by Allen Mendler

Going Forward: Focus on What Matters Most (Teachers and Students Share their Favourite Memories)

Two young women talking in the park.

I was recently out to lunch with my good friend and retired fifth grade teacher Donna C.,* who I first met as a new ‘green behind the ears’ school psychologist nearly forty years ago.  Inevitably, talk turned to some old experiences we had shared together, and then to the current state of education with its focus on common core and the many tests to evaluate its achievement.   Troubled by its emphasis to the exclusion of what she had enjoyed about teaching, she sent the following  email to some of her former students who are now facebook friends:

I was talking to a group of fellow teacher retirees and we were discussing all the testing going on in schools at the elementary level.  It has saddened us greatly that “teach for the test” seems to be the norm today.  So I would like to take an informal poll of you “golden oldies” who were with me for fourth and/or fifth grade.  Would you please take a minute to share whatever memories have stayed with you all these years?

Donna was surprised at how quickly and how many of her former students responded.  With her permission, I share a few of their memories that are representative of many others:

When I had you and Mrs. R you were doing a 4th and 5th grade multi-age co-teaching.  I remember always wanting to come to school because what we were doing was real and it mattered….My favorite part was actually the times you and Mrs. R would be talking and all of a sudden you both started cracking up majorly!……I loved that you were good to my sister who had problems and you took the time to help her through…..I loved that you told the truth to students who were not doing the right thing and made them understand how to do better. – Megan

I remember all the hands on things we did.  The luau we had that year is one memory.  We learned about the culture, food, geography, etc…leading up to the event.  Then we shared what we learned with our parents.  I just remember being so proud to show off everything we learned.  I also remember being challenged a lot.  You were always looking at what I was doing and giving me more challenges when I was done before others. – Ron

If I wrote about everything that I remember and loved about 5th grade I’d end up writing a novel.  The one thing that sticks out more to me is the compassion my teachers had.  That was a rough year for me and not only were my classmates there for me to help me through it.  My teachers were too.  Mrs. R would take me to radiation therapy on Thursdays and then we’d go for ice cream….We had to work hard and learn and try.  There were rewards for doing well but we had to earn them.  We all passed those end of the year tests not because it was drilled into our heads but because it was drilled into our hearts…It’s been 19 years and I still look up to those three teachers that made fourth and fifth grade unforgettable. – Jen

At the end of one school year and before the dawn of another is a fruitful time for each of us to consider which aspects of our teaching have the greatest impact on our students.   Years from now when they think about the adults who affected and influenced them in the most meaningful ways, will you be on their list?  What are they most likely to remember?  Will it be the facts they learned or the test they passed at the end of the year?  Do you remember any of your teachers when you were their age? Any age?  Are your memories positive?  What do you remember most about them?

In the year ahead, let yourself be guided by the kinds of things your teachers did to make you want to come to school.  Rather than making yourself and perhaps your students anxious by focusing on the year-end goal of achieving the standards as measured by the test, strive to regularly show a personal interest in each student, instill a belief that each is capable of getting better every day in whatever you are teaching and make learning interesting, relevant and enjoyable.  Not so ironically, if we strive to do these things every day, trust that the test will take care of itself.

One good way to identify strategies that can work for you is to imagine that every student who enters your class in the coming year has thus far disliked school.  Next, think about a class that you started out disliking when you were a student but wound up liking.  What happened to change your mind?   When I ask this of teachers in seminars, most attribute their changed view to the behavior of their teacher and three distinct characteristics emerge.  I share these along with some suggestions.

What teachers say their teachers did to make school memorable

Connected with me by showing a personal interest – It is easier to connect with some students than others.  Some share a similar make-up and set of values so there are more natural moments of easy interaction.  With those students we are not easily drawn to, make a conscious effort regularly to show an interest in something about them.  Learn about their preferences in music, video-games, sports, movies and television shows.  If you find it difficult to elicit this type of information while interacting, administer an Interest Inventory which asks students to fill in the blanks (i.e. My favorite sport is____________; Something I am really good at that most people don’t know is________________________).  You can either construct your own or use one that is ready-made.  One of the most powerful ways to connect with kids is to notice their absence.  A simple comment like, “Missed you in class yesterday” sends a message that makes most kids feel important.

A question for your consideration:  In the coming year, how will you plan to show a personal interest regularly to each student, including those who make themselves unlikable?

Taught me in a way that made me feel successful – Students must experience real success in order to feel hopeful and for motivation to be sustained.  That said, success is not always internalized automatically as evidenced by those students who never feel satisfied despite good grades and high achievement.  Make a point to congratulate five students each class on something they achieved.  A short verbal notice or written note is all it takes.  It is important not only to set kids up for success by giving them academic material they can handle, they must also learn to recognize their successes and use them to build more of the same.  For example, “Andy, you struggled through number four which is a problem about decimals and got it right.  Congratulations on that one.  What did you do to figure it out?  By the way, it looks like numbers five and six could use a similar effort and we both know you have what it takes!”

A question for your consideration:  In the coming year, what will you regularly do to set each of your students up for success, including  those who are low-functioning or disengaged?

Made it fun to be there – Memorable teachers almost always are notable for having made learning interesting and enjoyable.  Allow yourself to have fun with your students.  Do at least one thing every day in each of your classes that is fun for you.  It might be telling an enjoyable story, sharing a joke, setting aside a few minutes to talk about something light that grabbed your attention or acting goofy.  In researching for my book When Teaching Gets Tough, I learned how some companies are increasingly requiring their employees to set aside a portion of every day to have fun.  More on this in a future blog.  We owe it to ourselves and our students to make joy a part of the daily curriculum.

A question for your consideration:  In the coming year, how will you make it a daily priority to have fun with each class?

Tammy C., one of Donna’s students wrote the following poem and note to her at the end of their school year together:

My Teacher

Now that the end of the year is here,

I say goodbye with much sadness and fear.

But I know my 5th grade teacher was aware

of the troubles I’d face and she got me prepared.

All her wise words and good advice

will travel with me the rest of my life.

And now that we come to the end of the year,

down my face drips a tear.

And I just wanted to let you know,

that I care for you oh so!

So remember me always and please,

don’t forget me like last week’s peas.

And I think you should know,

all the memories 5th grade holds,

will always in my heart hold a special glow.

***

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

*All names have been changed to safeguard their privacy.

Open old books on wooden table over grunge background

About the author:

Allen Mendler, Ph.D. is an educator, school psychologist and the author or co-author of numerous articles and several books including When Teaching Gets Tough, Power Struggles, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care and Connecting with Students. As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the original and revised editions of Discipline with Dignity, Dr. Mendler is a highly acclaimed motivational speaker with a wealth of practical strategies on what it takes to successfully motivate and manage difficult students.