And then it happened……people were surprised.

As a teacher, I am allowed much less latitude in my day to day existence then the average person who is not a teacher – (no actual education experience yet has a college degree, may be a parent, after school provider service, baby sitter, etc).  This lack of latitude is not a problem, rather it presents a unique dilemma.  Society expects me (with my nifty CA State Teaching Credential) to act differently and generally better so I have little wiggle room if something goes wrong. As a science teacher, I can tell you, up front and honestly, ‘Things go wrong’ and so I do all I can for reasonable risk assessment in an attempt to avoid the ‘something going wrong’  starting small and becoming HUGE.   Adam Lanza went wrong. Come to think of it, so did NECC (New England Compounding Center).

When I have had to deal with work colleagues, administrators, parents, etc., about avoiding problems,  the  mantra I most often hear is, ‘Well we have been doing it this way for ______ (pick your amount of time) and have not had a problem’.  The second most often heard mantra is, ‘We have a license, degree, certificate…..’.  My favorite mantra: ‘Kids don’t come with operating instructions’.

I want to roll my eyes as mantra one means we can’t/won’t/are afraid to change. Mantra two indicates abdication. My favorite mantra translates into lack of use of common sense and/or asking for help.

When something goes wrong, these mantras never hold up with talking to parents, police, doctors, etc. These mantras do have the capacity to help some one feel better about the lapses and excuse ineptitude, which is why we have lawyers and insurance.  These mantras allow people to feel okay about not being a functioning member of their family, work colleagues,  group of friends and community.

We are a society so separated from reality we expect others to take responsibility for everything from poor parenting to bad grades to bad behavior. When something bad happens, we console ourselves with the concept we ‘did the best we could’ and immediately start looking where to point blame.

I have to ask – did you really do the best you could? Were you afraid in some way and so you chose to take the easier path?

Were you putting some self interest in front of your job/relationship with another person(I can’t deal with lunatic parent B so I will just give the kid a C and call it a day – even though the kid has some serious learning and behavior problems; I have to have enrollment numbers up so I will accept whatever kids come to my program;  I was afraid to address parent Q their child has behavior X consistently and it is not benefitting their age/play mates; Just this once I can let it slide – it will keep everything calm and so on) and did not step it up?

Anything in science ‘lab’ can become dangerous under the wrong circumstances so we practice, practice, practice-we practice how to use particular tools correctly, who gets to pick up broken glass (ME and any other adult only), how to stop, drop and roll (we light candles and peanuts for experiments some times), how to walk around a puddle. We talk about why, at the end of the day, it is quite important I return children to their parents in the same or better (they learn something and maybe grow a gyri on the brain!) condition and I have told them I really never wish to have to call a parent from the ER.

I am strict. My students need to demonstrate they know how to WALK with scissors pointed downward….and this is at all age levels. We learn how to position a butter knife (blunt edge) since with enough force, even a butter knife is dangerous.  I have explained that while I would do anything I could to keep them alive, I don’t feel like doing open heart surgery today so they must walk with scissors AND they must walk and HOLD scissors a particular way.  Knives and tools requiring use of ‘force’ must be pushed away from body for proper use. Fortunately for me I have not had to do heart surgery – I have had to deal with ripped clothing, scissors falling just shy of puncturing a toe as child wore sandals, scissors being used in wrong direction (don’t ask me how the child was able to do this to try and unplug the glue bottle) and kid getting cut on hand, etc.

In the case of Nancy Lanza, the story unfolded all too sadly after the fact. Apparently she practiced my favorite mantra  and the most often heard mantra about having a license (for anything, as if this makes you invisible from harm, most especially  a license for a gun).   Not only did Mrs. Lanza practice one of the mantras, her so called friends aided, abetted and abided in the mantras.  After Friday 14 December 2012 people began to blame the NRA (yet, Mrs. Lanza had a license). People were able to construct a bit of a story about Mrs. Lanza – she was generous with money yet never managed to talk about one son.  Mrs. Lanza does not seem to have any ‘close’ friends or they sure are not talking.  People confused Mrs. Lanza as a teacher.  People knew Adam was different (interestingly, kids can always tell when some one is  different even though they may not have words for the ‘different’) and yet apparently his different was ‘normal’ – AND THEN IT WAS NOT.

Some one was afraid to use the tool of truth and sincerity.

