Category: Lessons Learned from Students

Closer Than We Think

I am not sure if schools, churches, and other entities know how incredibly powerful the words they choose to put on their signs and marquees are, but they have a powerful platform. Aside from the humorous puns and hilarious grammar errors they sometimes provide, their messages are potentially life-changing. 

My First Meaningful Encounter with a Church Sign

It seems like a lifetime ago now, and in a way, it was, but thirty years ago, I was in Moncks Corner visiting relatives, and saw a church sign that read: 

“We Don’t See The World as it is; We See It as We Are.” 

The opposite side of the sign read, 

“The heart would hold no rainbow if the eyes held no tears.” 

I know what the opposite side of the sign said because I insisted that my fellow traveler turn the car around so that I could write the sign’s message down. I wanted to ponder it and knew I’d forget it if I didn’t write it down. (Remember, thirty years ago, cell phone cameras were non-existent; we had to have pictures developed, so paper and pencil was always handy.)

The point, though, is that words matter. Through the years, I have used the first quote on that church sign in nearly every classroom I have had the privilege of teaching. 

It is hard to determine the originator of the quote. Although Steven Covey is often given credit for it, from what I’ve been able to determine, the quote originated with Anias Nin, which is interesting because she was a French/Cuban/America essayist who wrote erotica. How her words ended up on that church sign is food for fodder, but the church’s intent was well-received. The fact that comments were selected from someone other than a Biblical scholar to promote their message is even more enlightening. Regardless, those words changed my view of the world and sent me into a mode of self-reflection that has lasted for thirty years.

Before They Understand

My classroom requires critical thinking, and discussions abound. Sources are necessary with controversial topics, and respect is a must. Sometimes I believe the kids think I’m not prepared with a lesson and just want to “talk” to pass the time. While many discussions happen organically, I almost always have a quote, artwork, news article, or novel that prompts discussion, but boy can those topics change on a dime.

The commonality of most discussions is when students disagree on any topic (currently, that list includes vaccines, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, police officers, and anything else they don’t feel safe discussing anywhere else ), but the conversation ends with a reminder from me, “We don’t see the world as it is, Class; we see it as we are.”

What They Don’t Know

Frankly many of my students have no clue who they are or who they want to become, and we have all been in that state. Further, they do not yet realize that if they are blessed with a long life, what they believe will change drastically as the world turns. 

Therefore, when we hold discussions, I realize that much of what I am hearing comes from their home environment. The rest comes from their friend groups. Sooner than students know, though, what they believe will come from the very core of their being, and then they will understand what it means to see the world as they are, not necessarily as it is. 

Because of my close relationships with youth in America, I often ask adults if we are sure that we are helping our children become people who can sustain America. Are we helping them become adults who see the world and various situations through compassion and empathy, or do we shelter them so that they see the world only as we do?

How I See The World

A dear friend of mine reminded me just today of how I see the world. She said, “You always consider the humanity of all viewpoints – even wrong ones – and try to love everyone and listen to everyone even if you don’t agree with them.” That’s quite an accolade. (Thank you, my friend. May I grow into that person!) 

This view will be hard for me to live up to, but she is right in this: I know that people do not come to believe something without having been through experiences that cause them to feel the way they do. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t hold onto “wrong” beliefs without having reinforcements to do so. 

This statement is true regardless of the topic. However, if we could ever learn empathy for the other person and communicate with genuine compassion and curiosity, we would be able to fix a lot that is wrong in America. 

Where Is this Coming from, Nonnie?

I’ve been stuck in a mode of pondering since I started reading my students’ inquiry projects last week. One student chose Totalitarianism for the semester project. This student had read books like 1984 and The Girl with Seven Names that prompted this topic. Further, during the inquiry conference, my student revealed a suspected connection between America’s current race relations, cancel culture, protests, cell phone usage, cameras, and responses to protests with a turning point in America. Determining the possibility of a connection was the inquiry. 

To my student, that turning point may end in Totalitarianism. This fear was not motivated by a political party or a religious belief. It was inspired by similarities found during the research portion of the project.

I did not assign that topic. I did not assign ANY topic. I gave students parameters, mainly concerning research requirements and documentation format, but they were free to choose anything they’d like to spend the semester learning more about. We spent time learning to “vet” sources and learning how to provide room for counterarguments, but the research topic was theirs to choose.

It was this student’s paper that reminded me of the church sign.

I don’t believe my student wants America to be a Totalitarian government. Quite the contrary. Instead, I see this student as an American who loves America – the good, the bad, and the indifferent — and wants it to remain free.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I came of age during the end of the Cold War. As such, I see conspiracy theories everywhere and have a healthy distrust for authority. But I cannot imagine who I would be if I came of age during this pandemic, this social unrest, and the prevalent “me mentality.” That is what concerns me most about most my students. If something doesn’t impact them personally, they see no reason to get involved. 

