Change and Where It Leads

This post has been one of the hardest to even begin and especially write. It’s a post that I’ve been ready to write but also one that I don’t even know how to begin. I am writing a post announcing a change in my career but also it’s not a change. I’m writing to say that starting July 1, I will become the principal at St. Anselm School!

I have been looking forward to this opportunity for many years. When I first started in education, I always felt that I would end up in administration. I’m not sure what made me feel that way, but I just always felt that it would be where I would end up. Now, I am there.

Along my journey to becoming a principal, I have had many challenges. I have had rejections, close calls, and many no responses to applying. Yet, through all of these moments, I never stopped. Do I know why I faced all of these challenges? No, I don’t. What I do know is that I used every challenge I faced to prepare me for the opportunity to I am about to embrace.

As I went through my journey as a teacher, I am so grateful for every class, student, family, and teacher I worked with. Every person I encountered has provided me some bit of knowledge that made me a better teacher and person. From my first start in education at the high school level, to my subbing experiences in North Ridgeville and VA-SJ, I gained valuable knowledge. When I entered into the administrative realm of education I started with my internship at St. Ignatius High School. I worked with the great administrators there that supported me and still support me to this day. For each one of these people, I am so thankful!

As I continued on in education, I went to the elementary level and joined the community of St. Michael in Independence. It was there that I began working at the elementary level for the first time. I found 5th grade to be one of the best grade levels to teach. I also was given some administrative responsibilities that made my drive to become an administrator even stronger. I had my moments of challenges during my time there, but I grew from them and I know that I will be a better administrator because of them.

I then moved on to Communion of Saints School in Cleveland Heights, where I started teaching 5th grade again and in the same classroom number as I previously had…Room 210! It was here that I approached the principal early on and asked for even more guidance to help develop my administrative skills. I was granted several responsibilities that helped me understand the intricacies of administration and even more about the responsibilities the position has. I know that I am better prepared for my next role in education because of the guidance and support that I received.

I also am grateful for the teachers that I have worked with over the past 12 years in my career as an educator. I have found educators that have become more than my colleagues but rather my friends. I have found educators that I know I can trust and lean on. You might be surprised by this, but being an educator is not an easy job! I am so grateful for those that I have worked with as a teacher and I know that you have helped prepare me for my next role as a principal.

I am also grateful for the families that I have worked with over the years. Their support of me and the ideas they have shared have helped me to understand the needs of the community and how to effectively communicate with these critical stakeholders of a school community. I appreciate the support that they have provided me and I have truly grown in my desire to lead a school community because of the families I have worked with.

Most importantly, my desire to become a principal has been led by the students I have had in class and encountered throughout the schools I have been. Each student has made me better. Every student has found a way to impact me as an educator. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the students. Now I am excited that I am able to be the lead learner of a school and support each and every student in a school.

Change, for me, is very difficult. Once I become connected to a school community, I find it very difficult to leave. Yet, this change is not my doing. I keep reminding myself that I am not where I want to be, but rather where I need to be. Being in Catholic education is a vocation and not a job. I am called to be a principal. Yes, I want to be a principal and yes, I want to be at St. Anselm. It is where I am called to go. Will I miss Communion of Saints School? Absolutely. Will I forever be grateful for the opportunity that they provided me? Absolutely. Change is what I need to do. Change is leading me to become a leader.

I thank you for your continued support and prayers as I prepare for my next role as principal of St. Anselm School.

Spring Break Professional Development…The Ron Clark Academy Experience

Earlier this school year, my principal asked if any teachers would be interested in attending the Ron Clark Academy Experience during the week of our Spring Break. After some thinking about it and looking to see if it would be possible to go, I made the decision to say yes to the opportunity to attend the RCA Experience…and I’m very happy that I did!

Me with Mr. Ron Clark

My first encounter with Ron Clark was when I found out about his book, the Essential 55. The Essential 55 are rules and procedures that a student, or really anyone, could use to be a more respectful and polite person. The idea is that if students learn these Essential 55, that the behavior and understanding of the classroom process would naturally follow with politeness and respect. Over the years I attempted to implement the Essential 55 in my classroom but it became very challenging. With students having several different teachers, and policies and procedures being different across the school, it became a struggle and I eventually just pushed them off to the side.

My next encounter with Ron Clark was at the Spark Conference this past August. He was the keynote speaker and his talk really brought me back to the Essential 55. I wanted to bring them back but then the school year began and the everyday activities of the classroom just took over. After much reflection, I wish I did implement them this year.

These opportunities I had with Ron Clark led me to much interest into going to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. The Ron Clark Academy is a school that was not only built with students in mind, but also educators. Each classroom is designed to have areas of observation for visiting educators. Teachers are open and willing to share their techniques and own experiences not because their techniques are correct but rather because they are effective.

