Build Relationships with Students-This is the most crucial piece of teaching. The students who sit in front of you are people and building a relationship with each student is my main goal each year. In college, I don’t remember being taught this at all, but it’s a life lesson I learned in the classroom very quickly. What I noticed early in my career is the more connection points I could make with each student, the more they learned, the more motivated they were to learn, and the more they enjoyed coming to school. Building relationships doesn’t look the same for each student. Kids have a unique role they need their teacher to play. I used to worry if I didn’t have a personal connection with each student that looked the same.
As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Melissa Jones.
Melissa Jones is an inspiring girls empowerment coach and highly effective licensed classroom teacher who helps girls learn daily positive habits so they can feel confident in who they are and connect with other girls in an empowering environment. She has been motivating and cultivating connections among hundreds of girls and providing families with resources she has created through over 22,680 hours of experience.
Becoming a teacher was a way for Melissa to motivate and impact kids. After 22 years in the classroom, Melissa realized a pattern among kids. Building relationships and connections with students made a huge impact in their learning. She noticed a need to build relationships with all of her students and that it didn’t have to look the same for each student. She noticed that above all else, kids wanted to feel valued and seen by not only their teacher, but among peers too. Melissa made it her number one priority as a teacher, to build a classroom community that felt like a family away from home. She builds confidence in her students by creating a positive community where differences and effort is praised, asking questions is modeled as a strength, and where her students cheer each other on in their learning.
Outside of school, Melissa partners with families of elementary, middle school, and high school girls through her youth organization called Girls Positivity Club to transform and connect girls in their thinking about their self-worth and created both a virtual and in person culture among girls that is inclusive of differences. She has mentored girls in rural, suburban, urban and private schools around one central message- to be empowered from the inside out. She has been motivating and cultivating connections among hundreds of girls and provides families with resources she has learned through her own transformational journey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Until second grade, I loved school and had friends in all settings of my life. I felt happy and confident in who I was until the summer my parents told me we were moving to another part of town. In my parents’ eyes, the street I loved had slowly become dangerous; they decided that we were moving to a suburb in Indianapolis. The same confidence and sense of belonging did not move with me to the new school and neighborhood. I felt out of place and insecure. I did not have the same sense of belonging that I did in my previous school. I didn’t have anyone I connected with in my new neighborhood and never felt like I was “good enough” for my new setting because it was a step up in status.
Over time, I struggled through school to feel confident and a real sense of belonging and self-worth. I felt invisible as a student and overlooked. I got good grades and was involved in after school activities like sports and dance classes. There was never a teacher up until high school who made me feel like I was important or special. I felt very ordinary and even though I ended up making a small group of close friends, I was always searching for something in school. I saw the same kids getting praised and awarded and ordinary kids like me just blending into the background as another body filling a seat. Because of this feeling of invisibility, I was on the A/B honor roll but didn’t really have the motivation to push myself to reach my potential. When I was a senior in high school an English teacher gushed over a writing piece I had submitted about Nat King Cole and I remember feeling disbelief by her compliments and wondering if she had gotten my paper confused with someone else’s. She had written about how inspiring it was and how she felt that my writing came to life in telling his story.
That moment was a turning point for me. Someone other than my parents saw something special in me. I think it was that moment that I decided that I could do that for kids. I could be the teacher who made ordinary kids feel extraordinary. I could impact kids by getting to know them as people and helping them feel happy and accepted when they stepped into my classroom, so that has always been my mission as a teacher.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are so many interesting stories I could tell. One of the most memorable was when I was teaching in an urban school and had worked tirelessly on gaining the trust and relationships with my fifth grade students. It was a constant battle and I had to dig deep to show up to school every day knowing that I was not trusted because my students didn’t trust teachers easily because of their past experiences at other schools. I had to keep proving to them day after day that I supported them and that I wanted to know them and that I saw greatness in every single person in my class. The mornings were often especially difficult because of things that had happened outside of school in their neighborhoods or with their families. Every morning we had a community circle that was structured and focused around helping everyone connect in our family classroom. This particular morning was the best community circle we had ever had. It was supportive and peaceful and going so well that I was beaming with pride and thinking how impressed I was with how hard we had worked to build a relationship as a class.
