What Matters Most to Kids: Lessons Learned from My Elementary Students

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The role of an educator becomes increasingly difficult each school year. The pressure to have all students score proficient on high stakes tests, the mandates and laws that sometimes overpower the profession, and the dynamics of our students make being an educator more challenging than ever before. The one constant is the obvious: KIDS. They are always there, waiting for us to acknowledge them, teach them, and love them. Even the most defiant, rebellious child longs to be loved and appreciated by us. While the curriculum, mandates, and expectations of the profession are a must, those are not the things that mean the most to our children. Deep down I have always known this, but was recently reminded by many students and staff. I received a journal from the school where I serve as an assistant principal. Inside the pages were filled with notes from students, teachers, and staff. I have read through it multiple times, and each time I was brought to tears. This gift is a reminder that we must remember what is truly important to our kids. Simply stated, the little things mean the most. I want to share a few written and verbal quotes from students who have taught me that the little things make a big difference as an administrator. Enjoy!

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  • “Your smile makes me smile.” ~Zachary
  • “You always give me a smile when I need it.” ~Carson
  • “You are allways smiyl. I think it’s becuz you love me so much.”~ Cailyn
  • “When you smile I always want to hug you!” ~Lainey

A smile goes a long way! Kids have reminded me of this many times. I sometimes think of the fact that we may be the only people who make eye contact and smile at a particular child. It is a simple gesture, but one that must be intentional and consistent.

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  • “Thank you for greeting us on the way to school.” ~Brendan
  • “Thank you for helping us out of cars every day.” ~Zachary
  • “When you aren’t at the front door in the mornings, I miss you.” ~Morgan
  • “My mommy and me always see you waving and smiling right when we pull in the school!” ~Abigail
  • “How do you know all of our names when you say good morning? That’s like magic.” ~Gauge

When I first became an administrator, I had no idea how important it would become for me to be visible first thing in the morning. Waves, high fives, some hugs, and smiles can turn a child’s day around. We have no idea what kids have experienced when they step off the bus or out of their car. Some of them are coming from situations that our minds cannot fathom. A little dose of encouragement can change a person’s mindset! The morning greeting time is my favorite part of the day, and starts my own day on a positive note.

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  • “I am so glad principals hug at this school. My old school didn’t have that rule.” ~Megan
  • “You like my hugs because you always have your arms open. That’s why I hug you every day!” ~Cheyenne
  • “When I leave for middle school I will miss you hugging me and telling me to have a good day.”~ Sierra
  • “You always know when I need a hug, Mrs. Hill.” ~Haley

Smiles, greetings, and hugs…the little things that make a big difference in the lives of children. I firmly believe that no child can be given too much attention, validation, or credit for who they are inside. They deserve our focus, even if only for a few seconds throughout the days of school. These seconds add up to minutes and hours of investment in individuals. The consistency of connection with kids provides a secure feeling within that they are important, valued, and you are glad they are present. Smiles, greetings, and hugs do not cost a thing, except your time. I can think of no better way to invest parts of my day than to connect with kids, not by happenstance, but intentionally. Target particular students. Single them out to speak with them. Be intentional with your connections.

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Kids are often more focused on what is truly important than adults are…we need to listen to them and allow them to teach us. I learn something new from a child every day, and the quotes I have shared with you are a glimpse of my learning. I could write a book on lessons learned from children.

Keep the little things on your priority list. They are the constant in your day. They are how you will stay balanced as an educator. When we have balance, we are more productive, and will keep the passion in what we do

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Who Says God Can’t Be in Our Schools?

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ImageAlmost everyone has their own opinion about religion and the role it plays in schools. Often opinions are strong and on the extreme edges of the subject. I happen to live in the Bible Belt, where many people complain about God not being allowed in our schools. I wish we had the freedom to pray with students and remind them to seek God when they are troubled. It would be incredible to have the opportunity to lead a student to Christ. Those are things that simply cannot happen in our public schools. I disagree with people who say that God has been taken out of the public school setting, because I believe God is present. He can be present through YOU.

Think of how much power you have as an educator. Each day approximately 440 students and many of their families see me. This is an incredible opportunity for me to model my faith without having to mention Christianity! I can model patience, empathy, love, friendship, discipline, and so much more each and every day. I have the opportunity to show people my faith by the way I interact with others. I can keep the Bible on my desk or a scripture to remind me of my strength and what drives my soul. I can pray for specific students and their families. I can pray for teachers and staff. I can do this during the day, even if I retreat to my office to do it. God is present in my school. I can talk to my staff about my faith, and share inspiration with them. Some of them even have a prayer group that meets each week. God IS in my school.

ImageSo…we can complain about how public education isn’t the way it used to be, or we can embrace new doors that have opened for us to be examples for our students and their families. They need us more than ever. They need God more than ever. We all do. My goal is for students and families to know I am a Christian and have blind faith without ever expressing it through scripture or the words, “I believe in God”. I want them to know by what they see. I want them to see a kind, caring educator who loves relationships and thrives on knowing people…not just the good, but the bad and the ugly about people.

