My Kid Can Beat Your Kid at Everything!

I survived Parent Teacher Conference last night.

As a parent, I go out of respect. I know the poor teacher has to be there, and she’s amazing. As a teacher, I’m sad dragging parents across six towns to wait in line for ten minutes with me. They worked a long day. I’d rather have coffee and actually talk.

At Declan’s conference, I cut right to the chase, “My kid’s smart, using his intellect for evil, and needs to pay attention.” Except for the “evil” I’d say the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Say it like it is, I’m not offended. No fluff. I’m not a competitive parent.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 5.48.10 AMParents, I’ve noticed, need to compete, but we don’t like to say we’re competing. We want our kid to be the best and brightest in the world. The future doctor, lawyer, president, head of the World Bank.

That competition should be right out into the open, parent-to-parent. Let’s have parent contests.

“Hey, buddy, I challenge you for the ‘My kid’s awesome’ bumper sticker on your minivan. Let’s arm wrestle, or play one-on-one hoops. I’ll decimate you.”

We’ll all go home and do pushups to prepare.

But that’s not cool, so we brag subtly. “My kid’s an all-star (insert sport here). I noticed yours plays left bench quite effectively.”

Mine isn’t an all-star. Declan’s working on matching the correct sports to the balls. He kicks basketballs, which makes me cringe. It’s going to be a long season for that coach. We waiting for our call telling us which team we “made.” No sports bragging here.

“My kid read more books than your kid.” He (translate: me) logged more books on the log sheet. I don’t care how many books a kid reads. Number of children’s books viewed is not an accurate measure of reading.

“I read a hundred thousand one-page books which had descriptions longer than the actual text and pictures that took up 97.5% of the page.” Seven thousand books? For a grand total of six pages. Nope, I’m not logging that. As much as I love children’s authors and illustrators.

Read Dostoyevsky. Then we’ll talk. Our log says, “We read Seuss and the dino book AGAIN.”

No award for me. Or him. No competitive spirit. Only fun reading about dinos.

He’s a good kid, despite the fact that when I walked into the school, everyone in the main office from the Principal to the two secretaries said, “Oh, Declan’s mom!” That’s okay. Being on a first-name basis with the principal by grade one gives us special treatment. There’s something we can win. I can say, “My kid’s the captain of the detention club.”  Maybe he’ll get his own chair in the front office and he’ll get to run his own school. That’s something most parents don’t get to say.

No, I’m not a competitive parent. I’m a realist. I enjoyed the ten-minutes of honesty at the conference, came home, and took Declan off my computer where he was busy previewing the Sci-fi movies I’m showing in my class today. Seems he “forgot” to tell me he got “in the red.” Red is not good.

I relaxed with a nice cup of tea. I have time, because I’m not driving my kid around to horseback riding, soccer, ballet, basketball, gymnastics, piano, ski club and 4H. We’ll pick one or two things. Maybe he’ll be great, maybe he’ll just have fun. I’ll celebrate a blue ribbon or trophy or two. Mostly, we’ll just learn about life, people, fun, fitness, and make a few good friendships, I hope.

Competition only stresses me out. I’ll leave that for others.




I’m Not the Jesus of Education

I stand in front of my students. I say, “Listen, it’s your decision. Research it, make the call.” Blank stares. Pause. More blank stares.

I explain. “I’m not the Jesus of education…I’m just a nerd. You need to interpret things the way you want.” I give examples using facts, figures, case studies…

“How will I know I’m right?” Students need that sense of “I must define the right answer so you can give me an A. I MUST KNOW!!!” Right answers are seldom right. Only shades of right. It’s a lesson nearly impossible to teach–one I’m still trying to learn.

I tell them, “You’ll know you’re right because I’m the one reading it. It can’t be wrong if you back it up.”

“You see,” I say, “Life doesn’t work that way. I think I have a plan for school, for business, for life…but it changes constantly. Life evolves. Real learning is about taking the input and research–whatever you can find and whatever comes your way…and using it to be awesome. Digging deep, defending, explaining, pitching, selling, convincing…to do that, you have to collect knowledge.” Rake it into a pile…jump in the leaves. 

“Then trust yourself and take it to the next level. Who knows what the right answer really is? No one. That’s life. The answer is that no one knows the answers. That’s really what happens. I wish I had something different to tell you.”*


“The good news is, you can get used to that and blow by the people who can’t.”

Eventually, one student cracks a smile. Then one more… until a whole bunch of smiles light up the room.  Students begin to re-engage, finding solutions to the problems of the world once again. Because I’ve told them that each one of them is a genius, and the world needs their contributions.**

*The actual phrase was “loose corners.” (Kamal Ravikant). Truly the best of lessons. I’ve passed it on. The best of lessons, kept to oneself, simply withers up and dies.