In that moment of pride and reflection, everything changed in an instant. A mouse casually trotted across our circle in plain sight and quickly scurried behind a bookshelf. There was another second of complete silence and in the next second the most blood curdling screaming you have ever heard coming from my girls. Several of my girls were apparently terrified of mice and were screaming frantically and walking across the seats of the chairs that were formed in our perfect community circle. The girls were hopping from chair to chair or were crouched hugging their knees at the same time screaming almost continuously. The boys were laughing so hard they were falling out of their chairs and I could not get anything under control for what seemed like an hour, which was more likely less than five minutes. Teachers and school staff were running to our classroom to help whatever this horrific emergency was and bursting into the room to help in any way I needed. It was so loud that they couldn’t hear me telling them that it was a mouse that had caused all of this chaos. For the rest of the day, a few of my girls would not put their feet on the ground and the boys would randomly tease them that they saw the mouse again to get a reaction.
They don’t really prepare you for situations like this in college, nor could they and that is part of teaching. My lesson I learned in this situation is that weird and unexpected moments happen in school and you have to learn to be flexible and think on your feet in the moment. Countless scenarios have happened that are unique and could have never been prepared for experiencing in a classroom. There will be moments where you get rattled as a teacher and you have to laugh at moments like “the mouse incident” because it actually was another connection point that we shared as a class. Sometimes the most strange situations help you become closer with your class and I learned that being a great teacher means you have to roll with weird situations that you never expect.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Girls Positivity Club is a youth organization I created and it is my biggest passion. Growing up, I struggled with self-confidence. I never truly felt good enough for any certain peer group or that my ability in any area was good enough to measure up to other girls all the way through college. Through my teaching career and working in rural, urban, public, and private schools, I noticed a similar pattern in girls. I noticed patterns in girls needing help with not only confidence but in learning how to have healthy friendships with other girls, so I decided to teach them positive ways to manage feelings and issues girls face in everyday life.
I believe that girls shouldn’t have to wait until they are adults to learn practical and healthy self-esteem without worrying about judgment from peers. Girls Positivity Club is what I needed when I was growing up. I needed to know exactly what to do to believe in myself and learn about topics like managing anxiety and stress, how to focus on my strengths instead of my weaknesses, choosing healthy friendships instead of trying to fit in with a “popular group” of girls I never felt good enough to belong in. Looking back, I was always comparing myself to and lacked the confidence and skills to manage feelings of being a people pleaser and perfectionist and how to achieve my goals and dreams. Girls today need these skills now more than ever because of social media pressure and especially now that school is different due to the pandemic. Now, I partner with families of girls and teach the girls directly how to have confidence through lessons I teach on topics that are relevant to girls. In developing lessons, I stay responsive to topics girls want to learn and show them how with daily routines and habits.
I have always wanted to spend more time with girls on their emotional well-being because there is never enough time in the school day to do it all. I would watch girls’ emotions change after lunch and recess because of an issue that happened among friends and it broke my heart. I decided to start teaching these skills a couple of days a week at lunch or recess and it caught on. I saw it making a dramatic difference in the way the girls felt about themselves and the way they treated each other.
I think learning these skills will help girls up into high school/college-age handle hard things in a more healthy way. My ultimate mission is not only to teach the individual girl exactly what she needs to have self-confidence and self-esteem, but also to connect girls with varying interests and backgrounds around this common goal while also having fun and tapping into their creative side. Girls Positivity Club is unique because we apply these skills in a fun and hands-on way using creative methods such as art, music, movement, writing, and cooking. I think not only working with the girls but also teaching families through my social media pages helpful strategies to communicate and connect with their daughters while supporting their emotional growth is another facet that helps and makes Girls Positivity Club special.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I think that rankings and comparisons to other countries are not fair assessments of the US education system. Instead of focusing on the data of test scores and comparing the way our students rank with standardized test scores, we need to reshape the way education is viewed in looking at the whole child. We’re ranking kids according to how they perform on a high stakes, high pressure testing scenario and I don’t think it’s fair to the kids, families, and definitely does not determine how “good” a school or individual teacher’s skills are in true learning. I have seen kids (and teachers) in all settings have severe test anxiety and obsess about grades and their performance.
