Congratulations on the successful completion of your first year! You will never again be a first year teacher. No one will ever again be able to call you names like “newbie,” “novice,” “beginner,” “green,” “inexperienced,” “raw,” “amateur,” “fledgling,” “freshman,” or “rookie.” I’m sure your year was memorable and hopefully, left you excited about coming back next year with a whole new perspective on how you would like for your classroom to run. Would anyone want to change something you did or did not do this year? (Show of hands). After 16 years, my hand is in the air as well. Perhaps we learn as much from doing it wrong as we do from doing it right. Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said after failing 10,000 times to invent a lightbulb that actually worked: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
I’m certain your first year brought with it many “surprises,” that perhaps your college methods courses could never have prepared you for...Be sure to document your memories while they’re fresh in your mind. You’ll enjoy looking back on this year as “the good ol’ days!” Before you know it, you’ll be speaking to first year teachers, starting out your speech with, “In MY day...and we LIKED IT!”
Oh yes, and LABEL your class photos! Names, grade, school and year! Even though to many of you it seems that you could never forget those incredible kids...Trust me, years in the classroom take their toll on a memory...Let’s see...where WAS I? :) Yes. Here it is.
8.8.88. August 8, 1988 was a life-changing day for me. I accepted my first teaching job with Knox County Schools. My formal education at Carson-Newman College was excellent, however it could not have prepared me for what being a teacher would require of me. Had I known that in the years that followed I would be challenged beyond my perceived limits; that I would experience elation, frustration, satisfaction, and heartbreak each and every year, would I have chosen this profession? Or perhaps a more accurate question- would this profession have chosen me?
One way to describe me would be to say that I am hard-headed and soft-hearted...and over time, I must confess to being “thick-skinned” as well! I have to be! If your first year has not met up with your expectations, take courage and hang in there!
My first year teaching, I was placed in a classroom with 17 boys and 9 girls, 10 of these were considered “Special Ed” students. In order to establish some degree of control, the school used an incentive in the cafeteria called the “Happy Apple Award.” The cafeteria monitors would award the best behaved class in the for the day the “Happy Apple Award.” The “Happy Apple” was a lovely red wooden, apple-shaped necklace that the deserving teacher was privileged to wear with pride the rest of the school day, much to the envy of the other teachers, I might add. My class won that Happy Apple so seldom that first year, that I took to wearing it all day at school, and because I was so incredibly proud of my students, I wore it home in the afternoon, and even out to restaurants with my husband in the evenings! I can even remember the rare occasions when I won it on a Friday and proudly displayed my “Happy Apple” necklace at church on Sunday morning! Then there was the day just four years ago, when I went to the office to check “my box” at school. You know this is the cardboard box where you received important information about Scholastic Book Orders, inservice opportunities, overdue library notices, and at my school, plastic spiders have been known to frequent teachers’ boxes. Can you imagine how I felt the day I sauntered up the hall, reached into my box and found a white, business sized envelope with my name written on the outside?
I don’t know if you are like me, but there is such a high degree of anticipation in the heart-pounding moments just prior to breaking the seal on an envelope like that. It could be a letter from an irate parent. (Doncha just hate those?) Maybe it’s a parent asking me to PLEASE be sure to email her immediately if Little Susie doesn’t wear her new glasses in my class. Then again, it could be an incredible offer from a modeling agency who could like me to start a new fashion trend for America’s teachers. Maybe it’s an invitation to meet with the governor asking for my input on how best to inform teachers that the state has decided to triple their salaries...The possibilities are endless!
Well, eventually, my daydreaming subsided and I did break the seal. Just imagine my shock when inside I found a Cashier’s check made out to me for three thousand dollars!! Seed money for a dream that God has given me to remind and inspire teachers of the incredible privilege we have to forever impact the lives of young people- The start of Reach Them to Teach Them...But, my career has not been filled entirely with “success stories.” I’ve had a few dark days as well. Like the time I was sent home for being “inappropriately dressed” How humiliating is THAT?! I remember driving home crying my eyes out because I just KNEW my career was over. I know you’re thinking, ‘What were you wearing?!’ I’ll tell you later...