Courtyard in between the school buildings

When I arrived at the Ron Clark Academy, there was music blasting, teachers dancing, and educators looking all around with many confused faces since they were unsure of what they were supposed to do! Many started dancing and greeting each other even though many of them have never met before. There was a real interest in building positive, professional relationships!

After checking in, there was more time for socializing before I headed into the school. Once the doors opened, that’s when the RCA Experience really began. There were students lining the hallways, music blasting, and an excitement that was going to define the next 2 days. As you walk through the student lined hallways, the students are waving their hands, giving fist bumps, and high fives. You walk through Dragon Alley and then into the rotunda that has a flying dragon on the ceiling. Then you enter the auditorium.

Rotunda of the Ron Clark Academy

Once I was in the auditorium, there was more music, fog machine, and lights just welcoming everyone! (If you haven’t noticed yet, music is quite important to the RCA Experience!) It was here where we were given a rundown of the next couple of days. We were given the 5 Ws…who, what, when, where, and why…and the ever important how. Who would we see? What would we see? When would we see it? Where would we see it? Why would we see it? How does it happen? We then heard a keynote speech from Ron Clark. We were told his story and how everything came to be. We also heard from Kim Bearden, who is the co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy, who explained her role and why she is so supportive of the Ron Clark Academy. The one thing that really overwhelmed me was that every teacher at the school had such a strong passion for what they do and that they want to share it with others. I could really tell that they truly focused on relationships first and that they want to see all of their students succeed.

Ron Clark giving his keynote address
Me with Mrs. Kim Bearden, co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy

When I was finished in the auditorium, that is when classroom observations began. This is where seeing how the Essential 55 and the procedures that are used throughout the school were implemented. It was often explained that getting to the point of where students are today was not a simple process. Students had to break many of the instincts that they previously had to adjust to the routines that take place in the classrooms at RCA. These procedures include not raising your hand but stand to talk and only begin speaking once the teacher makes eye contact with you and giving the floor to another student if you do begin speaking at the same time. This was very interesting to observe but at the same time very positive. It is something that I would like to work on the rest of the school year.

Another challenging piece to begin implementing will be free movement around the classroom. Now, students do not just get up and walk around whenever they want, but the way that they go back and forth to their seats is much different. Many of the classrooms I observed had students sitting at tables. Students were free to walk across tables. While this could be seen as distracting, it actually works. I would see students stand on their chairs to respond to questions, but at the same time, teachers would be standing on tables and desks to teach. It is not a distraction, but rather a position where everyone can see and focus on.

Mr. Thompson teaching science while standing on a table.

I visited other classrooms while there and many showed that consistency in procedures throughout the school helps make transitions seamless. Also, each class plays music as students arrive or even during the class. The music sets the tone for the day, gets students energized, and creates movement for students. Movement was another huge part of the work at RCA. Movement stimulates the mind and creates opportunity for recall of key terms or concepts. This is another practice that I would like to begin using in my own classroom.

When I visited the classroom of Mr. Ron Clark, it was something different…but in a good way. The first part of the class there was no speaking by him but rather students were responding to his sign language and other non-verbal cues. Students were then given a problem to work on and once it was figured out correctly, they went around and helped other students, all while not speaking but rather using hand gestures. The engagement level was very high but the engagement was not distracting but rather guiding.

Students helping to check the work of other students.

Now, I can see how many of you may think that this school is just a place where kids stand and dance on desks and that there’s no order or learning going on. From my own eye witness account, that is not true at all. Students were able to respond with critical thinking skills, great recall, and respect and care for the learning environment. I also noticed that there were times when students were not always on task and the teachers were quick to point it out and bring the students back to the learning.

Another interesting procedure I picked up from RCA is that there is a strong focus on vocabulary. The process by which the reading/vocabulary teacher, Korey Collins has students work on vocabulary. He has students repeat the word, repeat the definition, discuss the word, while also doing a gesture that helps recall the word. Students are then asked to respond to the class while doing the gesture every time they say the word. It has been a proven practice for him and one that I would like to start to use.

Another aspect of the Ron Clark Academy that I would like to see used is the house system. The house system is when the students are divided into four different groups that all focus on a positive trait…Amistad (friendship), Isibindi (courage), Reveur (dreamers), and Altruismo (givers). Students work to get points to be the leaders and work as a team to succeed. There is competition among the groups but the overall success of the system is how students work together as a community to cheer each other on. I chose to join Altruismo when I was at RCA. Let’s Go A-L-T-R-U-I-S-M-O!

Team Altruismo!