Last summer before school started, I chose an evening to stay until the building was empty. No students, because they were still enjoying summer. No teachers, for they had been working through the day to prepare their classrooms, no custodians…just bare hallways and classrooms. I went on a gratitude walk through the entire building, and counted my blessings. I entered each classroom and looked at names on desks, and the classroom environments teachers had worked so hard to create. I prayed for each teacher, and each class, then left the teacher an uplifting message on a sticky note. It took a couple of hours, but it was well worth my time. God was there. He was in my heart, and his presence was all over the building.

God doesn’t have to be exempt from schools. We can model our faith and core beliefs through our actions and how we treat others. He can be present. He is present. I use my relationship with Him each day to become a stronger leader and a person who can make a positive impact on the people around me. It is a work in progress, and I will never arrive! I can, however, make a difference through my faith and attitude of gratitude.

God lives in my school. He never leaves. What a blessing. Image

Fostering Motivation and Love for Reading: Looking Beyond Levels

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goodmanreadinggroupThat little moment when a child realizes he can read is pure magic. He feels empowered, accomplished, and ready to tackle any book. This realization normally happens when a child is in first grade, or around age 6. Learning to read is a developmental process, and is different for all children. Over the years we have seen the shift in education from exposing all students to a grade level basal type text, to grouping students according to their reading ability level. Small group reading instruction is necessary in order to gently nudge students forward in their reading development, but have we gone too far with the leveling systems? Are we becoming so focused on the number attached to a book that we are missing other factors involved in a child’s reading development? There are implications we must consider when using leveling systems to match books with readers. Keep in mind the thoughts written here are purely my own; the research I have is what I have witnessed through my own experiences as a teacher of third grade students, and as an administrator of kindergarten through fourth grade students. Small group reading instruction must happen daily with our young readers, and we can keep the magic by broadening our lens to view the big picture of reading development. Let us consider more than reading level, and look at the children to guide us in choosing the appropriate text for instruction that will not only support their development, but motivate them to read for enjoyment. After all…isn’t that the ultimate goal? We want our students to become readers, not just in the classroom, but in life. Let’s look at ideas to  support you when matching books to transitional readers. Here we go! Flexible Grouping Small group reading instruction is a nonnegotiable. Kids need this time to be supported by the teacher with the right scaffolds in place. They need discussion time with their peers about their thoughts regarding a text. They need challenges in order for them to practice reading strategies. This can only happen in small groups. We must be cautious when small groups become stagnant, meaning the same students make up each group for long periods of time. Reading groups can become a label for students, which will ultimately destroy motivation and confidence in some children. Groups need to be flexible, changing from time to time depending on the needs of the students and  focus of the teacher. Grouping kids according to ability, genre, interest, targeted skill, fluency, and level of motivation are just a few ways we can form reading groups throughout the school year. Grouping for various reasons will help the teacher foster a love and confidence of reading within all students. We send a message to our transitional readers that they are “stuck” if we keep them in the same groups all semester or all year. Flexible grouping allows kids to see that we have confidence in them to meet our expectations.  It sends an appropriate message to kids about how reading works in life. Bookstores are not organized by numbers. We have the ability to teach kids about proper book selection by allowing them to have voice and choice.  Let’s take a look at three things to consider along with reading levels in order to support our effort in getting kids hooked on reading. Interest One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is that all of our students come from different backgrounds. Each student has schema that varies beyond our understanding–unless we dig deeper and investigate. Kids (and adults) are motivated by what interests them. Conduct interest surveys to discover more about your students. Hold “interest” reading conferences the beginning of the year and take detailed notes!  Not only will this give you insight into their lives outside of the school walls, it will support your ability to connect with them on a personal level. Discovering their interests makes learning personal. Choosing books based on interest level will have a direct impact on students’ motivation to read. Matching the right content to a reader will increase a child’s ability to comprehend at a higher level, and avoid getting stuck in the Bluebirds reading group all year! Genre During individual reading conferences, we need to take into consideration what types of books a reader is choosing for independent reading. Young readers often get stuck in their favorite genre and avoid choosing a variety of literature. These students need support from the teacher on selecting texts from various genres. Holding genre studies in small group reading instruction is a perfect way to expose students to new types of literature, and give them the confidence to choose books more wisely for their independent reading. Selecting the appropriate text becomes more about the genre and not the level. The level of the text must be considered, but the genre is the main reason for choosing the text. It may need to be an easier text in order for students to focus on the format of the genre. Peers Learning is a social act. We learn by observing, discussing, and interacting with content and people. As adults, when we see a great movie or read a fabulous book, what do we do? We tell someone about it! We recommend it to others! Kids need opportunities to to just that. Flexibly grouping kids with peers they feel comfortable around is a great way to break the ice. We need to encourage kids to talk about their own learning, and take ownership of new connections. Let’s give students opportunities to express opinions about who they would like to read and study with during small group reading instruction. When students have voice and choice, they are more motivated. Is it more challenging for the teacher when grouping by peer choice? Absolutely. We are charged with leveling the playing field for students who may struggle. We must be prepared to have more scaffolds in place for particular students, but it is an attainable act. The end result is the payoff: kids don’t see themselves “stuck” with other struggling readers. They have exposure to the thinking of other students. The extra work is worth its weight in gold when we begin to see the fire within struggling and apathetic readers. sharingbookwkidsReading is a lifelong habit that will increase the chances of success within our students. It is our charge to create and maintain  a culture of reading for enjoyment within our classrooms that will expand outside of the school walls and into the homes of our students. Reading levels ARE important! They are not the only determining factor in how we teach students how to be readers. We owe it to every student to teach them how to be readers. Teaching them a book will not grow a habit within; teaching them to be readers will sustain a lifelong habit. Now, I encourage you to go forth, teach, and create lifelong readers in the process. As Debbie Miller says, “Happy Reading!”