I’ve had angry parents scream at me because they thought I misgraded a paper, (turned out the little ‘angel’ had erased all the misspelled words on her spelling test and corrected them prior to showing the test to Dad- Like he REALLY believed I couldn’t spell B-E-A-N-S)!
Friends, we must remember that parents respond with passion when they believe that their child has been treated unfairly. Once I had a dad tell me that his 8 year old couldn’t hit a baseball because I had destroyed his self-esteem to the point of impacting his athletic ability. I didn’t have the heart to tell this hot-headed daddy that more than likely, the athletic issues were genetic! ... I’ve “lost” a child on a field trip...What? We eventually found him...
I remember one of my first evaluations with the director of elementary schools...I wanted my third graders to be relaxed and ready to “show their stuff” when she arrived, so I decided to read aloud to help them, and myself, relax. Well...I chose to read a well-known story by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Little Match Girl.” Remember what I said about being “soft-hearted”? Well, as I read the story of a poor little barefooted girl selling matches in the snow-covered streets of the city...striking matches to keep warm and seeing visions of a table spread with delicious food...then her Grandmother reaches out her hand to invite her to the banquet...it was just too much for me! I lost it! I was covered in snot, mascara and Kleenex when who should arrive to evaluate me? Yep. My supervisor. We made eye contact across the room. My view of her was quite blurred with tears and as I laughed to cover my embarrassment, spit came flying out of my mouth and hit one of my students on the cheek! The children are safe with me...yes, ma’am! No psychological imbalance here! But that wasn’t the worst evaluation I had...
There was one time when I had ‘em ready! I’d bribed and threatened my kids prior to the observation with my principal...They KNEW my expectations were high...Well, apparently, one of them was so excited his “digestive system” must have malfunctioned and right in the middle of my lesson, he passed gas. LOUDLY! To my shock and amazement, no one reacted. Literally, not a single child snickered, shifted positions, or called attention to it! I began to think I had imagined the whole thing and continued with the lesson.
Afterwards, I met with my principal and he said that he had never seen a class so well-behaved. He continued by stating that he’d observed a lot of classrooms over his 30 year career, and had witnessed a lot of unusual things happen...(I began to get nervous here), but he had NEVER witnessed a classroom full of 8 year olds maintain control when one of them “pooted!” To this day, this remains as one of my proudest moments in my classroom!
Yes, years in the classroom bring great stories you can use to entertain your friends and family.
Another day that stands out in my memory is the day I shared a poem from Dr. Guy Doud’s book, Molder of Dreams, with my eighth grade Reading classes. The poem, entitled Please Hear What I’m Not Saying,” examined the practice of wearing masks to hide who we really are from the outside world. I’d like to share it with you now.
Please Hear What I'm Not Saying
Don't be fooled by me.
Don't be fooled by the face I wear
for I wear a mask,
a thousand masks,
masks that I'm afraid to take off,
and none of them is me.
Pretending is an art that's second nature with me,
but don't be fooled,
for God's sake don't be fooled.
I give you the impression that I'm secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water's calm and I'm in command
and that I need no one,
but don't believe me.
My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask,
ever-varying and ever-concealing.
Who am I, you may wonder?
I am someone you know very well.
For I am every man you meet
and I am every woman you meet.
As my students and I explored the idea that every person risks rejection, fear, and ridicule when we remove our masks, we forged an unbreakable bond, and after many years of teaching, I finally understood the difference between teaching my subject and teaching my subjects. I’d like to encourage you to be brave enough to “remove your mask” and allow your students to see the beautiful, fallible, sensitive, intelligent, vulnerable person behind the label “Teacher.”
Be “real” with them, and they will trust you, love you, and perform for you beyond your wildest expectations.