There needs to be a reframe about what makes a highly effective school beyond test scores. Teachers have added pressures piled up beyond day to day expectations of curriculum and also meeting the emotional needs of each student. Schools are rated solely on a test is causing confusion and burnout because test scores are directly related to ratings and job security. Funding for schools is based solely on a test score, which is not a fair assessment of the countless hours teachers dedicate to reaching students, student effort, and true learning.
Giving schools less money because of a lower ranking test score (and teachers fewer resources) is not going to help the education system improve. I worked in an urban school where one of my students gained eleven reading levels, but on a standardized test his test score showed tremendous growth but a failing score. It crushed his spirit to know that he didn’t “pass” and it impacted his motivation to keep trying. Rankings have the opposite intended effect unless you are at a consistently high scoring ranking school.
The fact is, if the students don’t feel connected and supported and taught how to manage their mental health along with their learning, then that is the bigger issue with the US education system, not how we compare to other schools in numbers. Yes, learning is important and teachers are constantly learning and improving their craft to help students deepen their understanding of content, but it doesn’t always transfer to a test score. The standardized tests are constantly changing and adding extra features in unnecessary levels of difficulty that throw kids and teachers off as soon as we gain momentum. It creates a fear that teachers will lose their jobs because their students don’t score high enough and for kids they become defined by a test score instead of who they are as whole students. Teachers are fed up with tests defining their worth, but are afraid to publicly say and there needs to be more concern about the mental health of the students and teachers.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
1) Relationships- Teachers now more than ever are connecting with their students. We know the mental support that our students need right now more than ever. During the pandemic, I witnessed first-hand my colleagues going above and beyond to make students feel special. There were school parades, teachers delivering materials, school principals delivering hot spots to families who needed technology support, virtual community circles, and countless other examples. Teachers go to students’ football games, ask about dance and music performances, learn about video games the kids are playing and reference it in lessons, find out students’ dog’s names, and on and on. It’s a lot more relationship building than anything and teachers are pros at knowing kids even during the most difficult circumstances. Teaching is about being human with students by sharing parts of your personal life that will connect with them. I share that my parents divorced when I was very young, that I have 12 chickens, my son is a blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, and I had to work hard in school because it wasn’t easy for me. All of these little snippets of life help students connect and see that you are human too. Sharing a bit of yourself allows them to share a bit of their life and builds kids’ trust in teachers. Kids are more motivated to work hard for a teacher who not only takes an interest in them, but are relatable.
Teachers are coming together and helping support each other now more than ever. We are teaching right now in masks full time for those of us that are in person and behind a webcam for those who are digital. Our teams are our families. We support each other emotionally by laughing about nonsense, check on colleagues that have extra challenges, have birthday celebrations in hallways or through Zoom. School leaders are delivering treats and giving words of encouragement as much as they possibly can. with special events such as delivering hot cocoa on National Cocoa Day. Teachers put banners up on each other’s classroom doors for special occasions and make time to catch up and talk about nothing at all. Teachers plan collaboratively and check in to see if anyone needs anything. This is a constant theme in schools and shows how relationships among teams are a huge component of teachers’ support and mental health.
2) Perseverance- Teachers don’t give up. They keep going in unimaginable circumstances. It would have been very easy for teachers, students and families to give up on education during the pandemic. We were faced with unbelievable challenges and had to pivot in an unbelievably short period of time from full time in-person teaching to teaching behind a screen through Zoom or Google Meet. Teachers recorded lessons on video and made lessons visual by turning their homes into classrooms. Behind the scenes, we hung chart paper up on our walls, shoved easels in the backs of our cars to use during live lessons, recorded read alouds, designed visuals aids using technology, and kept relationships going without missing a beat. We held not only whole group and small group Zooms, but also optional study hall Zooms, read bedtime stories virtually to our students, taught songs to have peace or to remember the steps in long division. Teachers created virtual field days and held community circles that had themes such as pajama day and bring your pet to school day. We did not give up on teaching and connecting with our students.
