Category Archives: relationships

Making Heavy Hearts Glad

Miss M, my teaching assistant, disappeared after lunch yesterday. She is conscientious and thoughtful and superb with the kids, so I was puzzled and disappointed by her apparent irresponsibility. She could have at least let me know that she’d be gone for the rest of the day.

My disappointment turned into smoldering resentment as the afternoon progressed and the 6th-graders became more and more surly and unruly. It was obvious that they, too, missed Miss M—but they are not articulate, so they acted out.

It wasn’t until after the students had been escorted to the buses that I learned that Miss M had rushed home at lunchtime after someone had spotted her dog in distress and called her to come quickly.

She was too late. By the time she got home, her beloved pet was dead.

Today Miss M was back in my classroom, a shadow of her usual exuberant self. She was red-eyed and sniffling, but the same children who were surly and unruly yesterday were gentle and solicitous today.

“What happened to your dog?” one student asked.

“We left him on the deck and he decided to jump,” said Miss M, “but his leash was too short and he broke his neck.”

“Was he a good dog?”

“He was a very good dog,” Miss M said, “a very, very good dog.” Her voice faltered as she wiped away tears.

Several of the children told Miss M how they had lost beloved pets to various tragedies.

As they spoke, an ancient proverb seemed to spring to life: “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25, KJV).

By sharing their stories of loss and grief—which are, mysteriously, “good words”— healing began, both for the children and for Miss M.

The hearts of children of poverty, the children with whom I work, stoop with heaviness. Unimaginable things, unspeakable things, happen in their homes and to their families every day.

That’s why it’s so essential for me to be lavish in giving out good words. I want to be a teacher who makes heavy hearts glad.

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Summer School: Day 11

The students are getting restless—too much pent-up energy, and no way to release it except by mouthing off, so it was no surprise that the following exchange took place this morning:

Student: You got a pencil?

Me: No.

Student: I need a pencil.

Me: I thought you had a pencil. What were you using?

Student: My nose.

These kids are just a year or two younger than I was when I gave my first smart-ass answer to an adult’s question. The summer I was 14, our family had just moved from Vermont to a small town in Kansas. Jobs for young teens were scarce, so my dad bought a new lawn mower, hoping that my brother and I could earn some cash by building a yard-maintenance business.

I was always on the lookout for shaggy lawns, which meant potential new customers. I knocked at the door of one house with a particularly jungly front yard. A stunningly beautiful woman answered. “I was wondering if you’d like for me and my brother to mow your lawn,” I stammered.

“How much do you charge?” she asked.

“We can negotiate the price,” I said.

“Let me ask my husband.” She left me standing at the door while she consulted her spouse. She returned a couple of minutes later with another question: “Are you going to use your lawn mower?”

“No,” I retorted, without thinking, “I’m going to use my teeth.”

“All right, wise guy, that’s not what I meant. Are you going to use your mower or ours?”

Amazingly, Sue and Art Lewrenz hired me to mow their lawn for the rest of the summer. Sue must have known that adolescents often open their mouths without thinking, and she must have been in a generous mood that day, willing to overlook my transgression.

As a middle-school teacher, I’m called upon to overlook transgressions daily. Choosing my battles, I ignore a lot of smart-ass remarks. It’s good for the kids, good for me, and good for the health of our classroom community.

Second Friday in Advent: Patience?

“‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.’”
Revelation 2:19

Patient endurance? I’m afraid my patience with my sixth-graders ended long before the final bell rang today. At the beginning of sixth period I told them that we had a lot of work to do and that we would all have to keep on task to get it done.

“There are two very important things we need to do before 3:30,” I said. “We need to finish making Christmas cards for our pen pals and we need to finish decorating the board.” My students cheered. Then they grabbed scissors, colored construction paper, glue and crayons and went to work.

For about fifteen minutes, it seemed as though things might actually go according to my plan. Everywhere I looked, students were cutting, coloring and decorating.

Then things started to deteriorate. B-Boy got up from his desk to wander aimlessly around the room. Two boys got into a “sword fight” with scissors. A threesome huddled around the one student computer that’s hooked to a printer. They said they were just taking a quick look for Christmas tree art to print, but the “quick look” quickly became forty minutes—at which point I shut down the computer. M-Boy decided that using the stapler was so much fun he started tacking staples all over the bulletin board as fast as he could. J-Boy began verbally harassing some of the girls and wouldn’t stop.

Finally, I’d had enough. I ordered the students to clean up immediately and return to their desks. “Do not get out of your seats until after the bell rings,” I said. (They never did finish the holiday cards to their pen pals.) I couldn’t wait to escort them out of the building to the waiting buses. As soon as I turned off the lights in my classroom, I left the school, muttering to myself, “I hate this time of year.”