Kids are like dogs. They can smell a phony. If you mess up, own up. We all make mistakes. It’s not fatal. There is life after being sent home for “being inappropriately dressed.”
The intentional cultivation of a positive relationship between yourself and your students, is essential to your effectiveness in classroom regardless of your grade level, subject matter, or years of experience. In spite of all the external efforts to impact student learning, the classroom door eventually closes and the teacher and students are ultimately left to their own devices.
As is often the case with well-intentioned, hard-working teachers, time and energy are invested in developing lessons instead of students, in creating savvy test-takers rather than life-long learners. As educators, we must always be mindful of the “big picture.”
I consider it a privilege and a calling from God to teach in our public schools. I am not the only one. Whenever I have an opportunity to talk with teachers about why they chose the profession in the first place, I almost always hear that they wanted to make a difference. Never have I heard a teacher say that he/she chose education to teach children how to diagram a sentence!
My experience in the classroom has taught me that children thrive when caring, responsible adults take an interest in their lives. One of the most successful “strategies” I’ve used with my students is simple, yet I attribute much of my students’ academic gains to this practice.
I write a letter to my students at the beginning of each grading period and require my students to respond to my letter. I assure them that I will not pick their responses apart, taking off points for misspelled words, grammatical mistakes, etc. I stress the importance of content. Each student must respond to questions I ask, and elaborate as much as they feel comfortable about anything they’d like to share with me. I’ve learned more about my students in the five minutes it takes me to read their letters than I would learn having them in my classroom all year.
I’d like to introduce you to some of my students. You may recognize them. Perhaps they were in your classroom this year as well.
Meet Andrew. Andrew is a remarkable young man. Andrew is fourteen years old with bright blue eyes that sparkle behind his thick glasses. Because he is slightly overweight, he is extra-sensitive to conversations about athletics and physical appearance. Sadly, middle school is a testing ground for cruel comments. Andrew has been on the receiving end of far more than his fair share of them.
He slips into my classroom and chooses a seat on the back row, hoping to remain “invisible,” his goal being not to call attention to himself. He is virtually invisible by eighth grade, and he’s come to accept this as his lot in life. He even seems to enjoy it.
Andrew is the sort of boy that his teachers run into years later and they cannot recall his name. He is failing every class, not because he doesn’t know the material, but because he’s simply given up hope and doesn’t turn in his work. But… there’s so much more to Andrew than meets the eye. He’s an amazing artist. Andrew is incredibly gifted when comes to creating masterpieces. Andrew can use words as deftly as he uses media to invoke feeling and passion in the mind of his reader. Allow me to share a poem he wrote in class...”I’m the Piece that Never Fits.”
I am the piece that never fits
I wonder why people hate me for who I am
I hear the cry of loneliness that comes from me
I see my sad, strange, different self in the mirror
I want someone on my side
I am the piece that never fits
I pretend that words can never hurt me
I feel the urge to run away from myself
I touch the wet tear from my eye rolling down my face
I worry my future will be me, myself, and I
I cry because I am the cheese; everyone is the mouse
I am the piece that never fits
I understand that no one likes me
I say that there is no place for people like me in the World
I dream of a place where I actually fit in
I try to make new friends,
And I hope to, but still,
I am the piece that never fits.
Next, there’s Maggie. When Maggie was five years old, she was severely burned in a tragic house fire that claimed the life of her best friend. Maggie wears the scars from that day on her face, arms and body as she endures the torment of being “different” in a middle school setting. The stress brought on the family by the fire and the death of someone else’s child was too much for Maggie’s mom and dad. They divorced shortly thereafter. Her mother remarried and just gave birth to a new baby.
Maggie has very few friends although she has a beautiful smile that she generously shares with all who show an interest in her. She enjoys dancing, although the costumes she wears reveal the scars of a night she would like to forget. I wonder if her teacher this year knows this about her.
