A Shining Light

(Author’s note – I changed the names of the student in this true story.)

Way back, a long time ago, when I was a teacher, I had a student named Beth.  One day in class, during a discussion about Pre-Columbian America, Beth shared that she was of Native American decent.  That prompted me to bestow a nickname on her.  (I gave happy nicknames to lots of kids.)  From that day forward Beth was “A Shining Light in the Sky.”  Beth loved the nickname.  She came to class every day with a warm smile.

Beth was one of those kids who was easy to like as a teacher:  She was happy, enthusiastic, a hard worker, and team player.  A model student, Beth was the type of kid who makes teaching a joy.

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Sometimes You Can’t?

Sometimes we can’t accomplish what we set our minds to do.

Sometimes impossible isn’t an illusion… it is real.  Or, at least it seems real.  We strive, we reach, we try – and we fall short, we stumble, we fall.  We reach and try again.  And fall and fail.  We fall and fail and fail again.  Or so it seems…

Sometimes the goal, whatever it is, seems too hard, too distant, too impossible.  We say, “I can’t.”  We say, “It’ll never happen.”  

What then?

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The Judge

(The following passage was included as part of the monthly newsletter that I send out to the parents of my school community.)

It is no secret that I enjoy sports, mostly baseball, and that I have always been a big fan of the New York Yankees.  There is something about baseball that resonates with me.  The ebb and flow of the game, the simplicity, the day-to-day consistency…  Like a good friend, from April through September, baseball is a constant companion.  I love it.

One of the big stories that has come out of this year’s baseball season has been the fact that a rookie on the New York Yankees, a certain Aaron Judge, recently set the record for the most home runs ever hit in one’s first season.  No player had ever hit 50 home runs as a rookie until Aaron Judge accomplished that feat.  Amazing.

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Limits

Often times we say, “I can’t do that” or “I’m not good at that.”  (I am as guilty of this as anyone.  There’s a lot I sometimes believe I can’t do.)

When we say the words, “I can’t,” we are limiting ourselves.  As a result, I believe that some of the most damaging words in our language are “I can’t.” 

When we say we can’t, we make our own lives poorer – not richer.  When we say we can’t, we eliminate the possibilities and the learning that comes with and from new experiences.  When we say we can’t, our world becomes smaller, our interests become fewer, and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn more about ourselves.

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Running Currahee

Ever since my son Ryan had the same thought I did for an activity during our visit to see him in Georgia (“Three miles up, three miles down…”), I had been thinking of running Currahee Mountain.

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Currahee Mountain is the (extremely) large hill that was used as a (very difficult) physical fitness activity at Camp Toccoa during the early stages of paratrooper training during World War II.  The stories of the training, and the success of the troops, has been immortalized in the book and HBO miniseries Band of Brothers which tells the story of Easy Company from the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne.

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Our Words Matter, Always.

The words we use matter, always.  

When we offer kindness, love, and support, we build people up.

When we are critical, or unkind, or mean, the words we deliver bring people down.  

On the pages of my blog, in educational journals, and in other forums, I have often shared stories of how kind words make a positive difference.  It happens all of the time.

When I run races, especially marathons, the words of encouragement shouted from the spectators makes an absolute difference in my mental state and my performance.  When people call out, “You look great” or “You can do it!” I believe them – sincerely and absolutely.  Positive words from people I don’t know and will never meet have helped me in each of my twenty marathons.

Just yesterday I was playing softball in the league I compete in.  I was fortunate, I had a good day.  It seemed that every ball hit to me at shortstop, I handled cleanly.  Each time, my teammates shouted, “Great play” or “Paul, you’re doing super today.”  The confidence from my teammates helped to make me have more confidence in myself, and, as a result, I played better.  

Words matter.  Absolutely.  Always.