The problem is that at some point, if we all believe that way, there will be no one left to get involved, which reminds me of Martin Niemöller, the German Protestant preacher who also spoke words that changed my life when I first read his poem, “First They Came for the Socialists.” 

Niemöller, had a fascinating life and was the epitome of a “complicated character.” You can read more about why this matters in this Washington Post article, from 2016, but he is a perfect example of how life changes us – and how we see the world as WE are rather than how it is.

So, where do we go from here? It depends on where we want to end up. We cannot sustain this current environment of discounting anyone who doesn’t look like us, love like us, or believe like us – whether those beliefs are religious or political. Divided, we fall.

Surely there is something we agree on and can start building towards. If not, the forces that have always wanted to destroy America may be closer than we think. 


Students Offer and Receive Rewards – Even When Online

Students may not be as behind as we are told.

I must admit to growing weary of hearing people say that our students are falling behind. I’m not exactly sure where that comparison is coming from: last year’s students? testing scores? attendance rates? I suspect this idea, at least at the secondary level, is because school looks vastly different this year and many who are not in the classroom daily – whatever that classroom may look like – have no standard from which to judge this different learning environment. 

My argument is about this specific group of students in this specific class because I know that a kindergarten student has needs that a high school student doesn’t. Likewise, I know that not all students have access to the technology they need to effectively navigate the online learning environment. But I argue that high school seniors who do have this access will likely be ahead of any other incoming freshman class that we have sent to college simply because this year has given them the opportunity to do what no other graduating class before has been required to do: take full ownership of their learning. 

Think about what they are doing. Many schools do not hold virtual students to the same district attendance standards as hybrid or face-to-face classes, and as such, these students can opt to skip the lecture and simply submit the work and they are counted present. Sound familiar? Attending the college classroom every day is a choice many freshmen have difficulty making…until grades roll around and academic probation is on the horizon.

Further, these students are learning to build a relationship with teachers to whom they seemingly have limited access. If they have a question, they must ask it rather than relying on a classmate to ask it first. They can’t “read” the room or the teacher prior to deciding how they will behave that day. They have to decide to learn…or not, and often without an audience. They are learning new technological skills, and they are learning even more about each other. For example, it’s hard to be the class clown in a Zoom session, so they are learning to earn their classmate’s attention in other, more productive ways…like answering questions correctly and making real contributions to small group discussions in breakout rooms.

Admittedly, online students may be behind in situations where teachers were thrown into an online environment without preparation or adequate support. Students from districts that have no real knowledge of the differences in online teaching and learning and failed to seek guidance from their staff who did, may still be grappling with why students are failing. However, students who have been fortunate enough to have teachers who were either trained, or quickly figured out that teaching online is so much more than facilitating a prepackaged program, and that it is definitely more than throwing up PowerPoints that were used in face-to-face classes, well, those students may actually find themselves exactly where they should be next year, if not ahead.

I’ve been fortunate enough to teach both face-to-face and online for the last five years of my fifteen-year career, and what I’m happy to report is that relationships and rewards do not have to suffer just because we are “virtual.” Students are not destined to be behind next year, nor are they lacking in social skills, but rather are learning a new skillset that I argue will place them at the top of the global marketplace where online conferences and at-home workspaces were becoming commonplace long before the pandemic hit.

I make this argument not only with pride, but also with hope. Five years ago my biggest fear in teaching the online classes I was offered was that I’d lose what made me an effective teacher: my ability to build a community of learners. But this week provided evidence to the contrary. 

I have a student who had pretty much given up – on Day 4. (No joke.)  She even sent me a private email weeks into the class telling me that she was not as smart as I kept telling her she was. It is important to note that this student didn’t suddenly start failing this year. In fact, waiting until after the last minute to do her work and then letting her father swoop in to save her has been her mode of operation for years. It was easy for both father and daughter to blame online learning as the culprit, but I knew better and, well, this year this student met her match.

This kid is sweet, and it’s so easy to let things slide when kids are well-mannered, quiet, and well-behaved–and the kids not only know this–they work it. In fact, that behavior causes even me to be more lenient in my policies than I like to admit sometimes. For instance, my policy is to accept no preliminary assignments late and to only accept major assignments late up to three days–and with an 11-point penalty. This policy did not bode well for my sweet student. Things went south so quickly that I didn’t even have to call home as is my normal course of action. Dad called me.