Always and Forever a Teacher: Tips for New Administrators

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BfA_peOCIAENRSOI think back to the first few years of my fifteen year career, and I remember point blank stating, “There is no way I will ever become an administrator. I will be happy just being a teacher.” First of all, I learned early on that there is no such idea as “just a teacher”! We all know that the teacher is the number one determining factor in the success (or failure) of students. The classroom is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. It’s where the magic happens. As I stepped into the office five years ago to interview for an assistant principal position in my district, those words played over and over in my head. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? I am happy being a third grade teacher!”, but it was too late to walk out…I was there and had been led there. It was time for me to transition, even though my heart was still in the classroom. I felt the need to make change and wanted the position, but had a fear of losing my teacher heart. I have been an administrator for five years, and my heart has never left the classroom. I will do everything in my power to make sure it stays in the right place. I love my role as an assistant principal. Each day brings new learning and challenges, just as I experienced in the classroom.

Sometimes administration can be lonely. We do not have the luxury of spending the day with the same group of kids, and watching how much they grow each day. There were days when I first became an administrator that I  missed having the close and personal connections with a classroom of kids and their families. I remember feeling very empty and incomplete because I wasn’t able to make the kind of difference that a teacher makes each and every day in a classroom. The first year is certainly the most challenging, and I know I had the deer-in-headlights-look on my face most of the time! I had to find my way; a balance of leadership where teaching and learning outweighs all of the other managerial responsibilities. This balance, my friends, is how you keep your heart in the right place–this is how you keep the heart of a teacher. I have learned a few things in my few years that I feel led to share with anyone facing a transition from teaching to administration. I have found them to be tried and true, and when I feel as if I am losing my balance, I go back these things. I like to refer to it as “Going Back to the Basics”, because they are all very simple things that make a huge difference.

1.  Read to a class.

Reading aloud to kids, whether they are first graders or seniors, is extremely rewarding. It is personal, a way for you to connect with students. It makes you visible to students and teachers, and provides a way for you to share your teacher’s  heart. Choose your favorite books or short stories to keep in your office. I have asked teachers in advance to write me in their lesson plans, or grabbed a book off of my shelf to cover a class when a substitute doesn’t show. Seize opportunities to make it happen.

2.  Teach a Lesson.

As educators, we all have our favorite subject. Keep your excitement for content by teaching a lesson from time to time. I have found that in my short five years in administration, there have been many changes in our expectations and curriculum. Teaching a lesson in a classroom holds me accountable for knowing our district’s curriculum, and helps me better support teachers with professional development and resources. Ask a teacher if you can visit, then teach. The kids will love it, and so will you.

3. Make a Parent’s Day.

Every day kids do amazing things. As administrators we have the luxury of seeing the whole school at will. Kids are always improving, always growing, always blowing me away with the things they do. Why not share with parents? Make some positive phone calls each week to brag on a student, share a celebration, or welcome a new family. Make it a goal to do away with the negativity associated with getting a call from the principal. Establish a culture where visiting the principal’s office or getting “that phone call” can be for something good! Again…this helps you find balance in your position. You did this on a regular basis in the classroom, so why not continue as an administrator where it can be even more powerful?

4. Praise Teachers for What They Do.

Teachers work so hard. They do so much more than prepare lessons and deliver the required content. So much of what teachers teach will not ever appear on a standardized test. Teachers help prepare children for LIFE. Ultimately they have more impact on children than their peers or their families. They model perseverance, empathy, flexibility, problem solving, and so much more, all of which go beyond the classroom walls. Teachers need to be praised for going beyond the minimal requirements of grade level expectations. Math and literacy are not the most important things we teach kids. Recognize and validate what teachers do to make their position personal.

5. Go Find Kids!

When you feel lonely, burned out, bogged down by the managerial tasks,  and as if you are not making a difference…go back to the basics. Go back to where your heart is. Go back to where the kids are. You never really leave, you just veer off track. When you feel that happening, drop everything and go find some kids. Talk to them. Let them ask you questions. Laugh with them. Listen to their stories. Look them in the eye. Give some hugs or fist pumps.

These tips are not rocket science. They are not even researched based. They are merely things I do in my role as an educator that keep me close to where my heart is. I am now and will forever be…a teacher. I have had the privilege of being an  educator for fifteen years, and somehow my love and passion for the profession continue to grow. Each year seems to be more challenging than the previous, yet somehow that makes me more determined to make a difference. I can only hope and pray that I never lose that fire within.

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