Friday, January 19, 2018

Why I Give My Students a Postcard the First Day of Class

When's the last time you received a honest-to-goodness handwritten correspondence from someone? I'm not talking about junk mail, bills, or Christmas cards, but a actual personal message penned just for you? 

How did that make you feel? Important, emotional, humbled?

Sure, email is more efficient and verbal exchanges can be powerful, but everyone loves a note of affirmation or thanks. 

And... that is why I give each new pupil a postcard on the first day of class.

Writing a note to each student in the formative days of a new semester can nurture fledging relationships and help your students feel seen and significant. 

This year, I used "Women in Science" themed 
cards I loved! (found here)

I figure I can make the choice to write a welcoming note to each student when classes begin OR write up discipline referrals once classes get into full swing. I prefer the former, especially if I have the opportunity to make a young person's day.

Sounds rosy and idealistic but too time-consuming, right? Not necessarily. 

Here's how I do it:

1. I give out postcards on the first day of class, and have students write their name and address as part of their warm-up. 

This will keep you from the tedious part of sending home mail*- looking up each kids' information in the computer. UGH!

Tip: you may want to have an example on the board. Even some of my 16-year-old AP students don't know how to write their own address!

Message to an Earth Systems student who shared 
career goals including architecture on 
their "Getting to Know You" sheet

2. Next, I have each student fill out a "Getting to Know You" questionaire so I can get a idea of their attitudes about science and their aspirations and interests. Here's the file I use.

This will give you content for your message, help you to get to know your new classes, and immediately demonstrate to your new students that they are valued.

Bonus: it keeps them busy while you are taking attendance and showing everyone their seats :)

Sample message to a Physical Science student 
who I already LOVE- he wants to be a rapper, 
so I tried to make a connection with him 
using a (very corny) rhyme

3. After I have learned my students' names, I spend some time reading over their "Getting to Know You" responses and composing the postcard memos. It typically takes me 1-2 minutes per student. With a 4x4 block schedule and 3 classes per term, my total time commitment per semester is about 2 hours. I spread it over a few days. 

To make my Fitbit happy, I hop on my treadmill, throw a board across the handrails, and write my notes while walking at a blazing (ha!) 2 miles per hour. 

I get in a little cardio and a whole lot of warm-fuzzies as I peer into each kids' soul a bit. 

Multitasking at its finest!

I also imagine the smiles on their faces as they realize someone cares enough about them to send them a postcard. 

Y'all, this is what teaching is all about!

4. Finally, I take the cards to my school secretary and have them affix the postage and drop them off in the mail. Done!

If the idea catches on, your school can even have cards made such as the ones at my previous school. 

"Good News" cards courtesy of 
Woodland High School

If you missed the chance to start the new year with postcards, it's not too late!

 The first time I used this technique, I kept the cards in my desk and wrote a few each week as I "caught" each person doing something helpful, studious, or out-of-the ordinary. This is also a great way to cheer yourself up after a hard day or avoid an extra, bulky task at the beginning of a new semester. 

Either way, your students are worth it, and I promise you'll reap returns on the time you invest. Just try not to cry in class when you see a student has your note tucked away in their book bag or wallet.



*Props to the amazing math teacher, Melinda Wilder, who shared this brilliant time-saver with me a few years ago! 

A sample message for a student who shared 
no career goals, interests, or anything unique. 
This happens sometimes, and they are the 
ones who need the cards the most!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Classroom New Year's Resolution

After reflecting on my last post, Breaking in Your New Teaching Shoes

I can resolutely say that those shoes never fully got broken in. 

Other things were broken this fall: take for example my ability to stay active and healthy with a 70-minute commute or my bank account after paying tuition for my son. What teacher has $23,500 lying around for school for their 11-year-old? I digress...

My leadership and peers were supportive, my surroundings- complete with perfectly manicured landscaping and spotlessly clean facilities- were beautiful, and the food will be missed. Despite their shiny exterior and support, however, those "shoes" just weren't my size. 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To (literally) save my sanity, I was fortunate enough to be offered a science position five minutes from my house at my alma mater. God undoubtedly orchestrated this transition for me, and I am grateful I'll have time for my family and myself again. I'll let Picard explain my thoughts in making the move:  

Sometimes it takes losing something you took for granted, in my case working at a local school where I made a difference, to fully appreciate what you had. 

Almost immediately after taking the job, which is at a public school with large proportion of students receiving free and reduced lunch where I'll be teaching lower-level classes, I was told that my students were going to be challenging and hard-to-manage. 

After all, I did just leave an elite private school, and I had taught mostly AP and honors courses during last few years. Plus, I  apparently look young and a little too friendly to handle "rough" students. 