**Angela Maiers asks the question, “What breaks your heart?” then makes students solve those problems. For real. I’ve brainstormed these things, even called my students geniuses, but never made them iterate on the ideas. And that small paradigm shift, I see, makes all the difference. The power of one single student can light a thousand cities. Amazing to behold. Angela–I hope you are proud. I am.

Why I Can’t Teach Elementary School

I can’t discuss the day I had yesterday…not because I don’t want to…because of confidentiality. I never discuss things that can be pegged to individual students unless they are positive shout outs. It was a Class-A challenging day, filled with the crises I get from time to time teaching high school. It used to rattle me, but now each emergency of scale winds its way to my doorstep. I return each serve, and take the day in stride. In between, I manage to teach, knowing I’ve helped a kid or two in the process. I try to remember to smile.

Teaching high school is easy. I get to be a real person, flaws and all. Kids pick off flaws if I try to hide them, anyway. I wish I were an elementary teacher. Elementary teachers are magical. They don’t have flaws. They never lose their cool. They always smile. They dress really nice, and they have panache. I don’t have panache.

homeworkI leave my school and go home to Elementary Boy Declan. He likes bad words and fart jokes. I imagine his elementary teacher smiling as she tells him this is “inappropriate.” I try to raise him right. I don’t teach him bad words and jokes…but things get away from me. I help him do his homework. He procrastinates.

“Mommy, rub my shoulders.” I do.

“Oh, that feels really good. Way better than when I say ‘crap’ a thousand times in a row.” He tries to hide his bad words. He goes to his room saying, “I need privacy. I want to have a conversation with myself.” I listen in. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, crap, shit.” Should stop this or let him work through this developmental moment privately? What would an elementary teacher say?

“You know, saying bad words isn’t nice. You’ll grow up and have no friends.” That’s what I say. I know it’s untrue. An elementary teacher would never say this. I continue, “You’ll get bad karma.” He bumps his knee on the chair. He cries. “See?” I say, “Bad karma.” He growls. He tells me he’ll turn into a dinosaur and eat me.

“It’s NOT bad KARMA!” I tell him it is. You never know when karma is coming…

For now, I accept his compliment in the interest of finishing homework. Mommy, you make me happier than saying the word “crap.” That’s a big endorsement. I tell him not to say “crap.”

In my high school classroom, “crap” is passé. Even the “f” word gets a quick check for the first offense, “Um, language alert.” For repeat offenders, “I’m sure I can find you a hundred or so nice ‘f’ words to write about…” Hint: I’m about to make your day inconvenient. Knock it off.

My son wants to be “inappropriate.” He thinks it’s fun.  He’s received some positive reinforcement in this department. What I call “fresh,” and “obnoxious,” was relabeled “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “renegade.”

“That kid’s going places,” I’m told. Yeah, straight to bed. Or time out. Or the gypsies…

deskI went to open house last night. I sat in his teeny, tiny chair. There, on the desk, was a star chart. One of two star charts in the class. In teaching land, that’s not good. Where I’d give a student “the death stare,” Miss, knock that off. You can’t do the ‘death stare.’ You don’t have it in you. I just laugh…[“Well, I got you to stop, didn’t I?”], elementary teachers give encouragement. A star chart.

This means that Declan needs to behave. Last night, I received appropriate elementary strategies meant to encourage. I can’t smile that much while I encourage, though. Elementary teachers never seem to rattle. They impress me. The charts, graphs, stars, and incentives are amazing. I sat in the tiny desk thinking of what I could steal and repurpose in my classroom to “encourage.”  I’d have to white out all the smileys, frogs, and apples, though, or it would encourage students to laugh me off the planet. My charts can’t smile. Maybe I can design charts with avatars wearing sagging jeans or something. If the jeans on the chart sag, that’s not good. Students get to pull up the jeans on their avatar as they achieve more and more.

I try to encourage. Probably not so well. My elementary educator friends tell students to “make good choices,” in the face of inappropriateness.  Teaching high school, I encourage my students to do listen, or they can encourage themselves to some grave penalty.

“You like to throw paper? Awesome! You can throw paper for three hours after school. I’ll let you aim at the basket. I’ll send your stats to the NBA.”  Nobody usually chooses my offer, probably because I tell them I am a nerd, have no life and can stay till six to help their paper-throwing jump shot if need be. They pause. They decide it might just be true. They cease and desist.

Elementary teachers never lie like that. My friend Amy tells me I can’t design punishments I can’t carry out. “You can’t take away computer or TV from your son forever…” 

Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure…she is far better than me in this department.

I tell my son it’s time to go to bed, no more negotiation, he’s not buying a company or anything. Finally, I get him to bed. He only turns into a dinosaur once to try to eat me before he is fast asleep…without saying one bad word.