3) Book Choices- There are literally thousands of books for kids today. Yes, there are people who enjoy reading more than others, but one of the most rewarding experiences for me is when I get a kid into a book who said they hated to read and they are reading it like a scavenger. It usually takes a conversation about their interests, then you get to work getting your hands on as many of these books as you can. And there are so many ways kids can read- digitally, graphic novels, audio books. It may take some trips to Barnes and Noble or scouring Amazon to find them, but there out there. Just this week, I had a girl in my Girls Positivity Club make an affirmation, “I am a good reader” because she found her book series. Reading is difficult for her because she has 3 learning disabilities including dyslexia. Because Maria Scrivan created Nat Enough, which is a hybrid genre of graphic novel chapter book, it was approachable for her to read a “long book” like other kids. Thanks to amazing authors like Maria, kids are reading more books than ever. Every kid has a book out there and we have amazing authors to thank.
4) The kids- The kids are what motivate us. We love our kids and they are the most resilient people you will ever meet. I get very defensive when people say that kids are terrible these days or the future looks grim because of youth today. I am offended by that generalization because kids are incredible people and often have perspectives that are more innovative, creative, and compassionate than most adults. Kids have dreams and have ideas that are world-changing. I’m not talking kids who live in a certain suburb that is an upper class economic setting. I have seen greatness in kids in rural, urban, private and public school settings. All kids need is to be encouraged and valued. If we continue to nurture them, and pour into them, then we have an amazing future ahead of us.
5) Flexibility and Resilience- Teachers are the most flexible and resilient people I have ever met. In my school district alone, we pivoted from in-person to a full digital teaching model in 2 days without missing a beat. It was hard, but teachers do not back down from challenges. Teachers get knocked down and get right back up because of our students. Teaching in the pandemic is just one example of how teachers weathered the most unimaginable storm ever and did it without blinking an eye. It was hard and exhausting and we were teaching in a format that many of us had never experienced through using Zoom. Kids eating snacks or jumping on a trampoline while we were teaching math. Siblings and animals joining us for lessons. We will do anything for our students and being flexible and resilient is something teachers do with grace. I think most people would be astounded at the number of ways teachers have to be flexible within even an hour of school day.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
1) Ask Teachers for Input- The most surprising part of the US education system that needs to be a number one priority is asking teachers for input about improving education. The most innovative people in solving problems are teachers. I heard somewhere along my career that if you put a group of great teachers in a room with a problem to solve or a goal to reach that seems impossible and they’ll have it solved by lunchtime. It is shocking to me that teachers are not involved in discussions and advisory boards, are not involved in making the most decisions about education. Politicians and business people are choosing standardized tests, making decisions that directly impact learning and ultimately altering the education system without consulting the people who are doing all of the work. Teachers are the ones who are with kids daily and are the ones who know what works and what doesn’t work in education. Large corporations who have not stepped foot in a classroom since they were students are out of touch with realistic expectations of students and teachers and are going off of statistics of standardized tests and comparing the US education system to other countries with different cultural views of education. There is a lack of trust in teachers and possibly a fear that teachers would “water down” curriculum or make it too easy for students, which is untrue. We love challenging our students, but not to the point that they lose hope and motivation. If there was a way that each state could have a panel of teachers involved in making decisions who are no way connected to a standardized test company or in a political position, I believe the education system would improve and our learning and overall well-being in the US education system would sky-rocket.