So many questions develop after visiting RCA. Some of these questions include “How can my school ever pay for all of this stuff?”; “How can I do this since I don’t have the backing of Coca-Cola, Oprah, and all those big names?”; “Why would I ever let my student stand on desks and listen to music when they come in?” The answer to these questions is quite simple…you don’t have to do everything! The main take away from my 2 days at RCA is that relationships need to happen before anything else! Students need to feel that they are accepted and welcome. Students need to feel like it is there school. Building relationships doesn’t cost anything! All it takes is a smile, eye contact, and some welcoming words. Once those simple practices start to happen, relationships will evolve and, hopefully, everything else falls into place.

While relationships with students is important, there needs to be focus on the relationships between teachers. Teachers need to uplift and value the work of other teachers. It is not the place of teachers to question other teachers but rather it is there place to check in on them and ask how they’re doing. They should observe the work of other teachers and show that they are continuously learning. Be models of learning and models of support for our students.

Overall, my 2 days at the Ron Clark Academy were fantastic. I can’t wait to begin implementing some of the basic practices that I learned and work to strengthen the relationships that I already have. I am also ready to begin to bring some new ideas and concepts to my new endeavor!

Thank you to everyone at the Ron Clark Academy for a great 2 days! I’m looking forward to working with you all more in the future!

Snow Days!

Today, I am sitting at home, enjoying some hot chocolate, and watching The Price is Right! It’s the same tradition that I have had as a child on a snow day! Today’s snow day was a bit different than ones I have had in the past. Today’s snow day was called yesterday when the impending Winter Storm Landon was about to arrive and drop anywhere between 10-15 inches of snow over the area. As I’m looking out the window, I can safely say that we are definitely on the way to hitting that mark!

While I knew yesterday evening that there was no school today, something about waking up in the morning and turning on the radio or television and just waiting to see or hear your school name was so exciting or upsetting…depending on the outcome! The anticipation of not knowing made it so much better when you would hear that school was closed! Today text messaging, robo calls, email, and social media take out a bit of the suspense, but the result is still the same…excitement!

Following the weather forecasts over the past couple of days led me to believe that today was going to be a snow day, but the students were still unsure, and I found that quite humorous. They said they would wear their pajamas backwards or inside out, throw ice cubes in the toilet, a spoon under their pillow, and a white crayon in the freezer just to make sure! A few of these I heard of, but the crayon and the spoon are ones that I never heard before. This is what makes snow days so wonderful…kids anticipate and are excited for them! Are they excited to not go to school? No. Are they excited that they can have a day to be a kid and maybe enjoy the snow? Absolutely!

With the advancements in technology, sometimes schools are going remote on days when weather is inclement and having classes online. While it is a great benefit, students are kids and need days like today to just be a kid. When I say students, I am not just limiting that phrase to elementary. High school students need these days as well. Yes, if there are numerous days of being off, then perhaps going remote or asynchronous could be helpful. For a one-time event, then snow day it is!

A snow day could be a day of self-discovery and learning. If the weather is cooperative enough, students can create snow forts, snowmen, snow angels, or anything else that their mind can come up with! That right there is learning! That right there is putting what they have learned into practice! These are the moments that make snow days so beneficial. Also, students need time to decompress…as do teachers!

Whenever there is a snow day, the safety of all is of most importance. We need to value our students, teachers, families, staff, and all of those that work within our community. We need each and every one that adds to our community to be safe.

Snow days are what students look forward to. Teachers enjoy them as well. Snow days are just a natural process within schools….in Northeast Ohio at least! While I do miss the anticipation of watching television and listening to the radio, receiving a text message saying there’s no school is still exciting…it makes me feel like a kid when I’m sipping my hot chocolate and watching The Price Is Right!

My #OneWord for 2022…Believe

“I believe in hope. I believe in Believe.”- Ted Lasso

Wow! Can’t believe that it is already 2022. These past couple of years have seemed like they have lasted forever while at the same time it feels like it was just yesterday that it was March 12, 2020…the day when we went into remote learning and our lives drastically changed. I have learned so much about myself, society, and education ever since that day, and I believe I have grown for the better because of it.

This year I have chosen the word “Believe” for my #OneWord for 2022. I have so much to believe in for myself, my family, my students, and the world. Our society is an amazing thing. My students are some of the best you can ever have. My family is so supportive and caring. Myself…that is where I need to believe more.

The past couple of years I have had several challenges that have caused me to lower the way I think about myself. I felt that I had opportunities that were positively suited for me and I was overlooked. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. I felt that my time will never come along. Taking these lessons and making the most of them is challenging, but necessary.

After these challenges, I came across a television show that I never expected to help me in so many ways. This show is about a coach that is given an opportunity that he may not look the most suited for but takes every opportunity to make it the best and guide those around him to success. I found this show to be something that actually is quite inspirational. This show is Ted Lasso.

One line from the show that I have found to be helpful is the following: “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory.” I need to be a goldfish. I need to briefly remember these challenging moments but then move on to find the good in the other opportunities around me. I need to believe in myself and realize that when things do not go the way that I want them to that I need to move forward and use that 10-second memory and find excitement in the next challenge.