The methodology of CAREFULNESS rules what I do.  I have substantially more to lose for a ‘mistake’, no matter how well intentioned I was in avoiding the mistake.  My choices are public (they occur in a classroom for all to see and hear), my choices are constantly what parents talk about.  My choices supposedly have more impact on a child then anything their parents could/should do…….

The higher standard is sometimes frightening and often frustrating. I can lose my credential in the blink of an eye if a child is hurt  or some stranger abducts a child under my care (even if the child stated they ‘knew’ the person since a child’s knowing is distinctly different from an adult knowing) even if I told two kids to go to the bathroom together, I am expected to have eyes on the back of my head and a third eye at all times. The  same  behavior is  not  required/expected of a parent – something going ‘south’ would be called an accident.   Adam Lanza’s behavior was apparently an accident since no one seemed to see it coming and yet it seems all the signs were there and the signs were pretty blinding neon, most especially having an interest in guns and sharing guns with a child as a demonstration of responsibility.

Since my livelihood depends on how well I can inculcate the use of particular  tools, I am careful to note the following:

Bleach – great for sanitizing. Five drops in a gallon of water is good stuff when there is no clean water. A child drinking bleach left below the kitchen sink is deadly.  Scissors – awesome for arts and crafts. Kitchen scissors can be used to cut chicken bones.  Falling on scissors can cause blindness, puncture wounds, death. Pencil – great for writing on paper and drawing. Flung across the room, can cause blindness.   Rubber band – wonderful for making a model airplane propeller turn. Horrific is shot to the face. Minimally painful if it hits a tender part of the body. Needle – great tool for sewing on a button, getting glue stuck in neck of glue bottle, making a tiny hole to demonstrate starlight in a black piece of paper. Completely dangerous on many levels up to and including carrying germs so we should not even use it to pretend we have magnetic skin.  Magnets – wonderful for holding things to refrigerator. Great for an MRI which can help in doing a medical diagnosis. Terribly bad when swallowed by children and the magnets bind in the gut.

The above are just the minimum of issues I deal with as a teacher.  Add on taking students on a field trip where the generally accepted standard is 6-10 children per adult (and many times the adults act like children).  Add on being distracted for one second by a child who does not understand the word NO  is indeed  A COMPLETE SENTENCE when stated by an adult and you start to get a tiny view of my world.

When children act out, I am clear in communicating with parents and administrators regarding what happened as I just watched my life pass before my eyes and that of the children I am in charge of.   I do not have a ‘free pass’ – ever.  I am not unempathetic, I am honest, sincere and don’t let acting out pass for the ‘next time’.  This is known as the practice of behaviorism – catching it when it happens, addressing it and moving forward instead of letting the behavior go and become a routine.

This methodical approach applies to not only  all tools above  but  the speaking tool in human relationships with family and friends.

In the same way I  would state  guns are a tool (air BB pellet guns at summer camp for target practice, hunting, use on big game drives in Africa), and require extraordinary care in use, I would state honesty and telling the truth to parents, friends and family is so important when something is ‘amiss’.

Tools and truth  are a safety issue  – improper use of a tool can have some unintended consequences and outcomes.  Improper use of truth (protecting some one from feeling hurt, their self esteem tapped, etc.)  does not help people seek help/services/support  before something unforeseen happens.  We need to treat our relationships the same way we would demonstrate respect for a tool – practice telling some one something is wrong and share how to get help; report a problem to the police (the converse of this is not ‘snitching’ and we all know how this works in neighborhoods with gangs), follow up and practice again; check things out every now and again to make sure things are in good operating condition – especially your relationships.  Don’t let being politically correct stop you from being ACTUALLY CORRECT.   If you have that ‘feeling’ inside of something being amiss, talk to your friend, their family members, etc. Report what you think is amiss- your internal gut is more accurate then you realize (Gary Zukov, The Seat of The Soul).

I have never seen cops at a shooting range practice without goggles and ear mufflers.  I am not condoning guns although I support the idea that if you have a gun, you should at a minimum know how to use it and store it appropriately.   This is what leads me to state that guns in and of themselves are not inherently dangerous, rather the people using them are dangerous.

People without care or thought or an understanding of risk management have difficulty imagining the horror of  everyday items in the house.  Liza Long noted this in her piece above. People with  problems of mental and behavioral health issues are not inherently dangerous – rather the people who have mental/behavioral  problems tend to have a proclivity to be dangerous for a variety of reasons.  Not saying something to the person or their adult care taker  due to the impoliteness factor is dangerous. You have a tool (your brain) to think through information, analyze the information and share if something is not making sense.