What to Do When You’re the Teacher Who Messes Up

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.11.22 AMHe couldn’t spell “Einstein” or “magic.” I didn’t want to take the class. I needed it. It was one of those “You-Need-This-For-College” classes. I wondered why. I’m certainly not a working in that field today.

He was often making mistakes on the board or misspelling something on a paper. He’d go back and correct himself after a thoughtful student raised a hand, but still, he was the expert. How could he spell something wrong? I was a pretty harsh critic.

He tried to organize me.

“You’ll never be a success.  You don’t take good notes,” he said.  My notes were just fine. For me. “You have to follow the system!” His system was beautiful. Tables of contents with neatly attached note pages… mine was a stream of consciousness with the occasional blurb about the subject.

When I studied… If I studied…I used my notes. I stared at the doodles. They transported me to the point in the lecture where I’d lost focus and drawn them. Today, there’s pens that do that for students.

My college notes are the same. Effective–a good system. I still use them today.

I ran into this teacher later in life. I discovered that as an adult, I liked him very much. He saw a disaster like me–backpack barfing with disorganization, bananas resting in the bottom of my locker inviting fruit flies, bad fashion, generally on a planet other than my own. He tried his best to avert said disaster with the best tools in his box. Focus. Organization. Systems.

What he needed was flexibility.  He didn’t recognize my systems were effective for me, because I processed things differently. He organized thoughts in a productive mental line. Mine were more like a creative spiderweb. There was a rhyme and reason to my thoughts. My systems served me well. As a teacher, that’s an important lesson–sometimes students are on point, even when they appear to be on another planet. My job is to teach them to find their way back to Earth on their own.

I’m merely a mentor teaching connections and assisting students in developing their life systems. I note problems, assist in analysis, and first suggest, not provide, a solution. It’s not that I won’t dictate, demand and command, but good teaching allows me to prompt them to help themselves first.


“I can’t write this essay!” they said. Two good students, staring at a semi-blank paper.

“Is that an iPhone hidden in your bag?” I asked.

“Yes.” I took out my own.

“Let me show you something.”  I hit the microphone. I dictated an intro paragraph using proper dictation techniques, students crowding around my shoulder.

The words appeared. Perfectly spelled text in the proper format. Students awed. You’d think I was Oprah giving away cars. Suddenly, everyone wanted to go home and write an essay.

Flexibility. Thinking and seeing outside the box. A good teaching moment. For a moment, I got to be a hero.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.11.36 AMThe other day, I didn’t.  “Miss, you forgot to close the quotations on this sentence.” Indeed I had. Without an end quote, I could speak ad infinitum. I fixed it.

“Miss, you did that math wrong.” We’d been applying math to the social sciences. There’s rust on some of my math.

Math Friend Next Door said, “Yup, you missed a step.”  Both slightly embarrassed and proud, I high-fived the kid and gave him candy. My goal is for my students to be better than me–not because I’m stupid, but when I mess up, I own it. Candy helps.

He looked at me the same way I looked at that teacher who misspelled the words. I invented that look.

He’s super smart. I wonder if he’ll forgive me some day… The girl who edited the quotes already has. Will my good karma teaching upperclassmen an essay hack counterbalance my mistake karma? I’m not sure how history will write my reviews.

Teachers aren’t supposed to be real people. We’re supposed to be perfect. I keep forgetting that and messing up. Maybe if I just have one more cup of coffee…I’ll do better today.



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What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.


Wanted: One Teaching Job

Wanted. One teaching job. Setting negotiable, for a genius who hasn’t yet been hired. 

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 8.06.42 AMThe candidate is certified in social studies, but social studies isn’t all you get with this candidate. He connects to any subject at the drop of a time, weaving in student interest.  Students flock to him like he’s the Pied Piper.

The candidate started in my class a decade ago, where, for a project-based midterm, he tried to save an establishment in New York City from a grave social and economic injustice. He failed. The place closed. I gave him an A.

He wanders in periodically, co-teaching at the drop of a dime. Truth be told–the candidate is much, much smarter than me. On the days when I’m feeling “blah,” he shows up and embarrasses me into greatness. Sometimes I feel guilty, if I’m having a rare lazy day. I straighten up, think intellectual thoughts, and work to be an even better teacher. The kind that never has a bad day because that’s the day someone will show up and put you to shame.

The candidate has a serious work ethic. He worked through school, paid his own way in life, and plans lessons down to the last entertaining detail. He feels strongly about social justice and student success, righting wrongs in both categories. He struggled to get through the teacher prep program only because the requirements kept changing–I know, it happens to us all. I failed the “tech test” in the same program. Apparently, “the test” didn’t know I studied typing in the olden days on a cast-iron Royal. It wanted me to hit “tab” in the fake email but I indented the paragraph manually. I failed. Almost couldn’t teach as a result. Similar things have delayed the candidate.