2) Teach Growth Mindset- Teaching kids that learning is a process where you are supposed to stumble if you are truly experiencing growth. True learning is vital for teachers and school staff to instill in students and teaching a student to see that everything you learn isn’t supposed to be easy all the time. I see so many kids who are afraid to take a risk in trying a new technique or raise their hand if they are not 100% correct for fear of looking dumb to their peers. I recently asked my students how many of them only raise their hand if they are 100% sure that their answer is correct and almost every student raised their hand. I see students who are afraid to learn new things because they may not be good at it. Teaching growth mindset is teaching that when learning something new or trying a new strategy, students have to be taught how to manage their internal talk. Modeling “the power of yet,” and changing their internal voice is modeling how to think flip a switch with the voice that says, “I don’t know how to do this,” to “I don’t know how to do this YET, but I’m getting there,” or from, “It’s too hard,” to “I can do hard things.” The truth is, now more than ever, we have to teach kids that learning is a process and the way you view your own learning is crucial. We have to teach kids to rewire their thinking from “I’ll never get this” to I’m learning how to do this.” Unfortunately test scores have made many students afraid to go through the growth of learning and embrace it. It needs to be taught not as an extra curriculum, but the thinking modeled to students during every lesson. Everyone involved in a student’s education needs to change from a fixed to growth mindset so that kids know that everything isn’t supposed to be easy all the time and that is part of true learning. It’s uncomfortable and messy sometimes, but when you stick with a growth mindset, everything changes.
3) Lift Pressures of Standardized Tests- Standardized tests are a tool that is supposed to be used to measure student learning and help us address gaps or areas needed to extend learning. Instead, it instills fear in teachers, students, and their parents. When a student doesn’t perform well on a test, it starts to create a narrative that the teacher must not have been good enough or the student isn’t learning fast enough compared to the percentile rank as peers. Test creators change the wording of test questions by updating wording of questions that are unnecessary and confuse kids. These test scores and percentages make parents fearful that their child isn’t going to do well in school and that they need to get tutors or make their kids practice test questions at home. Teachers are afraid that if their students don’t perform well, that they’ll be fired or look as though they are not good teachers because of the way their test scores compare to a colleague. The make-up of a class not taken into consideration. Are the kids in one classroom exactly like students in another classroom? No. Each class has its own personality and unique set of learners and along all levels of learning. It is possible to have in one class, a group of learners who are two grade levels below in their learning of specific content being compared to students who are two grade levels above. To the outsider looking in, maybe that makes sense, but I’ve seen kids who are amazing readers and thinkers score low because of test anxiety and internal pressure of a high stakes test. The standardized test scores determine a schools rating and funding. So the “worst schools” end up getting the least help and that is the opposite of what a school needs. If you think of it even compared to the National Football League, the worst teams get the highest draft picks the following year. The worst team gets the number one pick in the NFL draft, they don’t get punished or kicked out of the league because they failed, they get more help. Why isn’t this same philosophy used in schools that do the worst on standardized tests? I think there have to be better ways of supporting and funding schools that are failing on a standardized tests besides closing them down or increasing pressure. We need to give those schools the “number one draft picks” and even ask what they need, not taking over the school and forcing regulations that aren’t relevant to that specific school and the group of students that are unique.
4) Improve Teacher Rights- Each year there are new rules that put pressure on teachers to do more. Teachers work harder. Teachers are encouraged to work hard, but also practice self-care. State and national guidelines continue to pile up and many times with little pay raises or support. We have countless meetings before or after school and are expected to keep up with our grading, connections with students, communication with parents, teaching state standards effectively, testing reading levels, forming intervention and extension groups, managing behavior plans and large class sizes, have fun with our kids while setting boundaries. Then most of us go home to be full time parents and spouses. Teachers are exhausted and the amount of responsibilities just seems to continue to pile on us, even during a pandemic. Teachers love kids and have more perseverance than any other people I’ve ever met. We have to take better care of teachers soon or there is going to be a big crisis in the US education system.
4) Give Passion Opportunities for Students- Related arts classes are the only opportunities most students have in school to experience opportunities to explore something they are passionate about outside of core subject area studies. Music, art, physical education, and technology are amazing opportunities for students and are many times the only reason students come to school because they know they can experience something they love at least once in the week. What if we offered other opportunities for students to explore learning about what they are curious or passionate about beyond the scheduled fine arts classes? There are writers, scientists, inventors, spoken word artists, actors, fashion designers, engineers, dancers, crafting experts, entrepreneurs, chefs, coders, and so many more interests that kids don’t get to explore at school. Why not offer a portion of the school day where students can explore these passions? What if there were a mandatory genius hour or inquiry time without strict limits other than the process?