But why the word “Believe”? Believe is a verb that means to accept (something) as true; feel sure of the truth of. I need to do! I need to believe that I am able to achieve the next level! Simply, I need to believe in myself more. This word also comes from Ted Lasso. He places a sign up in the locker room that says believe to remind his players to believe that they can succeed. I have done the same in my classroom.

I believe that with the support of my family that I will be able to be the best me that I am able to be. I know that I have a long way to go to becoming my best, but I believe that I am on the right path. I am so thankful for my family, especially my wife, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now without them. I believe they are my strength and I will challenge myself to believe in myself more.

My students are so great! I believe that they will become some of the finest future leaders of our society. Their intentions, their compassion, and their resilience gives me hope for our future. My current class and my previous classes are all filled with these characteristics and this inspires me to continue to become better. They are a huge inspiration to me and I believe in each and every single student that I encounter.

Our society and nation is one I still believe in. I believe that we can unite and overcome the challenges facing our nation. I believe we need an understanding of what makes each one of us unique and how that makes us a great nation. I believe this is possible with a little bit of care for one another. I still believe that we will come through this pandemic with a greater sense of care and love for our neighbors.

I don’t want to say the whole cliché of “New Year, New Me” or “This is my year!”, but I will say this, each day I will continue to believe in myself and I will work my hardest to be better than I was yesterday. I believe that with each day I will begin to become more successful and hopefully achieve my career goals. I also believe that everyone around me will help me become even better. I know that I cannot make it through this journey alone. I believe that every person I encounter has a purpose for being in my life. I need to learn from them and make this year one that will push me forward.

I do not know what this year has in store for me. I do believe that I am where I need to be. I may not be where I want to be, but I am where I need to be. I believe that I will be even better than I was last year, and wherever the road leads me, I believe it is the right thing for me!

What Makes a Teacher?

As I reflect on this past weekend, I begin to fully understand the meaning of the word teacher. A teacher isn’t defined by a degree but rather by the actions and methods used to further a person’s knowledge on a topic. A person doesn’t need a degree but rather a passion for what they love.

My Uncle Sean was a teacher in my life. He did not have a degree in education, but rather his passion and joy of music, theatre, and life is the tool that allowed him to be a teacher.

If you know me, you probably know the music that I listen to. If you didn’t know me, you would probably never guess the style of music that I listen to. I enjoy listening to alternative, Ska, Irish rock, classic Oldies, showtunes, and many others. How did I come into most of this music? Well, simply because my Uncle Sean taught me to appreciate and value all different kinds of music!

One of my favorite stories about my uncle was when we were at a Barenaked Ladies concert at Blossom Music Center. We were sitting in the pavilion and the crowd was around 18,000-19,000. Now, my uncle was an on-air radio personality and music director for a couple of radio stations in Cleveland. My uncle would pick and choose what songs were to be played. My uncle was the first person to play Barenaked Ladies on the Cleveland airwaves and quite possibly in the United States. When we were standing there at the show, he looked at me and said “None of these people would be here if it wasn’t for me.” I was like, “Wow…you can actually say that because you started playing them!” That showed me that you can take risks and attempt to be the first to do something and who knows what success you might have!

Another way Uncle Sean taught me was through enjoying life. Some may think of me as a quiet individual while others may see me as quite outgoing. Well, I get that from my uncle. There were many times when I would be at his work and karaoke was going on. Well, I do enjoy singing (I’m not that good at it) but I don’t necessarily have the confidence to go do it. If I needed support, my Uncle Sean would get up and sing with me. We’d sing “Mack the Knife” or “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. That was the support I needed to get up and perform in front of others. He taught me to enjoy the moment and get up and share what you want, even if you think you are not that good at it!

My Uncle Sean also taught me a lot about the city of Cleveland. You may be wondering how he did this…well, I will tell you. My uncle worked for a promotions company. One of his jobs was to deliver products for promotions to different locations around the city of Cleveland. Well, since I was typically free during the week and in the summer, Sean asked me to assist him by driving around with him. We would usually start off our days by grabbing a bite to eat somewhere (always great learning about new restaurants in the area) and then going to the storage unit to pick up the products. We would then drive around the city of Cleveland and surrounding areas dropping off materials. We would travel to the far east side, through downtown, and then over to the far west side. I had great conversations and learned about the amazing city we live in because of the invaluable time I had on our journeys. We developed so many inside jokes from these times “The cups are in the van.” “You know what I always say??” “If I had a nickel for every time I said that.” Having a great relationship was when learning was happening.

These are just a few of the ways that Uncle Sean taught me about life. I’m sure I could keep going, but I just want you to reflect more on the people in your life that do not have a degree in education but are the teachers in your life. My Uncle Sean sure is a teacher.

