aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, being me, mistakes, Student dreams

When We Are the Problem

Sometimes we don't see ourselves fully until a child holds up a mirror @pernilleripp

I thought she just wasn’t a very strong reader.  Not yet anyway.  She seemed lost, perhaps a little quiet, and definitely not invested.  In my head I was already planning for all of the interventions that I probably should try to make sure that this year was not a lost one.

As the year passed, her disinterest grew.  I guess I wasn’t surprised., after all, when the tasks get harder some kids tend to disengage more.  It didn’t help that she constantly seemed to be mad at me, we clashed over little things; cell phones, eye rolls, not reading.  I wasn’t sure what to do.

Mid-year and all students fill out a survey.  One question I always ask is, “How can Mrs. Ripp teach you better?”  That night as I looked through all of their answers, hers hit me hardest….”I don’t think Mrs. Ripp really likes me so perhaps that could be something she changes.”

I sat there quiet, realizing all of the clues I had missed.  That sometimes happens when we can’t see the forest for all of the trees, or the individual child for all of the students.

So the very next day, I pulled her aside, and I thanked her for her honesty.  I apologized, told her that I did like her but that it probably had not seemed that way.  The smile she gave me at the end was a furtive one, but it was a start, a promise of a new beginning.  A promise I needed to make to be a better teacher for her.

That child is no longer behind in reading.  She swallows books like a meal.  She participates.  She is engaged,  always ready to learn, eager to share her ideas.  She pulls others with her as she becomes stronger, more powerful in her thoughts, and I stand sometimes on the sidelines realizing what a fool I was.  How much we can destroy without even knowing we have a part in the destruction.

I often speak of the things we do to make students hate reading, and yet, how often do we look at how we affect the kids?  How we affect their relationship to whatever we teach because we may not be the best fit.  We may be focused on them in a negative way and we may not even be aware of it.

Not every kid has the courage to tell their teachers how they feel. I am so grateful to my incredible 7th graders that they speak up, that they help me change.  Because I try, we all do, but sometimes we don’t see ourselves fully until a child holds up a mirror.

That girl has a special place in my heart, she may not even know it.  But every day I look at her and she reminds me that I need to be the best for all of them.  I need to see the good in all of them.  I need to see everything they can do.  And I need to see myself and how I play into the equation.  Sometimes we may not like what we see, but that should never stop us from looking.

 If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, being me, mistakes

When We Fail A Child


This originally appeared on The Guardian’s Education Blog

For the next five minutes Peter stood in front of me while his mother told me all the things he needed to work on. She told me how she was ready to give up and hoped I could fix him – but she wasn’t holding her breath. With every word she spat out, his shoulders slumped further and his eyes stared more intently at the linoleum floor. I smiled, and did my teacher talk, soothing the ruffled feathers as best as I could. Then I thought to myself: “This year will be great. I will make a difference. Wait and see, he will love school again. I will fix him.”

I had every intention of keeping my promise, but I didn’t. I tried to connect with Peter. I tried to make him participate, to find his voice, to fall back in love with learning. But when he did not do his homework, or messed about in class, I followed my rules for punishment. He lost recess, pizza privileges and had to speak to the principal on many occasions. When he did not conform, I punished him. When he did not work, I gave him Fs. After all, that was what teachers did when a child didn’t follow their rules; they handed out the consequences whether they made sense or not. At the end of the year, when he was suspended on the very last day for yet another bad choice, I knew that I was not meant to be a teacher – or at least not the type of teacher that overrode her own common sense to conform to what society thought good teachers did.

So that summer I found the courage to change the way I taught. I realised that the nine-year-old me would have hated everything about the classroom I had created. I would have been the child with the failing grades and the marks against them. I had to change. I had to create a classroom that I would want to be a student in, that I would want my own children to be a part of.

