want to hurt each other, or their parents or teachers.  They don’t carry an inner goal of seeing how far they can push you, or doing as much damage as they can, or making someone mad.  They do learn these things, and most kids have an understanding of how to hurt someone out of revenge or anger well before we see them in elementary school.  But this hurtfulness isn’t naturally inside them from the beginning.

Tiny children innately want their own needs met.  And as long as they are only aware of themselves, anything and everything feels like a need to them.

As soon as we start gently and kindly helping kids be aware of the feelings of the people around them, the majority of kids will express empathy and kindness in whatever ways they know how.  They need to be gently awakened to others-centered thinking.  They need us to model others-centered kindness and empathy, and sometimes to teach it explicitly.

Principle #2:  Problems will arise.  We don’t avoid problems.  We solve problems.

If there are no problems, it is possible that I am not allowing myself or my students to act like the human beings we are.  It is possible that I am expecting machines that always respond to a command with a certain response.  School (or dare we say, life) is for learning, and learning is for humanity, not machinery.

Embrace the problems.  Take time for the problems when they happen.  Having problems is how we can become problem solvers.

Principle #3:  The teacher is not the only problem solver in the community.  The teacher is a mentor for the other problem solvers.

Scenario:  Miles tells me, “Taylor keeps calling me ‘Moles’!  He just keeps on doing it, even though I asked him to stop!”  It is so, so, so tempting to walk over to Taylor and try to squash the behavior.

Don’t do it!

You are not the only problem solver in the room, unless you keep solving all the problems!  Be a problem-solving mentor to Miles, and leave Taylor alone.  Empathize with Miles’ feelings.  Discuss Miles’ options.  Ask the class for ideas for Miles.  Suggest a couple of ideas that Miles could try.

Over time, being a problem-solving mentor empowers Miles to solve his own problems.  Being the only problem-solver in the room sends a message to Miles that he has no power in these kinds of situations.

Earlier, we left Taylor alone, but let’s talk about him, too.  Being a problem-solving mentor to Miles sends Taylor a message that you will help him solve his problems, too.  If Miles has more things to try to get Taylor to stop, it gives Taylor more chances to see how his choice affects Miles, and more chances to learn to empathize with Miles.  And it sends Taylor a message that his choices matter, not just when the teacher is around, but when it affects any other human being.

Principle #4: Everyone is doing the best they can right now.  

Toddlers throw tantrums because it’s their only strategy.  Preschoolers grab toys away because it’s the best way they can think of to get what they want.  Second graders call each other mean names because they don’t have anything else to do with these big feelings of hurt or exclusion.

Many problem solving sessions in my classroom start off with me saying, “It looks like you wanted ____, but you didn’t know what to do, so you tried ____.”  Lots of times I have to guess or infer what they might have wanted, and sometimes I make it up altogether.  But choosing to speak in a way that assumes they were doing the best they could at the time leads the way for learning other strategies.

Choosing to speak in a way that assumes they were doing something bad and they need to be punished leads the way for the child to shut down, assume I am mad at them, be mad at me, and not learn a single thing that can actually help him the next time.

Before you move on to respond to a behavior, acknowledge out loud that the child is doing the best thing he can think of.  Even if you’re mad.  Even if you don’t think he is.  Even if your very big feelings say this child should move all the way down the clip chart and never have recess again.  Or worse.  Nothing positive will be accomplished if the student feels attacked.

The Real Miles and Taylor

I am looping with most of my students from last year, since I switched from 1st grade to 2nd grade.  So after a year of community building and problem solving, it didn’t take long for the class to fall back into the routine of solving problems as a class, with my guidance.  (I haven’t witnessed much independent problem solving yet, but I am on the lookout!  It usually appears in January or February, so I’m interested to see if it comes back sooner.)

The real Miles and the real Taylor, names changed of course, have experienced these principles, imperfectly implemented, for a year.  I’ve seen growth in them and the other kids, but it becomes visible in small moments.  I notice growth hours or days later as I’m remembering the conversation or the conflict.

A couple of days ago, Miles said, “I have a problem.  At recess, I was playing basketball with Taylor, and he kept missing.  Every time he did, I said, ‘Fail!’  I don’t think he liked it.”

That was it.  That was Miles’ problem.  He was doing something, someone didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to do it anymore.  He wanted help to treat someone better.  It was unprompted.  Taylor had not tattled on him.  It was after recess, not in the moment.  It was bugging Miles, and he trusted his community with his problem.

His classmates had two suggestions:  He could clamp his hand over his mouth when he felt himself wanting to say that.  He could say, “Try again!” instead.