My #OneWord2021…Me

Each year I choose one word to focus on. This year I have chosen the word “me”. Yes, this may seem very self-centered or conceited, but in a deeper way, it truly isn’t either of those. Choosing the word “me” will allow me to be an even stronger person in the long run.

Me: used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself as the object of a verb or preposition. That is how the word “me” is defined in the dictionary, but it means more than that. It means the physical presence that I bring. It means my focus on what I do and say. It means how I see myself.

So why the word “me”? 2020 was a year that I would never say was a bad year. I would definitely say it was a challenging year, but it was a year that allowed me to grow in my passion for my work as an educator. At the same time though, I lost my focus on other areas of my life that I needed to remain focused on. So now I need to find ways to bring my focus back to where it needs to be.

Focusing on “me” will allow me to grow even more as an educator, but in a way that finds a balance between my work and personal life. If I can focus on “me” I will become better in the different areas of my life. I will also learn to focus on care for myself in different ways. I want to be more physically active so that I can get into better shape. This focus on “me” will allow me to be more energized and ready to spend more time enjoying nature and life outside of work.

I also want to focus on being more reflective. I want to think about what I want to accomplish each day and reflecting upon how my actions and words allowed me to accomplish the objectives of the day. By creating daily goals and reflecting upon achieving those goals, the larger goals that I want to accomplish will become more defined and broken down into smaller goals and not as overwhelming.

I also want “me” to challenge myself to show my leadership skills. I want to be able to find new ways for “me” to identify areas in my career that I can improve but I also want to find areas of my personal life that I can improve.

My focus on the word “me” is not selfish. Focusing on “me” will allow me to become a stronger person. It will allow me to be a better person. It will allow me to become the person that I know I can be.

So as we move forward in our lives, let us all take this year to focus on “me”. Now I don’t mean everyone look at me, but rather focus on the “me” in your life. We have to slow down and remember that when we are at our best, whether that is emotionally, physically, or socially, we can be our best for others. I need to become the best for myself so that I can be the best for everyone in my life.

So as I move forward in 2021 focusing on “me”, I want you all to support me. I want you to let me know how I can be better. This year is bout “me” becoming better for you!

Thankful…So Many Reasons Why I Am!

This school year has truly been unique! The uncertainty about how we would open…how students would respond to the new protocols…how families would support the decisions and protocols…and so many more! Even with all these concerns, worries, and uncertainties, one thing that I had to continuously remind myself is this…I need to be thankful for the opportunity that I have been given.

From what you hear on the news and everything, you would think that there isn’t anything to be thankful for in our world. Pandemic…rioting…racial tension…political divides…natural disasters…and toilet paper shortages. The list can go on and on. Yet, why don’t we just stop and reflect upon thinking about what this year has made us more aware of what we should be thankful for.

First of all, I am thankful for my family. My family has been an amazing support for me, especially my wife. She has been a true blessing for me and I know that I need to show my true appreciation for her even more! She has been there for me during my lowest and hardest times of this crazy year and I know there is no way I can ever repay her for what she has done for me. My parents, sister, and extended family have also been a true blessing for me. I have found a deeper gratitude for what they have done for me and I appreciate those moments that I have with them even more now than ever.

Secondly, I am thankful for my faith. This year has been truly hard in the sense of my faith. Not being able to attend mass in-person because of the pandemic has been challenging. I enjoy going to Mass and celebrating in the joy of the Eucharist. Yes, I know that Mass is again open, yet the comfort level for attending is still not that high so we haven’t gone yet. Why am I thankful though? I am thankful because I know that when I do attend in-person again, I will feel the amazing presence of Christ in the Eucharist more than ever before.

Thirdly, I am thankful for my colleagues. I have had many amazing colleagues from every school I have worked. Each one has guided me on my path of education by supporting me or by showing me effective and innovative ways to reach my students. I am so fortunate to have been surrounded by educators that see past curriculum and grades to recognize that students will truly want to learn only when they know that teachers care and support them. Many of my colleagues take that idea and place it first in their teaching. I am so thankful that I have seen so many educators strive to do the best for their students.

Fourth, I am thankful for my fellow educators that push me to be even better. These are not educators that I have worked with, but rather the educators that I have grown to know through Twitter and other professional learning networks (PLN). One PLN that has been an amazing resource for me has been the Teach Better Family. While having educators that I work with support me is wonderful, it is also important to have a group of educators from outside your building and area to throw ideas off of and to share with. This year has been so much easier for me because of the support of my fellow educators on Twitter. Because of my PLN, I was able to be on my first podcast and have been invited to do more. So thankful of the work that they do to make me better.

