Start with a conversation!

My family was getting ready to go on our yearly vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, one of our most favorite places. If you’ve never been there, I’d highly recommend it! Prior to the trip it was necessary to mow the lawn as to avoid knee high grass upon our return. As I was mowing the lawn, I saw one of my neighbor’s who lives down the block. A.J., one of my students was standing outside on the sidewalk with a gentleman I’d never seen before. A.J. and I would always chat about fitness, and I love his passion for trying to improve his wellness. Taking a break from the lawn, I decided to strike up a conversation. It’s one I won’t long forget!

My family was getting ready to go on our yearly vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, one of our most favorite places. If you’ve never been there, I’d highly recommend it!  Before the trip, it was necessary to mow the lawn to avoid waist-high grass upon our return. As I was mowing the lawn, I saw one of my neighbor’s who lives down the block. A.J., one of my students was standing outside on the sidewalk with a gentleman I’d never seen before. A.J. and I would always chat about fitness, and I love his passion for trying to improve his wellness. Taking a break from the lawn, I decided to strike up a conversation. It’s one I won’t long forget!

A.J. and I was chatting about fitness and how he was proud of the gains he’s witnessed since Covid-19. I could tell he made progress and mentioned how happy I was of his improvement. He smiled and thanked me for the compliment. At that point, he introduced me to his Uncle, whose name was Everett. Over the next hour or so, Everett and I chatted about life, making the world a better place, and just the importance of a conversation. A summary of our chat is below. I hope you like it!

Everett told me that he had three older kids; two sons, and a daughter. You know a person is proud of their children when they pull out their wallet and show you pictures. He spoke so highly of his children and the progress they’ve made with their jobs and the relationships they’ve built. Even when he described some of the problems that they’d had in the past, it always finished with a smile and genuine spice of happiness. As he was chatting away, I realized that talking has never been a weakness of mine, but Everett put me to shame in the best possible way.

After we discussed our jobs and other pleasantries, the conversation came around to the challenges many of us face when dealing with people from other races and nationalities. Everett spoke at length about his time in the Air Force and Navy. He described how being one of the few African American men in his unit brought challenges that many of us will never deal with. In his words, “I recall clearly one of the white soldiers telling me, I don’t like black people!” Everett told him, “we don’t need to like each other, but we are in the same company, so let’s just find a way to get along.” In another instance, he described how some of his cohorts were these rather large gentlemen who stated clearly that they didn’t like him. Luckily for him and those large gentlemen, Everett was an outstanding artist who loved to draw. That love of
Art served him well as his brief explanation helped me to understand.  He mentioned that he used to paint on the duffle bags that all soldiers were required to carry.  A few of the men who weren’t initially fond of him, became enamored with his creativity.  He ended up working on many of their bags and even went deep sea fishing. (Not exactly his cup of tea as he told them before jumping on-board!) 

Following our chat about his time in the military, we jumped to our current crisis.  As I’m writing this, the clarity of our words and how we spoke to each other hasn’t been matched in any conversation about race I’ve had in past years.  What struck me as so meaningful isn’t that we agreed on everything, but rather our willingness to listen, question and ultimately see another perspective that maybe we hadn’t looked at before. We both talked about the one thing that helped us to see differents viewpoints and more importantly the value in a respectful and positive conversation.   It was our deep desire to listen! Instead of interrupting each other and making sure that only our voices were heard, we took the time to look at each other, smile, nod and make it clear that we cared.  

No matter what our views might be, having a positive, honest conversation with others is paramount for any meaningful change to happen.  While the progress we are making with many issues in society is real, for those changes to continue we all must be willing to give others a voice.  I’m thankful for the time that Everett and I had together.  Even though it was short, I now consider him a friend.

Now and in the future

It’s 7 days into schools being out during the Coronavirus outbreak. I have to admit it feels different than during any other point in my career. We’ve had those usual long summer vacations, various holidays, and even some brutally horrible winters where students seem to miss a day a week for the entire winter season. But again, this feels different. I just read that in the 228 years of the New York Stock Exchange, on Monday, March 23rd there will be no trading from the floor. This may not be significant for many of us, but it shows how truly unique this time in our world has become. It’s hard to imagine any school district or business being truly prepared for what’s happened. As an educator, I feel comfortable in saying, “school districts, students, teachers and parents are waking up to a totally different time of teaching and learning. But, it’s how we adapt and work together that will bring us all closer together!” Let’s face it, no matter how much planning school districts have done, the Coronavirus has shaken education on its head.

Up to this point, schools have, for the most part stuck with similar instructional methods to teach and reach children. Sure there have been huge advances in giving students choice, allowing for project based learning, 1-1 learning, and other key ways to get students interested in learning. In this case though, we have been forced to really think about what we want students to get out of their education. We have been forced to think about what is necessary, what is fluff and what role we want our educators, leaders, parents and students to play in helping to promote education that is equal, fair and relevant. I don’t have all or even most of the answers! What I am hoping to provide is at least some guidance, hope and perspective to how this will influence education for the foreseeable future.