This dad, like many well-meaning, incredibly loving parents wanted the best for his daughter: grace from the teacher. I agreed, and I explained that perhaps the best form of grace at this point was to let this dear one struggle for a bit. I explained to dad that daughter has become quite comfortable in her current behavior, but that next year no one will be able to come to her aid. I promised dad that I wouldn’t let this go too far but was able to convince him that we needed to let our student suffer some consequences.

Now, dad didn’t take too kindly to this plan, but after a bit more conversation and my spelling out my plan to him, he decided we’d give it a try – nothing else had worked, after all.

This kid was her own worst enemy and continued to drown in a sea of incomplete assignments even though she and I were conferencing nearly every day. She just wouldn’t do the work and finally blamed it on her inability to operate in the school’s online platform. All evidence pointed to the contrary, but I know that kids must be allowed to save face, so we started working together (again) on how to find, complete, and submit assignments. I also directed her to the tutorials that had been available all semester in case she needed a refresher later.

At the end of the week, out of 15 missed assignments, she had submitted a grand total of TWO. Dad was not happy and neither was I, so we had a conference online – dad, student, and teacher. Looking back, I wonder if my student thought this conference would be impossible this year — she had had them before in the face-to-face environment, but with her teacher working from her home office, I guess she felt safe that the conference was a “no-go” for this class. 

I have to admit that I was impressed at my student’s performance during the conference, though she and I both knew that it was a performance. I also knew that if I didn’t call her on it, she’d owe me – and she knew that too.

So during the conference we devised a plan in which I’d accept preliminary assignments for a 14-point late penalty, and that same offer would be given to all students through the end of the week. (I felt I had to offer this to maintain grade integrity.) No one would know why I was suddenly being generous, but they likely wouldn’t question it either. As the conference came to a close though, Dad hit a homerun. He added one more thing: no cell phone until our student’s grades came up – in ALL of her classes.

I won’t go over the entire play-by-play, but dad stuck to his guns. Two weeks later, daughter still didn’t have access to her phone, but that was ok–unbeknownst to the adults in the situation, daughter had a backup plan that involved using her laptop–for her social communication needs. No one was the wiser because while schools know to block sites like Facebook and Snapchat, Tumbler, Caffeine, and many others have not yet hit their radar.  Once they hit mine though, the situation got rectified, and as such, my student knew I was not only serious, but that I cared. My conference with her dad had not been lip service. I truly see something in this kid. Is she behind in writing skills? Sure. Does she need to mature – a lot?  Absolutely, but is it all on her? I don’t think so.

This past week students had to submit their second major assignment. I admit to holding my breath as I ran through the files to see if she had submitted one…and she had!  This time dad didn’t care about the grade; all he wanted to know was if his daughter had submitted the assignment. See, in a private conference with dad, I had told him that I was quite aware his daughter’s writing deficits; however, I felt that these deficiencies were caused not by bad or inadequate teaching or by our student being allowed to get away with things because she’s so sweet. I told him the biggest problem appeared to be her work ethic.

Dad still probably doesn’t like me much, but we have a long way to go before graduation, so he’s desperate and trusting me. My student needs to re-write the entire paper that she submitted, and I felt that she probably would have to when we had rough draft conferences. My student didn’t suddenly gain missing skills overnight; however, she did gain a belief in herself. She got everything submitted and even with the late penalties, she now has a decent enough grade with room to improve. She also has the opportunity to revise this paper one paragraph at a time – with me. I’m sure other teachers have done the exact same thing with her–this year is only different because in just a few months this student will be on. her. own., and she is scared.

FERPA laws will keep professors from talking to parents and the parents won’t have easy access to the professors anyway, so dad is concerned too. In addition, the professor’s value to the college won’t depend upon how many students pass, but the student will pay more for a failing grade, so it’s pretty important that our kids figure out that they have to show up and do the work the first time, or they’ll be paying to re-do it. 

So what was my reward? I’ve always been a good classroom teacher. My rules are few, but typically followed, and my expectations are high and normally met, but I was afraid that this year would be different. I was afraid that technological inequities would keep my students away from me. I was afraid that the screen would divide us in ways that could not be rectified. This situation, however, reassured me that relationships aren’t built face-to-face; they are built heart-to-heart.

Preparing a Child For College – More than Academics

2021 Update: I wrote this blog back in 2014, but wanted to revisit it because while much has changed since then, one thing remains the same: we have got to do better for our kids…and by “better,” I mean we have to teach them respect, responsibility, and personal accountability while still teaching them empathy, compassion, and concern for others.

Original Post: 2014

I recently saw a report on CNN (also covered in The Washington Post) stating that most Americans believe the American Dream is dead, or at least out of reach. Few believe that today’s generation will have a better life than the generation before it.  Instead, the belief now is that where a person is born in terms of socioeconomic status is where they will stay.  For me, there is little wonder regarding why statistics show this belief to be true.