And let me remind you, we solve problems like this all the time, but usually, it starts with Taylor tattling, and maybe I present Miles’ problem as a secondary problem, after we’ve solved Taylor’s problem.  This took A YEAR!!!  One year before Miles had an others-centered enough community mindset that he could present a problem where he was the one doing something hurtful.  One year before Miles could trust his classmates enough to ask them for help, unprompted.

Have patience and perseverance, my friends!


Agreements 1In my classroom, we make “agreements.”  I start by asking the students, on the first day of school, what kind of teacher they want.  Then on day two or three, I ask them what kind of classmates they want.  I follow that by a few days of “noticing things.”  I notice, out loud, when things happen that match what kind of classmates we all want.  The culmination of all of this is a long, long conversation about what we will do to be classmates like that.  We write these agreements on sentence strips and display them in a permanent place for the year.

Agreements 2

Then…the real work begins.  We need to become community members like this.  For the first week or two, I’ve held things together with my bare hands, or that’s how it feels.  I’ve kept my patience in check, and directed, and redirected, and reminded, and had them “do that one more time, a better way”…without any sort of list of rules or official, spoken structure to my classroom management.  Now, after agreements have been made and displayed, it is time to pass the responsibility of making decisions to the community members who agreed to all of this.  It’s time to put my eyes farther ahead, on character and values, instead of peace and compliance.

Agreements 4 Agreements 3

So, we solve problems.

Brady:  Kyle said that I’m weird.

Me: Oh, I’d be upset about that, too.  Why did he do that?

Brady:  Cuz he’s mean.

Me:  Hmm, I wonder why he decided to do something that would make you so upset.  I’m going to ask him, okay?  Kyle, what happened?

Kyle:  Brady said he didn’t want to sit by me.

Me: Oh.  I bet that made you feel sad.  (Kyle nods.)  Do you want some help from your classmates?  (Kyle nods again.)  Class, someone told Kyle they didn’t want to sit by him, and it made him feel really bad.  His feelings wanted to be mean to that person, but he wants some better ideas.  He needs our help.  Does anyone have any ideas for him?

(There were many ideas like:  Tell Brady you don’t like it when he says that.  Go sit by someone else.  Ignore him and just keep listening to the teacher.)

Me:  Class, I think we gave Kyle lots of ideas to try.  Kyle, let us know how it goes, okay?  But right now, I have a question for everyone.  What do we think about wanting to sit by someone, or not wanting to sit by someone?  What are we going to do in our class this year when we come to sit on the rug?  Do you think we should make an agreement about telling people we don’t want them to sit by us?  What do you guys think about this whole thing?

(Pivotal moment.  We’ve already come to an agreement that we will be kind.  Now I’m prepared to defend individual rights.  I’m expecting to discuss our way to the agreement that it’s okay to choose who you sit by, but it’s not okay to say something unkind.  I’m wondering how we can talk to someone whom we don’t want to sit by, and still be kind.  I’m hoping for some kid wisdom.  Big surprise for the teacher…individual rights is not the value that is growing fastest in our classroom community!)

Yasmine:  We can’t do that!

Me:  We can’t do what?

Yasmine:  You can’t tell someone they can’t sit by you.  It says on the door, ‘We are a school family!’  That means we are all best friends!  You should take care of all of your best friends!

(A chorus of, “Yeah!”  “Exactly!”  “I like that!”  And responsibility to our fellow community members wins the day!)

And suddenly, our agreement to be kind has a new application and deeper understanding.

But sometimes, the problems aren’t what we think they are when we start talking to the people involved.

Kyle:  I didn’t mean Brady couldn’t sit by me.  I’m just stuck next to this wall, and he was sitting too close.  I wanted him to move a little bit, but not sit somewhere else.

Me:  Oh!  So when you told Brady to move, you just needed a little more space?  (Kyle nods.)  Kyle, I have felt like that before, like someone is just too close.  It makes me feel wiggly, and kind of the same as being too hot.  Is that how you felt?  Class, have you felt that way before?

(The chorus of understanding is immediate.)

Me: Class, do you have any ideas for Kyle?  What can he do if someone is sitting too close and he needs a little space?

Miles:  He can say it different, like, ‘Can you move over a little bit?  I need a little more space.’  That way Kyle knows Brady isn’t being mean.

Lola:  He can come over here and sit where there is a bigger space.

Heather:  He could scoot a little bit the other way.  Well, I guess if he wasn’t right next to the wall he could try that.

Me:  Wow, we have three good solutions for this problem.  Kyle, what do you think you’ll try this time?

Brady:  Wait!  I’ll move over a little bit.  Then Kyle has enough room.

Me:  Thanks, Brady.  That was kind; making sure Kyle has enough room to feel comfortable.

