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.

Continue reading “A Shining Light”

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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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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.

A Sense of Wonder

I came across a passage that suggested that we should always “maintain a sense of wonder” in our lives.  I love the idea of seeking wonder, or magic, in the mundane.  

Life isn’t always about the things we have to do, and even when it is, that doesn’t preclude us from seeking the good and something special in every situation.  This is important to recognize and acknowledge because there can be good everywhere and at any time.  It’s simply about maintaining that sense of wonder.

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A Little Lesson in Latin

(This passage comes from my upcoming book of essays, “Impossible is an Illusion” which will be published by Ravenswood Publishers in May 2017.)

There is a Latin phrase that reads, “Crede quod habes, et habes.” 

This can be translated as, “Believe that you have it, and you have it.” 

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Birthdays

January 21 will be here soon.  It’s a big day for some people.  Many famous people were born on January 21. 

These include:

Charles V, King of France, born on January 21, in 1338

Ethan Allen, a famous American general, in 1738

John C. Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” in 1813

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate General, in 1824

Christian Dior, fashion designer, in 1905 Continue reading “Birthdays”

Life is Simple…

I’m not a philosopher.  (It would be tough to call anyone who often quotes Rocky Balboa as someone who philosophizes…). Still, I do try to share some ­­deep thoughts on these pages.  As I have aged, and collected a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, I have been drawn to some great thinkers.  For example, I have grown very fond of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I recently purchased a text (“Self-Reliance and Other Essays”) penned by Emerson that I greatly look forward to reading.

Confucius is one of the great minds of history.  His philosophies, written 2600 years ago still resonate today.  I figured that I’d take some time to examine just a few of the many statements left to us from Confucius to see how they relate to our lives as educators and teachers of children.  We’ll begin each section with a quote from Confucius and follow that up with my own thoughts and reflections.

“Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated.”

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A Bolt…

I will begin this post by stating an obvious point:

             Usain Bolt is an amazing sprinter.

As a runner who (more and more) plods through training runs and marathons, I am in awe of Usain Bolt’s speed, grace, and magnificence.

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A Special Teacher! – Conclusion

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I shared direct feedback, in the actual words of students, regarding the characteristics that compelled them to nominate individual teachers for a Teacher of the Week program that I experimented with about ten years ago.

It is my contention that we can learn the most about what matters in the classroom by taking the time to listen to students – and by valuing their feedback.  Students live in the world of today.  Their time is now.  What takes place in the classroom on a daily basis impacts them directly.  Students know what good teachers look like.  We just have to take the time to listen.

Continue reading “A Special Teacher! – Conclusion”

A Special Teacher? – Part 2

This post is the second in a three part series that shares comments that came directly from middle school students in regard to the teachers they nominated for a “Teacher of the Week” program many years ago. 

In the first installment, I shared comments, drawn randomly, about a plethora of teachers.  I only printed one comment for each teacher, and, for the sake of length, stopped at twenty. 

Following that exercise, I decided to categorize all of the comments from the students into categories.  People tend to not be all that creative when completing forms, and the kids in the school were no exception.  Many of the comment cards echoes similar sentiments.  “Mr. Jones is helpful;” “Mrs. Mattingly is kind; “Miss Wyckoff is helpful.” 

Yet, on occasion, some of the students provided some deep thought and in-depth comments on the cards.  While these were categorized in my overall study of all the comments, the comments below also stood out as somewhat different from the rest. 

For this installment, I will list, in the students’ own words, the most memorable comments that were left for their teachers.  These speak to the ways teachers touch children’s lives in unique and special ways.  On rare occasions, for clarity, I added clarifying details to the child’s comments.  Finally, careful readers might note that certain teachers received numerous nominations below.  This speaks to the varied ways that these teachers made special connections with their students.  While the names have been changed, I was diligent in keeping the modified names consistent.  Mrs. Violet, for example, was a beloved teacher. This characteristic shows when one searches through all of this data.  I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that students writing about Mrs. Violet (and others) took extra time to write more clearly and share their most personal thoughts. Individuals go out of their way and give extra effort for the people they care most about.

Upcoming, next week, will be the third installment where I summarize all of the comments left from all of the students.  I will close this three part series by drawing conclusions based upon the totality of this original and unedited data. 

For now, though, once more, let’s hear from the kids:

I am nominating Ms. Brown because she asks me what is wrong when I am sad.”

I am nominating Mr. Tytell for always giving us study guides for our test and helping review.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she’s the best.  She strives to make me safe.  She succeds (sic).  I love her.  She makes me feel very, very special.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she is always in a good mood and is very nice.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because when we have a project she breaks it down so its easier instead of just saying, “Ok you have a project and its due 3-30-06.”

I am nominating Mr. Apple because he is always funny but still keeps the class smart.”

I am nominating Mr. Alda because he really helped me with my dance steps and made me feel very secure with my dance.  He’s a great teacher and everyone really likes him.”

 “I am nominating Mr. Brook because he helped stop bullying with his outstanding performance.  (Note – This teacher developed and presented an anti-bullying assembly for the students that was better received by the students and staff than one from a national speaker.)

I am nominating Miss Woodside because she not only is a fantastic teacher, but helps us with GEPA (state tests) and has much insight on our recent assemblies.  She is very easy to talk to and assists with my problems.  I love you Miss Woodside.”

I am nominating Miss Woodside because she makes sure I understand everything.  If I need help I go to her.  When we have assemblies I can talk to her about it.  She is very helpful with my problems.”

I am nominating Mr. Konijn because he’s always so enthusiastic about his students learning.  He’ll never give up on me or anyone else.”

I am nominating Mr. Stokes because he always sits with us during lunch.  He’s the perfect man for (his subject).  He’s funny and awesome.”

I am nominating Mr. Caldwell because he gives us more freedom than other teachers.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she helps me when I need help and compliments me when my work is good.”

I am nominating Mrs. Williams because she gives you tips to do better.”

I am nominating Mrs. Harrington because we bonded (on a class trip) and she’s now one of my alltime favorite teachers.  No matter how hard something is to understand she’ll never give up on you.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she is respectful, and full of happiness (sic.).”

I am nominating Mr. Konijn because his class is something I look forward to every day.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she helped me with my problems.  She makes me feel very safe.”

I am nominating Mrs. Holtz because she makes me smile all day long.”

I am nominating Mr. Stokes because he knows how to keep everyone on their toes.”

I am nominating Mrs. Violet because she has made me feel good and appreciated by calling home to recognize my great work.”

I am nominating Ms. Brown because she actually treats us like we’re responsible enough to handle stuff like adults.  Plus she respects the fact that there’s more to life then school and doesn’t deluge us with homework.  I love Ms. Brown.”

I am nominating Mrs. Audi because she helped me with all of my problems.  She ‘s like my best friend!

I am nominating Miss Woodside because she treats me like a person, not just a student.”

I am nominating Mrs. Williams because she helped me improve my listening, comprehension, and speaking skills.  She is a fantastic teacher.  She makes sure you are happy and smart when you leave her room.”

And, finally, for this post at least,

I am nominating Mrs. George because she was a great teacher by explaining something when I didn’t understand and is always offering to come for extra help and I just wanted to thank her some how.”

In conclusion, I believe that these passages, which were somewhat unique and different from the plethora of nomination forms I received at the time, speak a great deal about what matters to children in a school. 

As we shall examine in the next (and final) installment, there are some powerful conclusions we can draw from all of this this feedback and these honest words from the students.