Many kids graduate not having developed their interests or passions outside of the traditional related arts classes. Why not allow them to deepen their craft in these areas or explore something different? There are schools who are allowing these opportunities. When I taught in a school that had a designated Passions class, we offered classes in categories that ranged from spoken word poetry to learning Chinese to learning how to run a marathon. When I had a “passions” class in my 5th grade classroom, I even had students start businesses and learn how to create a website for it and system for taking orders for the products they were creating in their folder design business. Many students only came to school because of Passions class and they would work hard on core content so that they could have Passions classes at the end of the day. Engagement was the highest for students because they were able to try out something they were both good at doing and interested in doing more of it. This would allow for students to get more clarity about the type of work they would enjoy moving into adulthood.
5) Reduce Class Sizes- Classes are very unique because there are people in it with different abilities, personalities, and needs. Increasing the number of kids in a class adds a level of difficulty for teachers and students because especially for the more introverted or shy kids, they can get overlooked unintentionally by the teacher. It is unfair. Having 28 to 32 students in a classroom is too much for the teacher and gives the teacher less time to work with students on individual goals and heightens students acting out for wanting more attention from the teacher. When class sizes are large it adds a level of difficulty of teachers developing relationships with students, meeting their individual needs, and adds challenges to classroom management. Smaller class sizes would allow more attention for each student’s needs. When there are large class sizes, the kids who get the most attention are the ones who act out with behaviors or take action to ask for help. The more shy and introverted students get less attention, unintentionally. Teachers try their best to develop systems with large class sizes to reach students through small groups as much as possible, but giving individual attention to 28–32 fifth graders every day becomes a frustrating challenge for teachers and the students who deserve the attention.
Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.
1) Build Relationships with Students-This is the most crucial piece of teaching. The students who sit in front of you are people and building a relationship with each student is my main goal each year. In college, I don’t remember being taught this at all, but it’s a life lesson I learned in the classroom very quickly. What I noticed early in my career is the more connection points I could make with each student, the more they learned, the more motivated they were to learn, and the more they enjoyed coming to school. Building relationships doesn’t look the same for each student. Kids have a unique role they need their teacher to play. I used to worry if I didn’t have a personal connection with each student that looked the same.
One summer I took a workshop that focused around personality and learning styles and my perspective was reframed completely. Kids don’t need the same type of relationship from their teachers. Some kids need me to connect with them related to their family life and have a mom-like relationship. Those kids will often be asking for my help and instead of saying, “Mrs. Jones can you help me,” they call me Mom and laugh or get embarrassed by the slip. Other kids need me to connect with them about books. I find common ground with a book series and find out everything I possibly can about the author, the characters, the writing style of the author and have conversations around the series. Other kids need me to know about the sports they play and ask them questions about their games, their positions, their practices and they light up when you take an interest in something they are passionate about. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking who their favorite player is and listening to the details they share just in casual conversation. If I have a student reading about football, I ask questions and tap into what I know about football (thanks to my dad who took me to countless Indianapolis Colts games growing up). The list of connection points is unique for each student. The point is that every kid has a connection point and finding that area of connection is the start of how I build relationships. If I didn’t take time to build relationships with my students, there would be more issues with motivation and them feeling valued as people, which ultimately leads to growth and learning. After all, we spend more time together as students and teacher than with our own families throughout the school week. We might as well become a classroom family.
2) Teach Students Daily Growth Mindset Tips– Teaching growth mindset is crucial to students’ self-esteem and a way for teachers to model what the learning process is actually like, especially when learning something new. What is surprising is that most kids have a fixed mindset about their own learning and how they see other kids learning. Countless students have told me that they often compare or rank themselves against other students and are also afraid to raise their hand for fear of saying a wrong answer or being seen as dumb to other kids. Teachers modeling growth mindset and being intentional about it while teaching is very important. To do this effectively, it needs to be modeled daily. Praise kids for taking risks. Teach them that learning something for the first time isn’t supposed to be easy every time. Help them reframe their thinking and give them the words to use. “I’m not good at math,” a fixed mindset, changes to a growth mindset thought, “I’m getting this,” or “It’s ok if I need more practice at math.” This type of thinking is a huge shift for kids to think of learning as a process not a set of achievements or skills to check off on a list. Sometimes kids think they aren’t smart if they don’t catch on the way others do (fixed mindset) and giving them examples they can relate to helps. I use real life examples from when I was younger of how I had to join study groups in college, how I took twice as long as everyone else in elementary school to learn how to tell time, and how learning basic measurements took me years to really grasp helps them see me as a growing learner. Opening up class conversations about growth mindset and embedding it into everyday classroom life is the most effective way to teach it. I think about at least three times a day how I can model growth mindset and praise students for taking risks. It makes a huge difference.