As a realist, I know there was truth and good intentions in what I heard. No doubt. 

But, I started my career in similar placement, AND having blond hair and smiling a lot doesn't mean you can't manage a classroom!

If this semester's students aren't affluent, I too grew up in a trailer park with parents that worked in retail and construction; I didn't always have lunch money, and I'm pretty sure I was the "smelly kid" from time to time. 

If they are tired or ill-behaved, I remember fighting to stay awake in class after working late to pay for my basic needs or skipping class because of exhaustion. I wasn't always the most positive or well-behaved young adult either.

Rewind the clock 17 years, and I was sitting in their same seats in the same building with the same stress of coming from a family where education was not always the top priority. 

I already love my new students because I WAS them.

So, here's my New Year's Resolution for my classroom:

I will pray over every single name on my rosters and ask to impact their lives as much as possible. I will wish each one success as I guide them toward getting a credit toward graduation.

That's it. 

Sure, I want to have engaging lessons and good test scores, but what really drives success as a teacher other than positive, structured relationships with students?

Every day I am going to greet them, speak to them by name, and work with them like their lives matter- because they do.

Let me be clear: my time with students isn't less valuable if they don't have aspirations of being a doctor or they are headed to technical school rather than college. 

If teachers hold this belief, they are in the wrong profession.

I don't know what the Spring semester will bring, but I do know these teaching shoes will fit because I have already worn them down the very hallways my students will travel on the way to my class in a few days.

Happy New Year,


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Breaking in Your New Teaching Shoes

As a fresh school year approached in July, I purchased a snazzy new pair of black ballet flats- a staple in any female educator's wardrobe. 

My old pair, even though comfortable, had treads that were long since weathered smooth, and their inner support had been squashed by endless miles of pacing my classroom, running to the copier, and supervising the hallway.

They were my go-to out of habit and necessity, even though other people could probably tell they were outdated and should be replaced.

Along with the soles of my shoes, my own soul was worn down from more than decade of being a public education champion. Writing grants for basic needs, going the extra mile with extra students, and wearing my heart on my sleeve took its toll. The soft place to land and support I needed as a professional had waned, and my path became harder as I tread along. 

In order to cope with the difficulty of the job, I had learned to put my personal well-being first. That was definitely a big "step" in the right direction. 

Couldn't help myself on that one... 

I digress. 

Shortly after buying those new shoes, I was offered a last-minute position at an independent school. The promise of a better education for my 6th grade son and an abundance of opportunities for advancing my career finalized my decision to leave my old classroom, students and colleagues behind. 

During pre-planning, I wore my black flats to break them in, but they started to blister my ankles and pinch my forefoot. I broke out my desk drawer supply of band-aids to ease the pain, but I just wasn't accustomed to their fit and shape. Even their arch support, which was long gone from my old pair, pressed in the bottom of my foot in an irksome, foreign way. 

Aside from my bandaged feet, I found my formerly competent, professional self having to ask an endless stream of questions; I experienced an unrelenting rub on my ego as I had to rely on others for even the most basic information. 

I wondered if the new staff in which I had immersed myself knew if I was skilled or passionate, and my emotions were chafed raw as I received email after email from former students lamenting my decision to move to another school. I hadn't said goodbye, and who would teach them now?

My feet hurt.

My heart hurt. 

I simply wanted to put on my old shoes, and go back to my old classroom. Why had I done this to myself when I had become comfortable?

Side note: if you wear high heels in your classroom,
you have my undying respect.

The day before school started, however, I suppressed my feelings of longing for the past. Resolute, I prepped my first lesson plan for my new students and turned on the projector to test the slides. 

To my horror, the projector wasn't working.

I looked at my watch. It was 5 pm, and it seemed as though everyone had gone home.  

In an emotionally-exhausted realization that I wasn't ready for the first day of school, I sat at my desk and began to cry. 

I didn't just shed a tear or two, but I wholeheartedly unloaded all my guilt, unsurety, and tiredness. 

I ugly-cried. A lot.

Teaching had never made me weep before, but this was about more than a lesson plan: this was about a life change.

I submitted a work order to the technology department, and prayed that all would be made well the next morning. Surprisingly, my classroom phone rang almost instantly. 

An IT employee was on the other line!

Within minutes, I greeted him with a red, puffy face and I suddenly knew why I had put on my proverbial new teaching shoes. I had help. 

Now, more than a month later, I have gotten comfortable in my new work surroundings and ballet flats.

Change is uncomfortable, newness pinches, and blisters arise. But, if you find yourself walking in new teaching shoes this year, I hope you can find peace and settle into comfort and support as I have.