When you get down to it, a teacher should not be different from anyone else.  A teacher should be respected for noting when something is amiss in equal proportion to when they note something is awesome and wonderful. A teacher should be appreciated for honesty when it comes to children.  Generally this is not the case as there is no nice way to tell the truth about something being amiss.  If this were the actual case, some one somewhere in a small place called Newtown, CT would have rung a warning bell about Nancy Lanza, her relationship with guns and her son who was different and perhaps should not (in retrospect) have been shown how to shoot guns.   Some one at the college where Adam attended or a friend of Nancy’s who had kids themselves should have noted something was incongruous and at a minimum, contacted the police as a ‘heads up’ and let the police follow up.  It seems both Nancy and Adam had a unique relationship with schools.

The danger is not the ‘tool’ – the danger is in not knowing how to use a tool – any tool, not practicing enough and expecting a better outcome than if you actually made the  attempt to  thoughtful and careful about all tools, including the SPEAKING UP tool.   Speak up instead of being surprised.


Right, rights, wrong and totally wrong!

I could not help but read this piece, sigh in dismay and then realize, alas, it was a teachable moment – for parents and for the children they raise.

I have rights. My rights include working in a safe place and being treated professionally.  I have the right to free speech and expression of my views, within reason – I may not incite a riot.  I have the right to teach in a classroom, at a school where students are desirous of learning.   I have a right to work with principals, students and  parents who treat me professionally and with respect/dignity.

There are countless times when I may wish to demonstrate  what ‘stupid’ looks like in action, but I do not attach a name to it as the participants know who(m) they are.  Stupid in action is instructional.  I talk to people who practice ‘stupid’ and point it out and discuss alternatives as frankly, it is embarrassing enough to be an American, I don’t need people doing stupid here and abroad. I complain when I have an alternative way to solve something – not because I need to complain. Complaining is easy and everyone/anyone can do it. Not every one is smart enough to address the issue and create a solution.

My students and their parents have rights. My students have the right to an education in an environment worthy of learning.  Since all my students have this right, there are times when I need to ask students to leave until they can get their behavior in order to be in an environment of studiousness-for themselves and classmates.   My students have a right to question how I grade, what the purpose/rationale of an assignment is, due dates, books we read and so on.  Fortunately for me I am not a neurosurgeon or ER doctor and so I can CHANGE something if it is not working and no one dies (they may feel sick inside but no one dies from an education).

The parents of my students have rights. They have a right to meet with me at a scheduled time and I expect them to exercise that right. Parents have a right to meet with me when it will not effect my other students, which is why I schedule appointments.   They have a right to question grades, the purpose/rationale of an assignment, due dates, books and so on.  Parents and students have these rights as long as they use them in a reasonable amount of time.  It is not considered an emergency for me  two weeks after the fact (assignment turned in, grades went out, etc.) that a student is failing and I have done due diligence in written notices, phone calls and multiple forms of contact. It may feel like an emergency to the parent and the student, but again, it is not as I am not a neurosurgeon or ER doctor.  Parents have the right to attend my class/school with their child if their child is expressing untoward behavior and not able to productively participate in a quality learning environment.  Parents have the right to parent their children and not expect me, the teacher to do their job.

Since my students and their parents have rights, I do not appreciate or like when issues are not addressed with me. In fact, I find it immature and an abuse of power when a student/parent goes above me – because they can.  It does not inspire respect when people do things because they feel they have ‘power’ to laud over me as opposed to real power in which they can have a conversation and deal with solutions.  It makes me feel disrespected (dissed is the street term) and unappreciated as I put extensive time and effort into my practice as an educator.

When students (in the case in the article above) and parents do things which are inherently mean, I do not find the humor.  It is called bullying.  When parents teach children this skill, they open their children up to a very undignified way to go through life as their child does not become a problem solver.  Children need to learn that the world is filled with adversity and one way around it is to talk about it and work for alternate outcomes.   When students use a power play/grab as noted in the article above – because they can, they lose sight of the true issue and again do not become problem solvers.

By Grade 4, students should have the ability to state an opinion, ask a question and think about a potential alternative outcome to a problem.   Not everything in life makes us happy but we can discuss it.  After Grade 4, when parents are still  the ones coming to the teacher, the student is prevented from developing self efficacy and advocacy throughout their lives.