And just like that, we’re back to a very simple problem solving.  But it’s worth the whole conversation, because we’ve strengthened the value of kindness in our classroom community.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ve changed ourselves and each other, just a little bit, for the better.

A Word for 2015-2016


I love education.  I am truly and deeply committed to learning as a value, as a lifelong virtue, just like kindness or honesty.

I took advanced placement calculus as a senior in high school.  It was my best AP score, and my college transcripts show that I earned college credit for calculus, as well as a couple more AP tests I took.  I don’t think I use calculus in my daily life; I don’t know what the practical applications are.  And yet, I firmly believe I am a better teacher (and would also be a better real estate agent or nurse or business owner) for having taken calculus.  And French, and chemistry, and my beloved English literature and composition classes.

The specifics of the content don’t matter as much as learning how to learn, learning how to master new things, learning how to tackle challenges.  Learning to value curiosity, creativity, diligence, and tenacity.  These outcomes of a good education are much more valuable than the actual content.

This deeply held belief is one part of the foundation of who I am.

And this is the time of year to intentionally remember who I am.

I am not the one who always wanted to be a teacher.  I have not felt, in these last 10 years of teaching, that I am “living the dream.”  Many teachers say this is their calling, but I don’t.  This is perfectly okay.

My calling is to build community, to establish and nurture relationships.  My dream is to be a force for love and kindness, to leave the world a little better than I found it.

There are many jobs that would be excellent places to express this calling.  And one of them is in the arena of public education.

It’s so very easy to get caught up in the “elementary education” of it all.  Data, reading levels, computation strategies, bubble sheets, pre-assessments, lesson plans, running records, number talks, shared reading, conferring with students, workshop model, project-based inquiry learning…  The district I work for does all of this pretty well.  (Except bubble sheets.  I don’t have anything good to say about bubble sheets.)  But it’s so, so easy to slip into the belief that one of those things, whichever one I’m talking about at the time, is the purpose of my presence in a classroom.

Lots of things are important.  Lots of things can be effective.

But the purpose of my presence in my classroom is the same as my purpose in any other room on earth:  love, kindness, building community, establishing and nurturing relationships.

In a word:  connection.  Nothing means anything without it.

May this be my word for this school year.  May I build a classroom community with deep connections.  May my little classroom family be a force for love and kindness in our school family.  May they take what they learn in my classroom and be little forces of love and kindness in their families and friendships.  May I bring kindness and connection to my relationships with my team and my colleagues.  May I continue to nurture the connections with friends and family through these busy 10 months.

May I return to remembering this word (and all the meaning it holds) whenever I need to.


The theme of my life the past few days has been:  You can’t capture something in a photograph.

But I keep trying.


The heat and humidity of July transform my view into a lush, green, vibrant scene full of life.  Oh, how I love this place I call home!  I’m not spending much time on my deck this summer because a family of swallows has built their home up near the ceiling when I wasn’t paying attention.  I don’t want to evict them when they’re just trying to raise their children.  Full disclosure…also because it freaks me out when they swoop at me.  My tomatoes are dead because I stopped watering them, and it’s worth it to not be dive-bombed by angry bird parents!  So I will happily enjoy the view from indoors until they migrate for the winter.


A couple of months ago, the pastor at my church was describing spiritual gifts, and he described musicians and “conduits of the Holy Spirit.”  He said that when we play or sing, we allow ourselves to be a channel for God’s presence to flow through us into the people who are listening.  That perfectly describes my experience of playing music…not just at church, but so many of my experiences with singing and playing over the years.  I feel a power and divine presence sometimes that I often try and fail to describe.  Pastor Mark labeled it accurately.

Sometimes I don’t know how to choose a church, how to keep committing to be a member of this community of believers week after week.  Sometimes I don’t know how to decide if a point of disagreement is a reason to leave or not.  Sometimes I don’t know if the fact that I respect the pastor and love the ministry outweighs the fact that I am supremely uncomfortable with this church’s stance on one issue.  Sometimes I don’t know if this church thing is for me at all, when I’m really more of a “rogue Jesus follower” and I like it that way.

But when I sit with the view you see here, when the Divine is flowing through me and filling the room with power and presence…it feels like none of that matters.


Oh, this sky.  As beautiful as it is in the photo, it was even more glorious in person.  You cannot easily contain the size of the sky in a photograph, can you?


“Dig deep.  Find your way to your soul.”  –Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures

I want.  I want more.  Everyone wants.  Money, food, sex, possessions, fun, achievement, admiration…  Want is definitely a part of the human experience.  It’s inescapable.

And yet…

We mostly try to do the impossible.  To escape the wanting.  To quell the craving.  Even to shame that wanting part of ourselves.  To say to the part of ourselves that craves, “This is not acceptable.  This is not good.  I must extinguish this wanting.  I must learn not to crave anything at all.”