When we started the new year, I threw everything out. I got rid of my punishment system – no more lost recesses or phone calls home in the middle of class. Instead we would have a conversation and I would ask my students why they acted the way they did, rather than just assuming I knew. I got rid of almost all homework and made a deal with my students that if they gave me their best during school then they could have their after school time back. If they worked hard in class then we could learn what we needed to.

I limited grades, pushed back against classifying students by letters, and instead invited my class to reflect on their own learning, to take control of how they needed to grow and what they needed to do to get there. We discussed when assignments were done and we set goals. And slowly, my students started to ask why they were doing these things, if we could change what we were doing, and whether they could try something new. I said yes, instead of no, and then tried to be the very best teacher I could be.

I won’t lie, it was hard. It still is because every year, I am honoured to teach a new group of students who ask me why I teach this way. Every year I help students realise that they have a right to a voice within our classroom, that their voice matters and that school should be a place for them to thrive, not just survive.

But the system fights us every step of the way – school is made of boxes to define our students. My district is doing everything we can to break those boxes and tear down the notions of what it means to be a traditional school, and to truly make it about students again. We want to make school about curiosity, discovery and about each child, not just each teacher.

A few years ago, I saw Peter again. He had grown up and was no longer the kid with the slumped shoulders. I asked him how he was and he told me just fine. He had switched districts, but he liked his new school better. “I am sorry.” The words slipped out before I could catch them and he stared at me, confused. “I am sorry for not being a good teacher to you,” I said. He stared at me and then finally said, “No big deal, you tried.” And I thought to myself, yes, I did, but it does not matter how hard we try if the path we are on is wrong. And that is why I changed the way I teach. That is why I try to give the classroom back to my students and make school about the kids.

*Name changed to protect his identity.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being me, inspiration, mistakes

What My Dreams Tell Me Is Not Pretty

Image from icanread

“Peter, Peter…”  I wait until that child, and the whole class, is staring at me…”Get to work!”  I am 10 feet from the child and he just shakes his head.  I keep on doing what I was doing, satisfied that I have set him back on his path.  Except I have done more than that, I have also pointed out to the whole class that Peter (all names changed for obvious reasons) is once again not doing what he is supposed to and now they can follow along in his progress as well.  Yikes.

“George, you didn’t blog, what are you going to do about it?”  I am once again asking George to stay in for recess, except I am clever, I am not telling him he has to, he has to come to that conclusion himself.  I know he doesn’t have the time at home and he doesn’t spend time very effectively in class, so recess it has to be, in fact, I point that out to him when his first answer is hat he will do it when he gets home.  Yikes.

“Thomas, sit up and start participating…” Once again I am on the warpath because that child has decided that math is too hard and has therefore put his head down refusing to participate.  I’ve seen it before, all they need is a stern talking to and their math confidence will come right back, right?  Yikes.

My dreams have been kind enough to point out all of the mistakes I made in the past year.  Those missed moments of communication, those missed opportunities for leaving a kid be, giving them some space and then reaching out when they are ready.    Now those moments show up at night, except they are exaggerated versions, all to show me just what I did wrong.  And I am grateful because although I cringe and get mad at myself, I see where I diverged from my road.  Where it went wrong.  My patience was stretched more, my mind was always too busy.  So as I think of next year I reclaim my focus, my inner peace and remind myself to bring it into school.  To slow down and evaluate the situation, not just shoot my mouth.  I learn from my mistakes just as I ask my students to do.

being a teacher, failure, mistakes, students

When We Admit Our Faults Or When Math Blows Up in Your Face

I admit it; math today was a mess.  I had done my preparation, I had created my lesson, I had everything ready and then in the middle of it; breakdown.  The kids were getting antsy, my explanation didn’t work, and finally it dawned on me ; I was not making sense.  Mortification, terror, and just a little bit of embarresement.  You see, I hadn’t taken the time to fully understand the concept being taught.  I had prepared, sure, but I hadn’t figured it out on my own.  I had just follwoed the prompts of the books and copied the words thinking that I understood when in reality I didn’t.  In fact, I wasn’t even close.