  • I like to believe that every school/district looks at the spectrum of teaching and learning through the eyes of their students, teachers, parents, community and leadership. We all want students to share the same exceptional experience no matter their age, gender, race, or disability. Whether that’s happened before is up for debate. But we know that Covid-19 has forced districts to rethink and adapt their thinking. Again, I don’t have every solution, nobody does. We need to clearly articulate what students to learn while they aren’t in the physical structure of a school? Is it standards, objectives, communication skills, problem solving, or even the ability to work collaboratively in the hopes of fixing a larger problem?
  • Let’s start with the end in mind. In our classrooms, we try to get students talking, involved, creative and passionate about working with others. It makes for a much more dynamic and happy learning environment. But truth be told, not every student likes or wants that type of class, so we hopefully don’t force them to change. We might encourage participation. We may experiment with partners, groups or pods. In the end though, every student is different. Now with our current situation, it’s imperative that social connections with students, parents and teachers grow exponentially. There are going to be questions that wouldn’t have been asked before. Our ability to problem solve will be challenging at first. It will hurt! But with time, I believe we’ll be grateful that it’s forced all of us to promote relationships.
  • I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve always tried to build a connection before building content. Maybe it goes back to my high school years, where very few teachers were about developing meaningful relationships. This doesn’t mean that content, standards and objectives don’t matter. They do! Let’s think about today’s situation. We are all going to be sharing. This means teachers, parents, districts and most importantly STUDENTS! They won’t be taking a test in class. It will be online. Projects will be much more open source. Again, this isn’t a bad things, just a different thing. We must embrace the willingness to structure our content and lessons so students can build a better mouse trap together, instead of getting stuck in it alone. Take a brief look at what future employers seek from their workers. Sure it has technical and analytical skills that are the content piece. But what strikes me as most important are these: soft skills, leadership, communication skills and positive attitude. Today’s situation can and should allow us to develop those skills. As a matter of fact, it will force it on us. That’s a good thing!

What makes education the noblest profession is how it’s constantly evolving. Whatever your role is with children: teacher, parent, nurse, secretary, custodian, principal, etc… you’ve learned to change with the times. Remember that even 20 years ago there were no cell phones and the internet was just getting started. Think what would have happened 20 years ago if the same situation would have occurred. Let’s use all that we have, all the we’ve learned to improve education, not complain about it. I welcome your comments, thoughts and feedback. Have a wonderful day and be safe!


My Why!

I hope you will share your why!

In September of 1991, I began teaching Health and Physical Education in Camden, New Jersey. While I’d already taught previously, it was exciting to explore this new opportunity despite the minimal resources and space available (Washington Elementary had no gym or lunchroom).  I’d met the principal, Mr. Kozieja, a white-haired, former member of the Armed Forces who assured me that great things would come my way if I worked hard. He was right and we became close friends through his mentorship!

On the second day of school, my second-grade class for was headed outside for Physical Education.  Again, because we had no gym, all of the classes met on the blacktop behind the school. The students were really excited to get started. We began jumping rope and doing various relay races.  As class was really going strong, a second-grader, Eric yelled out, “Mr. S, the trash truck! Look, the trash truck!” I turned around, and to my amazement, a giant trash truck was rolling into our P.E. area. The students yelled “ooh it smells”, as juices from the back of truck spilled onto the blacktop.  I, of course, had never planned for a trash truck interrupting our lesson. Nor did any college class prepare me for this kind of situation. I screamed, “Everybody to the side–now!” We moved all the equipment to the side and waited for the truck to drive past. Once it cleared, I got them started again. As luck would have it, two minutes later Eric again yelled out, “Mr. S., it’s starting to rain!”  The kids hurried inside into the hallway, soaked and crying! What an awesome beginning!

Fast forward, four hours later to my waiting outside Mr. Kozieja’s office.  As I worried about what might transpire, Eric saw me pacing. He said, “Mr. S., are you okay?”  I replied, “Well, Eric, it wasn’t exactly what I had planned for our first day. A trash truck and rain don’t make for a great class!”  He said, “Don’t worry, Mr. S. I think you did great. Tomorrow will be a better day!”  

Eric’s words have resonated with me for almost 30 years.  This student’s wisdom is part of “why” I became a teacher almost three decades ago.   In our meeting, Mr. Kozieja said, “Craig, I can see you love exercise and kids. That will carry you through many a problem.  But, hopefully, why you’re here is to make a difference in the lives of every student.  A trash truck and rain won’t be the last problem that occurs. Trust me on that!”

Each of us probably have some different reasons for our “why!” I encourage you to reflect on what your why might be. Whether you’re a 30 year veteran like me, or somebody in college whose decided to enter the greatest profession in the world. Knowing your own why will help you to see the bright side when things get tough, (and they most definitely will), but even more importantly, when your students are brimming with enthusiasm, smiling with joy, and eager to learn.

I hope you enjoyed “My Why!” I look forward to hearing and reading about your “why!”

Craig #teachpos