I don’t really hate the days leading up to Christmas, of course, but all of the stresses of the week finally caught up with me and words of discouragement flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. I’m human. I get tired. I complain.

Fortunately, there’s One who knows me better than I know myself. He also knows the better self that sometimes gets buried deep within me. “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance,” he says. “I know the real you, and that this was ‘just one of those days.’ If you will rest in My love over the weekend, you’ll be refreshed, restored and ready to return to your classroom Monday morning.”

What a gracious offer! And it comes to me not only during the days of Advent, but every day of the year.

Second Wed. in Advent: Greatness

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:11-12

Who are the great people in our world? Most of us don’t have any trouble answering that question. Leaders of countries are great people. Billionaires are great people. Inventors are great people. Astronauts are great people—and our list goes on and on.

If Jesus were to make a list of great people, however, it would look quite different from our list. It would contain only one word: servant.

There’s nothing glamorous about serving others—which is why there are so few servants in the world. Serving can be a messy, thankless task.

Many teachers are servants. They teach not because they are making a lot of money, but because they genuinely enjoy working with and helping children. I can’t imagine not being around children all day.

For the last two days my sixth-graders and I have been writing holiday acrostics together. With a little prompting and support, these kids have shown themselves to be quite creative. After we brainstormed a list of holiday nouns (reindeer, Santa Claus, candy, lights, angel) and verbs (bake, wrap, eat, buy, give), I wrote on the board as the kids dictated several acrostics, such as this one:

Elf, do you
Like to
Fly with Santa?

As we brainstormed and composed acrostics together, my students taught me almost as much I taught them. Receiving from others can also be a form of service. (It’s not always more blessed to give than to receive!) Not every day in the classroom will turn out to be as much fun as the last two days have been, but every day can be an opportunity for me to serve, either as a giver or a receiver.

Learning to serve is one of the themes of Advent. As I continue to experience the art of give-and-take with my students, I am discovering—sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully—the true meaning of greatness.

Second Tuesday in Advent: Short Life

Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight. Surely every man stands as a mere breath!
Psalm 39:5

Life is short. That’s the psalmist’s message in these two sentences.

Life is short—as if we teachers needed to be reminded! There are never enough hours in the day to plan interesting lessons; to grade the papers piling up on our desks; to help struggling readers learn to decode and appreciate the printed word; to collaborate with our colleagues; or to do the multitude of other tasks that are demanded of us.

Nor is there enough time to rest. So when occasions to rest present themselves, teachers seize them gleefully and gratefully. And when they miss those occasions, they mourn. Today was a day of mourning.

All the teachers at our school watched the weather anxiously yesterday, mindful of the forecast: heavy snow, beginning midday. Instead of snow, however, rain fell. Toward evening, the rain tapered off and the temperature dropped. Surely we would awaken to the predicted six to twelve inches of snow on the ground—enough to cancel school and let tired teachers sleep in for an extra hour or two.

Dawn dashed all our hopes. Only a few scattered flakes of snow lay on the ground. Reluctantly I headed to school even earlier than usual for a meeting at 7:15 a.m. called by the superintendent. I turned up the heat in my classroom, turned on the copy machine to let it warm up, and then went to the conference room. No lights were on. No one was there.

Thirty minutes past the scheduled meeting time, another teacher told me that the opening of school had been delayed for two hours because of ferocious winds and frigid temperatures. (Wind chill was hovering around zero, I think.) Instead of calling the staff, however, the superintendent posted the two-hour delay message online—a place where nobody looks before coming to school in the morning.

Life is short and sleep is precious, so today was a day of mourning—for the extra sleep I could have had, but missed, because I showed up at school early instead of late.

Not only is life short, but so is the journey from Advent to Christmas—a mere four weeks. Used wisely, however, those four weeks can be a time of welcoming into our midst the One who makes all things new—even our tired bodies and weary minds.

Life is short. Put out the welcome mat.

Second Monday in Advent: Astonishing

And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
Matthew 22:33

Jesus said some pretty astonishing things when he lived and taught on Earth. Some people liked what he said, others didn’t. In the end, those who opposed Jesus’ teachings were instrumental in causing his death.

Unlike Jesus, I don’t astonish too many—if any—of my students. Several times a week I hear the complaint: “This is the most boring class.” There’s nothing astonishing about boredom, is there?

But I have a little theory about my students’ so-called boredom: They don’t know what to call the feelings of frustration they experience when they can’t accomplish a particular task (rounding numbers to the nearest 100, for example, or remembering what an adjective is and how to use it), so instead of saying, “I feel frustrated,” they say, “This class is boring.” It takes all the responsibility off their shoulders and dumps it on mine. If the class is boring, then obviously it’s the teacher’s fault.