So when students started asking questions, there I stood with a choice to make; do I admit my faults or do I pretend that I know what i am talking about.  I swallowed my pride and admitted it,”Sorry, but I have to figure this out first before I teach it to you.”  The kids went quiet.  “I don’t want to teach it to you because I will teach it wrong, so let’s get back to it tomorrow when I have had some time.”  Then the kids sighed in relief.  “Good Mrs. Ripp, because I was really confused…” and the energy immediately returned to the room.

After school today, I sought out a colleague and I asked them to walk me through it and explain it like they did to the students since the book just wasn’t clicking for me.  And as he patiently explained it, I realized once again how our students must feel when something doesn’t make sense.  I realized how important it is for us to figure our curriculum out before we teach it to students.  I realized how crucial it is for us to admit when we simply don’t know. 

Sure my lesson tomorrow just a got a little more crowded, but in the end, it is worth it.  I didn’t wing it, I didn’t fake it, I presented it as a true learning moment in which the teacher didn’t know, and then I figured out how I would learn it myself.  In the end, when I admitted my fault, I learned more, and that lesson is something worth passing on.

Be the change, being a teacher, control, difference, mistakes

Oh No, Not Another Change – Why Stay Skeptical When Curiosity is More Fun?

Image from icanread

A new curriculum is announced for next school year… again.  Every year since I have started something new has been introduced and so I find myself in the back of the group, murmuring about how once again something new is coming, more money being spent, more time needed to learn, to understand, to adapt.  Once again I have to rewrite everything.  Once again; change.  I go home and discuss it with Brandon who stops me in my tracks with a simple question; why not get excited about it?  And I think, yes, why not, indeed?

Why not replace my skepticism with curiosity?  Why not embrace the new like I do within my own classroom; try it out and then judge it.  Why am I, already, after only 4 years of changing turning into that teacher, you know, the one that is quick to judge.  The one that jumps to conclusions, the one that wants things to stay the same because they are not broken and do not need to be fixed, thank you very much.  I change things every year, I hardly ever use the same lessons, I change so it fits my kids, my mood and my goals.  I change because if I became static I would be bored out of my mind and few things are worse than a bored teacher  So why am I already so stuck in my teaching ways that I have to be the one adding negative thoughts to a new initiative?  I don’t know how that happened so soon.

So I renew my vow of positivity.  I want to embrace the new, which does not mean going into it blind, but rather than I will stay open to it.  I will explore it, adapt it and make it work for me.  I will give things a change, suspend my judge.  Stay curious and not assume it will be awful.  I am much too young to be so stuck in my ways and that is a healthy lesson for me to learn.  Let’s hope I don’t forget it.

Be the change, being a teacher, mistakes, reflecting

We Need More Courageous Conversations

I am wrong.  I made a mistake.  It didn’t work.  These are all words I have had to say frequently in all of the years of my teaching career.  They are not easy to say, nor easy to swallow, and yet those words are what have made me the educator I am today; someone who reflects, someone who realizes they are human, someone who admits fault.

In education we often put ourselves on pedestals, assuming no wrong.  We have all of the answers because that is what we need to have.  We have the solutions, the right ways.  We are trained professionals after all.  Except we don’t always have those answers, or the right way to do something.  Things may not always work and the students do not always get the best education.

We must learn to admit when we are wrong.  We must learn to reflect upon our mistakes and make ourselves better.  We must realize we are not perfect and that others don’t expect us to be.  We must have these courageous conversations about our own teaching, our grade levels, our classroom, and our schools.  We must reflect, we must discuss, and we must learn.  If we all fall under the illusion of perfection we will never change the way we do teaching.  We will never change to be better.  Our students will never learn from s that mistakes are glorious occasions that move us forward.  Start the conversation with yourself and then spread it.  All it takes is one courageous person to set the example.

And right after I sent this out Chad Lehman reminded me that we need courageous actions.  He is so right; take your courageous conversations and turn them into action.