This dissonance between who I am and who I have believed I am supposed to be is in my story.  Is it in yours?

Sometimes it’s about food, sort of.  On Sunday morning I had a frozen caramel latte (extra shot, no whip of course!) on the way to church.  Around noon I was on my way to school to work in my classroom for awhile, and I wanted another espresso drink.  I really, really craved one.  I was hungry for more of that milky coffee flavor, and I knew another dose of caffeine would motivate me through a few hours of work when I’d rather be at home.  So I drove through Starbucks and got an iced caramel macchiato.

You would think the voices in my head would say, “You don’t need that.”  Or, “You shouldn’t spend your money on that.”  Or, “You shouldn’t eat that much sugar.”  But they don’t.  It’s my money and my body, and those choices are mine to make.  It’s not that I believed that I was making a healthy or financially responsible choice.  It’s just that guilt and shame weren’t present in the decision making.

No, the voices were actually saying:  “You shouldn’t want this.  You shouldn’t crave this.  You shouldn’t be hungry for more.  Why are you always hungry for more?  Your desires should fit in the boundaries of moderation.”  The guilt and shame is not about the food.  The story of the expensive coffee is one, small, mostly uninteresting part of a larger pattern.  In your story, you might replace the expensive coffee with binge-watching a TV series, or playing a video game, or shopping.  The hunger is human experience.  The object of the hunger is just details.

“I am a hungry woman.  I am hungry for love, for acceptance, for belonging, for meaning.  I am desperate for God.  I am aware of the aching abyss inside me of which many have written.”  –Stasi Eldredge, Becoming Myself

What if this hunger is not a brokenness, but my true, beautiful nature?  What if God made me this way so that I would not be satisfied with myself, satisfied with this world or with the empty things we find here, but always wanting more?  What if my always wanting more is meant to show me what God is like, always bigger, always more than I can experience?  What if this always wanting more shows me what I am, as an eternal being, as a soul who one day will not be confined in an earthly body?

“What we need is a relentless appetite for the divine. We need a holy ravenousness.”  —Jason Todd

This ravenousness is beautiful.  It gives me a great capacity for life, for love and fun and achievement.  It keeps me moving forward, always growing and changing and learning.  It shows me what my relationship with the divine can be, what I can be.

So I encourage you, as I encourage myself:  Go deep.  Let the hunger be big, let it be beautiful.  Dive into the insatiable abyss and seek what your soul is truly wanting.

Making Space


Television and blu-ray player, off duty!

And so it begins.

Giving up TV for Lent has become the standard by which all my other Lenten practices are compared.  The first year I tried it, I had a gentle yet spiritually transforming experience.  This year, I want to do it again.  I don’t know what God has in mind for me in the next six weeks.  But I know why I want to do this.

The Rules:  When I am home alone, I will not watch TV six days a week.  This will also include DVDs and any form of online video (Netflix, etc.).  One day a week, to be decided upon each week as my schedule allows, I will be free to watch whatever I want.  When I’m on the treadmill at the gym, I am free to watch Netflix on my phone or whatever.  And any sick days or snow days are total exceptions.

Why give up something for Lent?  Everyone who does it certainly has their own reasons.  My purpose is simple:  I want to give up something that I don’t really need but isn’t inherently bad, and watch to see how God fills that space.

Why TV?  It’s not too important or unimportant.  It’s something I use to deal with stress and tiredness and boredom, but not something I can’t get through the day without.  It’s something I enjoy, but I don’t have a deep passion for.  And most importantly, it fills up more space in my life than its value deserves.  TV sucks away my time without my awareness.  It prevents me from feeling (and dealing with) loneliness or boredom.  Its absence would leave a nice large space for God to fill.

Why allow TV one day a week?  I don’t have a spiritual answer.  The truth is, the first year I did this, I ended up continuing to leave the TV off several days a week for many months after Lent was over.  I felt like it taught me how to put TV back in a space in my life that matched its value to me, rather than overtaking my life and my home without me realizing it.  I’m afraid if I go completely TV-free, I will want to do nothing but watch TV when Easter comes.

Why make exceptions for running on the treadmill or sick days or snow days?  Because whatever gets me on the treadmill is worth its weight ten times over!  And if I’m sick enough to stay home, I’m already as miserable as I need to be, and anything that helps pass the time until I feel better is good.  I’m not sure I will make an exception for snow days…but we probably won’t have any more anyway!

How was day 1?  Why, thank you for asking!  ;)  It was lovely, but not life-changing.  The TV and blu-ray player are unplugged until Saturday.  As you might expect, I went a little overboard the last few days, knowing this was coming, and my housework has been neglected.  So day one was mostly about dishes and laundry!

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