Finally, I’d like you to meet Violet. I know Violet is a child who would be near and dear to your heart if you should ever have the privilege of meeting her! As part of a school assignment last year, Violet wrote a letter to her “future” child. May I share it?
Child, where I come from has not been easy. When I was six years old and under, my mom was so great. She would stay home and cook and clean and play games with me and my brother Rex like a normal family. Then one day, I don’t know when my mother put men and drugs in front of her kids. She would not get home until late, or just would not come home at all. My brother was two and half years older than me, so he would wake me up for school and get me ready. A couple of years later, I moved in with my Granny who is a wonderful woman. She keep us for about four years, but she died on Christmas Eve and that’s when my dad went crazy and left us. So we went to move in with our aunt, who we also call Granny for about until I was twelve then my brother go crazy and she put us up for adoption and those were the worst days of my life. I went from home after home and school. This one woman found me, and I used to hate her so bad, and she never let me see my family, but only on holidays and special days. I grew to like her and the other children in the household, but she always treat her birth children better than the foster ones, but I grew use to it. Now, I’m in 8th grade writing you this letter to let you that I will be better to you and you do not have to be ashamed and do not make fun of others because everyone has something wrong with them or one of their love ones. Nobody is perfect, Babe. You will not have to live the way I did. You will have the best of the best, my child, and the children that I am going to adopt. You will be a great child to do wonderful things in your life, long as you know “to do the impossible, you have to think and speak the impossible.”
Andrew, Maggie and Violet were students in my class. There are so many more stories like those I’ve shared. My heart breaks for these children. I’ve seen kids so starved for attention, that a smile opens the door to their over-burdened hearts. The pain, disappointment, rejection, and fear they have experienced in their lives seem too much for young hearts to bear. However, I’ve had a front row seat to watch what can happen when a caring, responsible adult steps into their lives.
Making a difference in the lives of kids doesn’t take a lot of money. We don’t need new programs. It doesn’t take a new charity or a new foundation. Honestly, all it takes is for us to see the need and use what we have to meet the need. Sometimes it can be something as simple as a handshake or a hug. The one thing it does take, is time. But, it is time well spent because any time “lost” is actually invested and brings returns far more valuable than one can imagine.
I currently teach 8th grade at West Valley Middle School. Middle School. America’s gauntlet for adolescents. Middle school is the testing ground for cruel comments, peer pressure, failure, and self-preservation. Middle school is where kids who struggle find that being “bad” is preferable to being “dumb.” What fertile soil for planting seeds of self-confidence and identity in the lives of kids!
My students will always be special to me, but they are not unique. Young people like Andrew, Maggie, and Violet sit in every classroom, in every school, in every city. In fact, I was one of those students myself. I’d be willing to bet that some of you were too. In spite of everything God has blessed me with today, I can still hear the laughter of those who made fun of me as a child.
My name is Amy Crawford. My husband, Tom, and I have been married for almost 23 years. We have four children. Our daughter, Chelcie, just completed her freshman year at UT, determined to follow her dream to be a teacher in an inner-city elementary school. My older son, Drew, graduates from Bearden High School this Friday, then heads off to UT-C to pursue his dream of.... well, we’ll just just have to wait to see what he decides to do! Addison is finishing up third grade at Lotts, already determined to be a first grade teacher like “Mrs. Hudson” when she grows up! (I know, I know...) Then there’s my baby, Sam. My seven year old Sam has learned to read this year! He’s been handed the keys that will unlock his successful future, and I can’t wait to see what he becomes.
As a product of Knox County schools myself, I have a vested interest in doing everything I can to ensure that every child knows that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that his life has purpose and meaning. The future of my children and so many others are in your hands. Teachers, be mindful of the words you say and the manner in which you say them. You are writing on their hearts in permanent marker.
I’d like to close with a quote from Mother Teresa, that I believe speaks to the critical role we play in the lives of each and every one of our students:
"I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn't trust me so much." Thank you.