When parents work with students to intentionally create problems at school, it is unacceptable. It is disruptive to everyone and does not demonstrate the skills necessary to function in the real world for very long.  When principals and other administrators support intentional bad behavior (from parents and students) at school, it diminishes the professionalism of education.

It is wrong for bad behavior to go unpunished – this does not mean something which physically hurts, rather something which emotionally hurts. It is okay for students and parents to apologize, in writing, and explain what they learned.  I apologize to my students and their parents often as I know I am only human and can not do the Sisyphean task of teaching 150%, even though I would love to.

Words carry power – they carry the most power when we use words with meaning, purpose and good intentions.

Parenting skills for a novice

Dear Parents,

I found this video  and wanted to share it with you.  Not only does this parent clearly elucidate the issues at hand and why it is unsettling to him, he clearly solves the problem.   There is a point at which talking is NOT the solution and action is required.  Oh, and by the way, children under 18 need parental consent for using some of these websites so you do get to monitor what is being done.

While I do not advocate/condone the technique used at the end of the video, there are similar things which can be equally effective with a hammer or window drop (from the 5th floor or higher).

Remember, you are the adult in the relationship. YOU are the parent. YOU get to set the standard your child lives up to.

Take time to be a parent in the same way you expect me to take time to be a teacher. I do not have as much influence on your child as you do. My job is merely to inspire your child to want to learn MORE!

Please support me in educating your child by setting high expectations of behavior at home, at school and making sure your child applies themself to learn.   All the rest will be pretty easy.


Your Child’s Teacher

Grades K-12

P.S.  Dear Hannah,

You may not like your father very much right now. I am sure when you are in college, doing well and have a family of your own you will appreciate your father cared enough to love you and discipline you.

Follow up:

Parents Taking on the RESPONSIBILITY of Parenting

While it should be illegal (it is at least immoral) for people to have children (adopt, give birth to, etc.)  and abdicate the education of said child to some one else, the next best thing is to set the expectation high and wide that parents (people who have children) take RESPONSIBILITY and parent.  It has been far too long in coming that our communities demand parent action.  This does not mean helicoptering as that is ‘overparenting’ and does nothing to set boundaries for learning from failures and successes.

It would have never occurred to me a few decades ago that parents needed to be asked and reminded to go to parent conferences, follow through on the progress of their child or actually be told that no one ever died from not watching TV and yet these were all things I had to do my first years of teaching. I was dumbfounded.  How is it my own parents, who both  (one more than 40 miles from home) worked by time I was in middle and high school, figured this out? How is it my parents gave up many a night out or activity to be sure myself and my sister  had library night, were involved in Girl Scouts and all manner of other activities in the community, went to some  free program for kids at the museum, at the local college over the weekend,  volunteered for PTA regularly, checked up on homework being done (we did not even have planners in those dark ages) and followed through on anything lower than a C grade?  Anything less than a C meant two things (1) figure out what you needed help with understanding (2) locate the people/resources (teacher, tutor, classmates parent, book, etc.) to turn the problem around. In retrospect, my parents were nothing short of amazing and driven – they had a desire that their children would do well in the world and lead lives of meaning and purpose.  My parents did not dump tons of money into the situation as we were not wealthy. My parents dumped TIME into the situation.

When I began teaching, PTA did not help the teacher round-up parents and wrangle with the idea of how to follow through on children, although I sure wish the organization had. This would have been the largest difference in the lives of so many children. I took on the burden many times by trying to re-think, re-plan, re-teach, tutor and so forth the students who were lagging behind.  It was never possible to do that much work for 15-20 of my 35 students in lower grades or 75-90 students in upper grades, do my job and have a life – but I tried.

Thankfully amid  all the ‘change’ being made in education, parents have been brought in to the light.  I hope this is the deal changer. It will be many years before we know for certain as a country, however, the research has always shown great parenting conquers much more than a teacher can teach in a school year.

If you are just becoming a teacher – make sure your school puts parents into action. If you already teach, find out what needs to happen to get parents activated at your school.  If you are a student – REMIND YOUR PARENTS TO SUPPORT YOUR BEST EFFORTS.  For all the parents out there thinking this is ‘impossible’ – unplug your TV for six months. None of you will die and your child will be far better for it.

A Teachable Moment to Last a Lifetime

This blog is for parents and it is about parenting. Hopefully it will also let parents into the strange world teachers inhabit and how we think, for good or for bad about things such as rewarding behaviors, grades, expectations, etc.