3) Build a Student Connection Community– When a student walks through the door each day, they need to feel valued and seen by not only the teacher, but by their classmates too. A supportive classroom community is something teachers start on the first day of school. The kids need to know each other. They need to know what they have in common and what is unique as valuable. One of my students was absent recently and everyone knows what a Star Wars expert he is because he reads about it, writes about it, talks about it, and even practices his light saber skills after school. On the day he was absent, he missed a music lesson that featured a Star Wars song. The kids talked about how they couldn’t wait to tell him about it because he would have loved every second and I watched them excitedly catch him up when he came back to school the following day. The kids need to know each other’s interests and be able to share about them. This doesn’t mean that we sit around talking all day about personal interests, but I think about how I can work in these topics into classroom conversations and allow students to see that they can have common interests. The teacher cultivates this by finding what books they have in common, what sports they play, who likes art, who sings, who can act, animals they have in common and it is crucial that teachers create opportunities to not only connect with students through relationships, but cultivate them among each other too.
4) Teach Kids Grit- I believe that teaching positive habits to kids is crucial to their learning and teaching grit intentionally is important and often goes back to whether something feels “too hard.” Very few kids have internal grit where they know how to dig deep and work through hard things. Instead of thinking that it is a unique and special trait to have naturally, I believe it can be taught. When I was a kid, I didn’t have much internal motivation to work through challenges and had a victim mindset at times when things didn’t go my way. I didn’t know how to have grit on my own. My parents encouraged me to work hard and it took decades before I developed internal grit. Yes, there are people who have a fire inside that is motivated by their own desire to achieve or prove someone wrong, but for most kids it doesn’t come naturally. Teaching daily lessons on internal talk and modeling it for students is one example. Showing kids what to say to yourself when giving up is the easier option is helpful. I have my students write “pump up” cards to keep on their desks. I ask them to imagine they are giving a pep talk to themselves, and ask them what they would tell a friend to keep going. I pass out index cards and each student writes an encouraging phrase to themselves. They place it at the top of their desk when we are taking a math test, writing a long writing assignment or any other case where it’s needed. I gave a four page math test and left a space for the students to write themselves a “pump up” message to themselves on it. I model what to write by having them write phrases such as “I keep going when it feels hard.” “I can do anything.” I praise grit from individual students and we clap for students when they try hard. I point out how hard they are working and they nominate other kids who deserve recognition with Tiger Tickets. When teachers show kids how to take steps toward a goal, tiny steps every day, and have conversations about how to push through when something is hard is the biggest key. I always tell my students that giving up is easy. Everyone feels like giving up on something, but that isn’t going to help you grow. I tell them to pick one daily area and think about what they will I do to push through the “giving up feeling” when it’s hard. Will you write yourself a note of encouragement at the top of your paper or on a sticky note? Will you ask for help when you don’t really want to? Will you raise your hand and ask a question you are afraid to ask in front of peers even if you are worried about what they will think of you? Teaching grit isn’t only about sticking with something, it’s teaching students a how to approach challenges with courage and perseverance.
5) Connect with “Unconnectable Kids”– Connecting with kids doesn’t mean connecting with only the most friendly and relatable kids. Those are the easiest connections to make and often the students that get the most praise in school. The connections that are crucial for teachers are the connections with kids who don’t like school, have a reputation for misbehaving in school, or have family challenges that make coming to school difficult. Unfortunately, there are always going to be kids who have a wall up because they have had experiences in class that have been negative. I believe that every year is a fresh start for each student. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is especially true for kids who don’t like school or have gotten into a lot of trouble in previous years because they have had some kind of challenge. From an outsider’s perspective, these students seem unconnectable.