This candidate might just be the best teacher you child never gets. There are a lot of candidates out there, but I’m partial to this one, not only because of his loyalty and inspiration, but because he’s that good. If I was of good moral fiber, I’d hand him the keys to my classroom, but I’m not going to, because I like to teach, too.

However, in my will, I have mentioned this in a subparagraph. If I get flattened by a truck, struck by lightning, kidnapped in a foreign nation, or have any other problem in life that removes me from my classroom, this candidate gets my class (Exclusion 1: Unless it is he who causes my demise). The candidate has made me realize a few very important things:

1. Teacher prep programs should recognize and laud people like this.

2. The best teachers–they have a glow about them–they should never be waiting on the sidelines.

3. Hard work, vision, ethics, and love for students should be rewarded. Every time.

If you want to hire this social studies visionary, comment below. I’ll connect you. We’re in Rhode Island but I wonder if he’d move? I’ll waive my usual headhunting fee, which I haven’t yet established because I have never done this. If he works out, just send me coffee sometime in the middle of the day when I need it most.

To all of you who have jobs and classes, enjoy them. Even in the chaos. Think of those who so want to be where you are now. To those of you who want and deserve jobs and classes, persevere. Be great! You will get the classes you deserve. And when you do, you will shine!



The Nightmare before Labor Day

It finally happened. I started dreaming about school. Vicki Davis, “Cool Cat Teacher,”  wrote about this, stating when teachers dream about school, they’re almost always nightmares.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 5.31.10 PMI’ve had two nightmares this summer about school. Both involved changing institutions, not finding rooms, and getting schedules I’m not qualified to teach. In one dream, former colleagues stopped by to tell me how glad they were I left, because they had always hated me anyway. A PE teacher followed me around with a copy of my grades from last year pestering me because someone didn’t get into college because of me, I couldn’t find any supplies, and kept getting notes that I needed to collect “the data.” It compounded from there.

I’m not Freud or Jung, but I can peg this one without help. I left my room a mess–a victim of the end-of-the-year exhaustion from last year, I didn’t mess up anyone’s grades but a substitute absconded my book list from my emergency folder, requiring some summer emailing, no one ever gets enough supplies, and I’m waiting to see what I’m teaching this coming year.  Pretty straightforward.

The truth of the matter is this: good teaching is chaos. The best way to describe it is by comparing teaching to a game of dodgeball where someone swapped out the stinging red balls for baseballs, and twenty people chuck fast balls simultaneously at your head. I have but one glove to catch them.

As a martial artist, I compare this to a real street altercation where people attack together pummeling the victim, as opposed to a movie altercation where the protagonist is accosted by twenty people, but one at a time–everyone waits politely or lines up so the hero can dispatch them in turn. “After you,” they seem to say, “No, after you.” Chuck Norris always wins.

That’s not what teaching is like. In teaching, it hits all at once. And it’s all urgent.

Teaching is chaos. If it’s not, sign me up for that position, and tell me what you put in your morning coffee, because I want some.

If you’re a new teacher, you’re stressing about the beginning of the school year. If you’re a seasoned teacher, you’re stressing about the start of the school year.  You’re wondering, “Will I do well enough this year? Can I accomplish everything? Can I fight all the battles at once, and live to see the end of the year? How about the test? My evaluation? The curriculum… how about…”

Everyone wants to have fun.

Everyone wants to have fun.

Every year I have a theme to try to improve myself in the classroom–to help me achieve inner peace in a world that gets crazy. Last year–the theme was “windmills.” Don’t fight them. This year, efficiency and fun. Where can I best use my time?  How can I collaborate to make my life easier and have time to enjoy my students and colleagues more? I’m finishing off a reread of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek in honor of this year’s goal, and I’ve joined up with Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate crew to steal the best of the best ideas in the nation, because, like the hoaky motivational poster says, TEAM=Together Everyone Achieves More. I fully expect to be smacked for the cliché.

I want to do more fun things with my teaching team as part of the Year of Efficiency and Fun. Trouble is, we don’t get to see each other when the school year starts. “Should I go to the bathroom today, or stop in to say hi to my colleague?” Bathroom always wins for me. It’s not a healthy question, because by the end of second quarter, many of us start to forget each other’s names.

So, yes, the nightmares have officially begun, but so’s the planning of strategy for the Year of Efficiency and Fun.  If you work more than two doors down from me–outside of the geographic “Good morning” zone, I’ll try especially hard to say hello, and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee this year. Then maybe you can join the Year of Fun too.

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