A while back, I wrote a column titled Newton, Autographs, and the Teacher.  (That essay is contained in my new book Impossible is an Illusion.) In that passage, I wrote the following:

“I sometimes sit in awe of the tremendous power a teacher possesses – the tremendous impact that a teacher has on a child’s self-image now – and in the future. A teacher can use his autograph, the imprint he leaves on a child, to change a life. The positive words teachers leave inspire children to work harder, to give more, and to always strive to be their better selves.”

And, while I sincerely believe all of that to be true, I think, sometimes, we forget the impact we have on others and the simple fact that our own words matter.  It’s easy to point out how other people have brought us up or down, but it’s more difficult to examine when we have a similar impact on others.  (After all, I didn’t say to my teammates, “Keep telling me how good I am, it’ll make me even better.”  All I did was smile and give high fives and fist bumps – and hope that I would continue to catch everything hit my way.  Similarly, in a marathon, I don’t stop when people cheer for me.  I never go back to the spectator to say, “Your kind words are helping me through the race.”)

But, sometimes, out of the blue, a word is said, a card arrives in the mail, or an e-mail comes through that reminds us of our impact on others.  Again, I think this is especially true for teachers and other educators because our words impact on the people who are the future.  By providing support, kindness, affirmation, and even love, educators can help to shape a positive world and a positive future.  

I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I received the following message in my e-mail:

Good afternoon Dr. Semendinger,
I am not sure if you remember me, but I was a student of yours in the Seminar Class at William Paterson in the Spring Semester of 2014. 
After a rough experience with my cooperating teacher during my student teaching, I took some time off to do some reflecting on where I wanted to head career wise.  While I was cleaning off my desk, I found a paper I wrote for your class and you wrote “always be the positive difference in the classroom.”  At that moment I realized I shouldn’t let a bad experience ruin my dream of becoming a teacher. 
This past school year I took a paraprofessional aide job at my former middle school to help me become acclimated again in an educational environment.  It was by far the best decision I have ever made!  I was an in-class support aide, filled a maternity leave position, got recommended for a tutoring job, and even chaperoned numerous field trips.  Most importantly I found my passion again that I was missing!
Thank you for your time and everything you have done for me.
With sincerity,
(A Former Student)

I taught this student over three years ago.  It wasn’t yesterday…

But my words mattered.

Absolutely.

And it was only eight words.  Eight.  That’s all I wrote.  I didn’t write a paragraph.  I didn’t write even ten words.  I wrote eight.  And yet, those words made a difference to this former student.  A huge difference.  In a way, I helped to change a life.  In a bigger way, as this former student becomes a teacher who hopefully spreads kindness and a positive message, those eight words will influence many more people.

This is the power that good can bring.  It is the impact of kindness.  It is what truly matters.

Henry Adams once said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

As educators, our biggest job is helping our students learn to believe in themselves.  Our job is to build up others.  We need to encourage.  We need to support.  We need to set the highest standards.  We need to be kind.  We need to love…  

These are the simple elements that truly make a difference.  

And so…

As we plan lessons, and programs…

As we design assessment tools and grading formulas…

As we create curriculum and input data into on-line programs…

We must never forget that our most important job as educators is to reach the hearts of our students.  We must bring passion to our classrooms.  We must look to the good.  

And we must never forget that our words matter – and as such, we must use them, today and every day, to build others up in a meaningful way.

Currahee!

It was the day before Fathers’ Day.  With the school year winding down, and summer beckoning, I found a few moments of quiet respite in my home.  For the first time, in a very long time, I felt myself relaxing.  Calmness and peace, two emotions I don’t experience often, were not as far away as they normally are.

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Living A Dream

I truly believe we can all be almost anything we want to be.  I think it just takes hard work, perseverance, some creativity, and, maybe, a little luck.  Sometimes, I think, we also have to modify our dreams a little.  Last week, I got to live out, in a sense, one of my childhood dreams.

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The Kid, Home Runs, and Memories

The great Joe Posnanski recently wrote a blog post one of the first great book he ever read, The Kid Who Only Hit Homers.  I often relate to a lot of what Mr. Posnanski writes about, but this was other worldly… that was also the first great book I ever read.

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