What’s a teacher to do?

I don’t know what other teachers do, but I know what I do: I pick my battles. So what if a kid says the class is boring? Her ill-informed and caustic remark, born out of her own frustration, is not going to kill me.

It should, however, alert me to problems the student may be having mastering a concept. When does she say the class is boring? During a reading lesson on Number the Stars? Maybe she doesn’t understand the story because she stumbles over unfamiliar words. I may be able to help transform her attitude toward the book from “boredom” to astonishment by the simple expedient of building her vocabulary.

Advent is the season of year when even the most ordinary things become transformed and have the capacity to astonish us. What could be more ordinary than a fir tree? Yet when the tree is decorated with colored lights and ornaments, it becomes an object of extraordinary beauty and wonder.

What could be more ordinary than a baby? About five babies are born per second all over the world. But put a baby in a manger and surround him with shepherds and angels, and wait and watch as he grows up, and he just might become a teacher who astonishes the world.

What could be more ordinary than teaching surly, unpredictable middle-school students? Yet I am astonished at how working with them has transformed me into someone who listens not only with his ear, but also with his heart.

First Friday in Advent: Giving

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Psalm 16:6

It’s Friday, and like many teachers, I’m tired. I’ve had too many papers to grade this week, too many meetings to attend and too many breakdowns in classroom decorum.

Yet despite my weariness, I take pleasure in thinking back on some pleasant incidents, involving a handful of students who are eager to learn.

T-Boy is one of my eager learners. He perked up immediately during today’s spelling pretest when he heard me say the word thirteen.

“I’m going to be thirteen tomorrow,” he announced. Then he added, “How do you spell thirteen?”

“This is a test,” I reminded him. “That’s for you to figure out.”

“But how do you spell it?” he said, becoming more insistent.

“If you’re going to be thirteen, then you need to learn how to spell the word.”

T-Boy thought for a moment and then gave me a mischievous grin. “I’ll just stay twelve,” he said.

Exchanges like this one with T-Boy compel me to agree with the psalmist: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”

I haven’t always been a teacher. I’ve held several other jobs. But now that I’ve worked with middle school students for a number of years, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been called to teach—and I’ve answered that call. Nothing can be more pleasant than doing what one knows in one’s bones is the right thing to do—and teaching feels right for me.

Making the journey through Advent to Christmas also feels right. Despite what many retailers would have us believe, Christmas doesn’t start the moment Halloween ends. There’s a gap of nearly eight weeks from trick-or-treating to gift-giving. Making the Advent journey can change us from getters into givers.

During this Advent season, as I continue to teach my students, and laugh with them, even when I am weary, I am learning afresh that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive.

Parental Fallout on the Way?

There are two of us special ed teachers at our school. We co-teach a seventh-grade life skills class. Today’s lesson was on test-taking skills. The kids weren’t interested. Some of them refused to open their test booklets. Some of them opened their booklets, but sat and stared at me. Others kept asking, “What page are we on?” even though I had repeated the page number at least half a dozen times, and walked around the room to make sure everyone was in the right place.

After more than 30 minutes of their defiance and indolence, I’d had enough. “You’re on your own, guys. The rest of this assignment is due at the end of the period. You have about 20 minutes to finish.”

I went to my desk and began entering grades in the online grade book. My co-teacher was sitting at another table in the room, where she had been grading papers. Two or three of the boys moved to her table immediately and asked for help. She read the questions and possible answers to them so they could choose the best answer.

For about 10 minutes, the room was fairly quiet except for some giggling coming from the table. All of a sudden the quietness was shattered by my co-teacher’s declaring to one boy: “If you’re going to be an asshole, then I’m not going to help you. Go back to your seat.”

I kept my head down. I didn’t dare look up. I knew I’d start to laugh if I did. Fortunately, the bell rang a few minutes later and the boys left for their next class.

These kids can try the patience of the proverbial saint. My co-teacher and I aren’t saints. She’d finally had enough of their antics and said the first thing that came to mind.

We’ll see if there’s any parental fallout from this incident.

They Missed Me

After a week-long bereavement leave, I returned to my classroom Monday. My sixth-graders wouldn’t stop chattering, no matter how many times I reprimanded them. Finally in exasperation I said, “What’s the matter with you?”

M-Boy, the chattiest one of all, replied, “Oh, we’re just so happy to see you that we can’t stop talking.”

A couple of hours later, when I greeted the seventh-graders at the door, J-Boy wrapped his arms around me and mimicked a kiss.

It’s nice to be missed.

And loved.

Like a Great Tree Felled

Like a great tree felled
you crashed to the floor, broken
and forever stilled.

© 2009 by Magical Mystical Teacher