Fifth, I am so thankful for the community of school, Communion of Saints. The parents and community have been so wonderful to me during my first year there and even through the start of this year. From the birthday surprise last year, through the game nights of the pandemic, and through the support of educating their children, the parents and community have the best interests of the students in mind and I couldn’t be happier with where I am.

Sixth, I am thankful for the reason that I am an educator…the students! Each student has made me a better educator and I know I wouldn’t be where I am without them. This year I am thankful for the work that they are doing to keep each other safe. The extra protocols and safety measures that the school has implemented have been challenging, but the students have done a remarkable job in doing what is needed to stay safe. My class this year has been amazingly supportive of me and the other students. I feel that this group has been a close family and they want to see each other be the best they can be. Students have made me want to be better. They have made me want to challenge myself to do everything I can to make their learning experience the best it can be. I am so thankful for them.

Throughout all the struggles, challenges, and difficulties of this year, one thing that I have found to remain constant is that there is so much to be thankful for. If we constantly consume ourselves with the negativity, disruptions, and hardships that this year has given us, we will lose focus on the great things that make us who we are. Our family, support network, and the reason that we do what we do.

Let us change our focus to appreciate the moments, experiences, and reasons that make us happy. Don’t forget the great things. Be thankful for those around you and do whatever you can to make them better each and every day!

Back to School!

5th Graders engaging in an educational activity!

Well, I’ve been back in the classroom for nearly 3 weeks now. Are things looking a bit different this year than last year? Absolutely! Are there some feelings of anxiety? Of course! Are there moments of uncertainty? Obviously! Am I glad to be back? You know it!

This school year has started off unlike any other school year. Daily temperature checks for myself and my students. Getting used to extra technology in my classroom that I have never worked with before. Measuring the distance between desks. Just so many unique experiences, but do you know what is still present in my school and in me? Dedication to serving and educating these amazing students!

My school started the year teaching in-person and remotely. It’s challenging! Engaging students who are at home while also engaging students in-person creates obstacles, yet also opportunities. This is the year for teachers to push themselves to try new things. This is the year to take risk with students and rise up to overcome the obstacles. If there was ever a time to let teachers leeway in there lessons, this is it! Let us find new ways to connect with our students in a way that promotes growth through new opportunities.

As a teacher, I want to see my students be better today than they were yesterday, and better tomorrow than they are today. Will students always achieve that? No, but I can help them move forward and build the “want” to be better. Students will falter, but they need to understand the why and build upon that to become better.

Each day starts off with seeing students walk up the stairs and down the hallway. They are greeted with a thermometer to check their temperature. I can’t tell if they are smiling or not behind the mask that they are wearing, but all I can do is provide them with a positive good morning greeting and welcome them back into the classroom. Not being able to see the smiles is a struggle for me. I find that the energy my students bring to the classroom energizes me, but this year is different. I am the one that needs to bring the energy. I am the one that needs to deliver the extra morning boost…and let me tell you this…it’s exhausting!

I am feeling more tired this year than I have in the previous starts of school years that I have encountered. Perhaps this is from the extended absence from the classroom than I am used to, or perhaps it’s because there are so many extra responsibilities that I have to do each day to make sure the classroom is ready for students. Each day I need to make sure the desks have been cleaned, that the desk shields are ready for use, that the desks are still distanced, that the camera and other technology are still working correctly, that I have taken my own temperature and recorded the information properly…all of this along with the regular activities of planning and teaching, ensuring that the student work is available for both in-person students and remote learners, taking the boys in my classes to the restroom and walking up stairs at least 6 times a day, and responding to emails and contacting parents. It very well could be a combination of both, but whatever it is, I do get exhausted throughout the day. I know that this will eventually be decreased, but right now, it is a challenge.

Yet, being back in the classroom is exciting. Yes, I can’t see the smiles and I am getting quite tired each day, but those things are lessened because I’m back where I feel like I belong…the classroom! This environment brings me hope, joy, and strength. I see teachers rising up and using new technology. Sure…the technology may not always work as we want it to, but we still make learning happen. Teachers are working to educate students wherever they are! They are working to make students feel accepted, loved, and cared for by their school community. This is where my hope, joy, and strength come from! There is one greater source of all these for me…and that source is the students.

I have heard educators say that there is no way students will be able to comply with all the new rules and regulations that schools are going to implement in regards to safety measures. Students wearing masks all day? Nope…can’t happen! Students walking down the hallway properly? Good luck with that! Students physically distancing from one another? They’re kids and they won’t do it! Well, students CAN do it and students ARE doing it! You know how you make that happen? You show that you believe in them! You show them that you care for them! Is everything perfect everyday? No, it’s not, but nobody is perfect. Are the students exceeding expectations? They have met the expectations and they are exceeding them! They’re doing it because we have created an environment where they feel supported, loved, and cared for…and we KNOW they can make it happen!Once students feel that, they can achieve anything!