There are teachers everywhere who make breakthroughs with unconnectable kids. It all comes down to finding out what they are interested in and finding out everything you can find out about that topic and finding ways to work that into lessons or conversations and consistently showing up for them. One year, I had two boys who had reputations for being acting out in class to avoid work. They “hated reading” and were acting out a lot during reading time distracting other students and avoiding it all together. I knew that they loved WWE wrestling and our school didn’t have books on that topic, so I went on Amazon and found a series that were biographies about specific wrestlers. I bought dozens of those books. These “unconnectable boys” became the most focused readers and read the books so quickly and intensely that I had to start ordering five at a time to stay ahead of them. They needed to know I had listened to them and cared enough to order special books. Another example is when I had a student who would destroy objects in the classroom or climb into the trashcan to get laughs from other students in previous years. He had developed a reputation. He yelled at other kids and teachers, made fun of and point out others’ mistakes and would not turn in any work. I took an interest in him very early about cats that he adopted and asked him questions every day and found out that he and his family had a reputation for helping stray cats find homes. Every few days I asked him about his cats and was consistent about taking an interest in him as a person. He hated writing, but when I suggested he write his memoir about the cats he rescued, he started to see that school wasn’t so bad. As crazy as it sounds, besides taking a personal interest in him and setting clear boundaries that “we don’t do that in here” when he tried to climb in the trashcan one day lining up for recess, he nodded and said he was sorry. He had the belief that the only thing he was good at is making people laugh and being “bad,” to his classmates. He also frequently said that he was dumb. A lot of times, unconnectable kids have very low self-esteem and they don’t know how to express that they need help. Teachers taking a genuine interest and being consistent with accepted behaviors and showing unconditional support and encouragement has been the biggest factor in connecting with the unconnectable.
- As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
The value of teachers needs to be raised in the media to attract people to the profession whether they are starting college or feel drawn to teaching as a second career later in life. Teachers are often the first people to get blamed for the education system being bad and over 22 years, have never met a more hard working, caring category of people in my life. There have to be incentives for teachers to attract them into the field because it is challenging work with low pay for beginning teachers. If the student relationships and ways that teachers change lives was a main focus in the media, it would help attract people to pursue a career in education. The only news stories that focus on teachers and education are typically about scandals. If there were more public inspirational stories and recognitions for teachers (along with better pay), that could start to attract more talent to education. I also think that there are kids in high school that have the desire to be a teacher and there could be a program developed alongside cadet teaching to help funnel students who are interested in working in education into college programs for college credit such as an introduction to education class. These would be two suggestions that would help attract people to the education field.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I used this quote earlier and quotes are motivating for me. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When kids feel valued when they walk in the classroom it makes all the difference. They are more likely to have growth in their learning and in their emotional intelligence. Think about who you remember as one of your favorite teachers. More than likely it was someone who made you feel important, who you enjoyed spending time with, and who you feel really cared about you. Like many teachers, I hear from students years later about how they loved my class and not once has anyone said anything about the way I taught fractions or taught them how to write a summary paragraph. They remember the way I made them feel.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 😊
If I could meet anyone to have a private breakfast or lunch with, it would be Lori Harder. I would love to meet her because she started with an idea to solve a problem for women- building connection among women. Through her book A Tribe Called Bliss and podcast, Earn Your Happy, she teaches practical tips in personal growth and building meaningful connections with other women. That’s essentially what I’m doing too in Girls Positivity Club, connecting girls and teaching them practical tips in how to build confidence. Lori has an amazing sense of humor while also teaching practical and insightful tips, owns several businesses that impact women in a positive way, and believes in being innovative in making the world better in unique ways. I met her once in Denver at a conference and she took time to talk to me while we were walking into the convention center. She was a speaker and I was a participant, so she could have taken a quick picture with me and left, but she walked in with me and we had natural, meaningful conversation. She was relatable and kind, so I can only imagine how wonderful a breakfast or lunch would be with her.
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!