My Back Story

Neither of my parents had a college education.  My father was a hard-working man in a blue-collar job who provided well for his family.  My mother was a stay at home mom who provided well for the family too.  

Neither of my parents accepted failure as an option and both encouraged my brother and me to work hard for what we wanted.  I don’t remember either of them attending many school functions or parent/teacher conferences, but I do remember that excellence in education was expected. 

They often said they couldn’t make me study, but they could make sure that I brought home every book from every class so they could make me stay in my room with no phone or TV and only those books until I brought my grades up.

They wanted more for me than they, themselves had.

While they encouraged excellence in education, my daddy, at the time, didn’t believe in putting money into a four-year college education.  To him, a degree was a degree.  I believe part of his reluctance to consider a four-year college education for me was because it meant my moving out of his house and being free to “party,” as he had seen so many others do; however, he did believe in a college degree. 

I remember MANY times he said, “Carol, I don’t care if you have a degree in shoveling shit, you’d better get a degree.”  I imagine he had been passed over for jobs to men he thought couldn’t even shovel said “shit,” and he didn’t want to see that happen to me.  He also knew that women had a harder time earning equal pay in the workforce and felt that a degree would put me on a more even playing field. His main goal for me was never marriage; he wasn’t against it, but he always wanted me to be able to support myself. (A gift I have passed on to my own children.)

Supporting myself started with my paying for whatever degree I could afford. My daddy didn’t believe in paying for my college education because he felt the bigger lesson was in my paying for it myself.  He felt that if I didn’t find a way to pay for it I wouldn’t appreciate it. 

Today I smile as he helps my oldest daughter who now lives on campus herself.  Daddy didn’t understand back then the difference between a two and a four-year degree, or the education that campus living itself provides, but what he did understand was that education would open doors for me that were closed to him.

A Different Generation’s Opinion of School

For my parents, education was about much more than school. 

I was their child, their responsibility and it was no teacher’s job to teach me the values they held dear, and they owed it to me to teach me about money. My academic education was the teacher’s job; my character education was theirs. 

I had to be educated in the value of hard work, in the importance of being honest, and in the necessity of helping others. I had to understand that respect was to be earned as well as given and that nothing in life worth having comes free.  I didn’t learn any of that at school.  I learned those things at home and in church. 

On the few occasions that I did get in trouble at school, double jeopardy was not a concept I knew.  “Double trouble” was more the norm at my house.  I knew that if I gave my teacher any grief or broke any school rules I was going to get into more trouble at home than any punishment the teacher or principal could dish out – and paddling was still legal then.

The idea of a teacher or principal, or any authority, for that matter, having to earn my respect was a concept that I was never taught, and one that I do not understand today. When they said respect was to be earned and given, they meant that I was to respect myself and require that respect from others, but I was to give respect to those in authority.

Is There A Problem We Can Fix in Education?

Today people wonder what’s wrong with public education.  I wonder why the problem isn’t obvious.  Not too long ago two students were caught cheating.  Both students are good kids, but they made a bad decision. While disappointing, and definitely not encouraged, high school is the place to make mistakes like this because students still have the safety net of parents, teachers, and administrators who are there to guide them.  Had this happened in college, or the workplace, there would have been no safety net, no lesson learned, only consequences.

Unlike when I was in school, the policy for cheating today is a zero on the assignment.  Additional discipline is considered double jeopardy. 

While receiving a zero would have killed me – if Mom and Dad didn’t kill me first –  many students today could not care less about a zero; they have too many opportunities to bring the grade up.  By not having to pay for their error in judgement in a more effective manner, like, perhaps, using lunch detention to re-do the assignments with the highest possible grade being a 70, that school told those students that cheating is no bigger deal than if they had simply not done the assignment. The result is the same: a zero.

How Does This Decision Impact The American Dream?

The issue with the death of the American Dream comes down to what the kids are taught – both at school and at home.  As my daddy started saying to me when he was in his 40s, “Carol, I have lived half of my life.” He knew that at some point, what I accomplished would be solely up to me, and he was going to do his best to make sure I was prepared. Even if his ways were sometimes too harsh, he knew how the world and the American Dream worked.

One of the students must have parents like I had as this student may not see the light of day this calendar year.  The other though, well, I’m not sure that any consequence other than the zero was felt. 

The latter situation is sad because as a society we can’t prepare students for college, or the workplace or begin to help them realize the American Dream, unless we help them gain the tools that built the American Dream:  a good work ethic, integrity, and a willingness to earn the things they want.

Until we can help our students gain these tools, we can’t blame them for not being able to achieve more than we did — and the responsibility to teach these things is as much of a partnership between parents, the school, and the community today as it was thirty years ago.