There are so many great sources of support that I have had in preparation for this school year. My amazing wife has been there for me throughout all this! She knows the anxiety that I have faced and has eased my mind so much. My family that has made me feel confident about the preparations that my school has done to welcome students back! My Teach Better PLN and my fellow Teach Better Ambassadors. Having a group of educators there to talk about ideas and support has been amazing. Finally, my PLN of educators on Twitter.

This school year is going to be an amazing learning year! Students are going to continue to build up the feeling of care, love, and support for not only themselves but for each other. I am going to do my best to ensure that each student has a voice within the classroom. I am going to work to support these students through all of these obstacles. While desk shields and masks are seen as barriers between the students and I, these are going to be barriers that I will work to break down…not physically, but educationally, emotionally, and socially. Student safety is my first priority, but the social and emotional well being of each student is right up there. I am going to make sure that being back to school is the greatest educational experience that they have had!

Masks…More Than Material

The debate lately has been whether or not we should be wearing masks. Should we or shouldn’t we? Well, I’m not here to debate that, but rather to reflect on a post from one of my professional learning networks, the Punk Rock Classroom. They discussed the idea of masks, but more the masks that we wear everyday, even before the pandemic. Let me explain…

When I enter into a classroom full of students, I’m encountering different personalities, different levels of knowledge, different interests…in other words, I’m meeting students that are each unique. With these unique personalities also comes the reality that some students are struggling to realize and discover who they truly are. I have to see what “masks” my students are wearing.

Masks are a reality in the lives of students. Students wear masks for several different reasons. Here are a few:

  1. To feel accepted
  2. To distance themselves from others
  3. To make others believe that they know the content
  4. To make others believe that they don’t know the content
  5. To conceal fears that they have from being away from family
  6. To conceal issues that they might be facing at home
  7. To show off the talents they have
  8. To conceal the talents that they may feel be embarrassed to show

These are just a few of the masks that students wear each and every day. It is a reality that masks are worn, but they don’t always have to wear them. They have to have an environment to feel safe to show who they truly are. I need to develop and nurture that environment. Yet, that also means that I have to avoid wearing masks each day. I need to come in to the classroom each day and show my passion and joy for teaching, but I also need to be mindful that I will not be at my best each and every day. Those days will challenge me to be real and let students know that it’s okay to not be your best each day. I need to model the mentality that being “unmasked” is okay and that we will grow and learn from these moments.

I’ve had many encounters with students wearing masks and I personally find these moments as some of the most enlightening moments that I have had as an educator. I have taken these moments to connect to students and let them understand that I will support them through their unmasking period. Students need to have support from not only me, but from their classmates as well. The classroom needs to be filled with empathy and compassion. Students need to feel comfortable to share their passions, stories, and moments of growth. There has to be an acceptance of the phrases of “I don’t know….yet”…”I need help”…”I’m excited to show my classmates what I can do”…”Would you like to eat lunch with us?”.

As I stated, the current mask debate is a struggle that schools will be facing for this upcoming school year, but we need to look at the masks that students have been wearing for years. Schools need to embrace these masks and find ways to have students want to unmask themselves to accept who they are. Teachers need to strengthen their relationships with students and ensure their students that they will be supported by all. Schools need to provide the environment that will embrace each and every student and their unique offerings to the school community.

Students will wear masks and it’s my responsibility to ensure that they are accepted and supported when they want to take them off.

Year In Review

In June of 2019, I was searching for something new. I started looking for a new teaching position, especially one at the 5th grade level. I was looking at the Diocese of Cleveland website for teaching positions and I saw a position for a 5th grade homeroom position at Communion of Saints School. Well, I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain! I submitted my resume and all that fun stuff and within an hour I had a phone call from the school secretary asking me to come in for an interview. Well, that’s where the fun begins! I was leaving for a vacation soon after I received that phone call, so we quickly organized the interview and I started to prepare!

The interview day came along and little did I know that it was also Field Day for the school. So I walk through a group of students engaged in so many awesome activities! I’m wearing a blazer and dress pants and everyone else is wearing shorts and t-shirts! I’ll never forget walking through the parking lot seeing all the great students interacting so positively together…and from that point on I knew that this was going to be a special place!

The interview went great and I knew right after that it was going to happen! I went on vacation much more relaxed knowing that my future was taken care of, but I was also a bit nervous starting at a new school!

In early August I was able to get into my classroom for the first time…Room 210! The great thing about the room number is that it is the same room number that I was in at my last school! Room 210!

As I was setting up my classroom, one thing kept sticking in my mind….”How am I going to deal with 28 students?” My room is a similar size to my last school and I had 18 students! Where are 10 more students going to fit? I tried to be creative but there was one thing that I was soon going to discover…my students are so great that it didn’t matter where I had them sit, they were going to get along with everyone they were by!

I start each school year off using Play-Doh and have students create something out of it to explain who they are. When I saw the creations of my students, I knew that this class was going to be something special. They were so creative with what they made; they shared Play-Doh to allow students to add extra elements to their creations; and when they shared what they made, they did it with so much passion.

As the school year continued, this class continued to grow as a family. They learned together. They supported each other. Best of all, they cared for each other. Each student found their “group” yet everyone was apart of the larger.

One amazing thing I found this year is actually how easy it is to get to know each student individually. I had 28 students…20 girls and 8 boys! When I first heard that, I was very overwhelmed! 20 girls?? 20 girls is more in one class than I had total students in one class! I do recall telling the boys that they would always win a disagreement because I’m one of them! Yet, I never had to do that since they all got along so great!

The school year continued…and my excitement for everything kept increasing! I knew something about each student that just made them unique. Some examples are pickles, math, memes, jokes, stories, FRIENDS, Annie, Nugget, “Well, what had happened was…”, Rubik’s Cubes, a horse on the ground, and so many more! These are the memories that I will hold with me forever!

Now, here comes the hardest part of this past year…Thursday, March 12th, 2020. This was an early dismissal day, so students were to be dismissed at 1:30pm. At 12:45 teachers were informed to have students start to pack up their materials just in case schools were closed due to the pandemic. I told my students to do just that. There was confusion. There was uncertainty. We didn’t know anything except that the coronavirus was just beginning to be present in Ohio and that the possibility of closing was there. I knew that we were probably going to close, but I didn’t expect it so soon. There was no school for students on Friday, March 13, so I told students as they left on Thursday that”I’ll see you Monday!” Monday never happened…

Soon after we left school, it was announced that all K-12 schools in Ohio were going to close. This became a time to scramble and figure out the next step in the school year. Here is one thing I have to tell you that some of you may not understand…March, April, and May are the best months to be a teacher! Kids are fully understanding who they are and students are in their zone! It is a great period of growth in so many areas…academic, social, spiritual, and emotional! Yet, it was ripped away from me, my students, our class! I was hurting.

One advantage that I had was that my class was already using Google Classroom. They knew the system because we jumped into it early in the school year. Students were eager to learn Google Classroom and I was able to work seamlessly with my partner teacher to implement Google Classroom for all of our students! In addition to Google Classroom, my partner teacher and I were always on the same page, so it made for an amazing year working with her! Back to the Google Classroom…when the school year had to be quickly changed over to distance learning the students were easily able to adapt to the change. This says so much about my students! They were able to see learning happening everywhere they were. I don’t mean this as technology was available everywhere so they were learning, but that they are able to see how the environment around them is their “classroom”. So proud of these students!

As we moved forward with distance learning, the students progressed through by creating routines. We had our weekly class meetings with a strong attendance rate! We shared stories of the events of the week, caught kids up on the lessons they will have, and was just present for them…and they were there for me! While this continued, I felt like it wasn’t enough. One thing I found so great about this class wasn’t how close they were as a group (which they were!) but rather how close the families were! At school events, at sporting events, in the stories they shared, it was always involving the families being together. A true community! I needed to find a way to keep that connection! So I created a long distance game night!

Our Game Nights consisted of playing Kahoot! through Zoom! Families competed against each other, challenged each other….but more importantly, kept the connection that they had before distancing! We would have these Game Nights every Thursday. When we got towards the end of the school year I would ask each week, “Is this the final one, or do you want to have one next week?” The answer would always be, “Let’s play again next week!” Little did I know that we would go 7 straight weeks of playing Kahoot! and I couldn’t have been happier doing this for my families!

As the school year wrapped up, I felt so bad saying “See you Monday!” and then never seeing my students again for the rest of the school year. I knew that it wasn’t right…and I needed to make up for it! So I decided that I wanted to visit each student in someway so I contacted parents and informed them that I would be coming to each house to drop off a small gift for each student. On Wednesday, May 27, I was able to visit 25 of my 28 students. Laughs were had…and even some tears were shed during my visits. It was a bit of closure…but it’s still not the same as being in the classroom with them. It was such a powerful experience though.

Now that the classroom is closed up and we are in “summer break”, I can safely say that this has been the most unique school year I have ever encountered. I don’t like to say that this was my best school or class ever because each group has made me better in some way, but I do know that this group has surely taught me the most about myself and has pushed me to be even better than I was before. They challenged me socially, emotionally, and spiritually….but all positively! I just hope that I left half as much impact on them that they have left on me. I am going to miss this class, but I am going to support them all the way through 6th grade and beyond that!

My special message to this class is this…”Take your rose with you everywhere you go; take care of it, nurture it, and watch it grow. It is your rose, and only yours! Make it the best rose ever!” I’m so proud of you!