A huge shoutout and thank you to the teacher who years ago shared the book (I have now forgotten the name of teacher and book and passed book on to an English Teacher colleague years ago…) with me regarding activities for getting students to use items such as a dictionary, thesaurus and other ‘researchy’ types of materials.  I know at the time you could not understand what a science teacher had in mind, but the ideas have been great tools in the war chest over the years.

One of the activities I appropriated was about a thesaurus:  What are all the words BETWEEN hot and cold and how would ‘you’ and your group put them in order? Example: warm, tepid, lukewarm, ice-cold, cold, freezing, exactly 33 degrees F and so forth.  This became a way to start to identify qualitative measurement, how to derive a scale and ultimately how to evaluate qualitative data and explore interpretations.   This activity, and some similar explorations helped many a middle schooler get through the quandaries of data collection.   Over the years, I found this example exemplary for life skills type issues in the classroom such as, “What are the words between deserve and earn?” or “What are the words between want and need?”.  This also worked great with parents in conference.

Over time, my students developed all manner of scales for ‘measuring’ the most outrageous data – kind of like Wired Magazine (the holy grail of how to ‘show’ data along the lines of Edward Tufte Envisioning Information).  Alone, this made science a great deal more fun, in combination with thinking through behaviors, this very simple task opened many a mind.

So, as I read the blog noted above and contemplated the various comments in The San Francisco Chronicle (often comments are better than actual blogs/articles!) I realized this is a task parents could do at home with children.  Not so much to do school work, more so to gain some insight and logic about the world, appreciate the how and why of religion – observing, practicing, believing in/having faith (it does not matter the particular religion) and applying religion to living a meaningful life.

Whether you claim to be the 99% or the 1%, all of us need to better understand in our hearts the difference between deserving and earning something – even a Blackberry for Christmas or the capacity for an inanimate object, Best Buy, to ruin our Christmas.  In addition to the distinct differences of deserve and earn (which has a great deal to do with studying, completing homework and obtaining grades….), want and need could not be more clear after the last five years where the whole world has been assailed by a few people who wanted too much.

As I think back over my experiences (I will post the URL’s to some blogs I have written about these concepts), I can not help but thank my parents for making sure I had the experiences to know the difference of want and need and deserve and earn. Some of these experiences came about via the observation of a minor holiday in Judaism called Chanukah which was raised up to a major holiday via marketing to compete with Christmas in the money sphere, some came about from traveling. Many of these experiences came about from leaving my comfort zone and having to contemplate how I would handle a variety of situations.  Most of my experiences caught me right between the heart and mind, which is never easy, nor can there necessarily be one right, correct, best answer.

If you wish to raise a child with compassion and appreciation, give them the opportunity to experience these words. Neither a dictionary or thesaurus could ever do the words justice merely by being on a page.

Dear Parents of All Students at Public, Private, Charter and other K-College Schools,

I have longed to write this letter for so long and finally I have something which allows me to compel  school administrators to GROW A SPINE!

and for parents who believe private schools do not have this problem:

The tide of change is now focusing on parental behavior(s) instead of blaming teachers for everything which does or does not occur in a classroom.  Administrators are now going to need to hold parents accountable for the egregious actions their child perpetuates on others and how it effects classroom learning.

In a 10-page letter to be sent on Tuesday to thousands of school districts and colleges, the Department of Education urges the nation’s educators to ensure that they are complying with their responsibilities to prevent harassment, as laid out in federal laws.

The sentence is simple, direct and  clear.  No Teacher needs to feel embarrased anymore about having to go to administrators for help around classroom discipline issues as if we are incapable and administrators have to stop pushing back on teachers and treating them as incompetent when behavioral issues (the vast majority are bullying related in some form or another) are out of control.   Administrators – you no longer need to worry about how the numbers look regarding suspensions at your school as much as you need to start worrying about the reports from teachers and parents (who need to be given the power to advocate for their child) about you simply being to weak to do your job.  Talking to children will no longer be as sufficient as adequate action.

The department issued the letter to clarify the legal responsibilities of the authorities in public schools and in colleges and universities under federal laws, the officials said. Certain forms of student bullying might violate federal anti-discrimination law.

“I am writing to remind you that some student misconduct that falls under a school’s anti-bullying policy also may trigger responsibilities under one or more of the federal anti-discrimination laws,” says the letter, signed by Russlynn H. Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights.

“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cellphones or the Internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating,” the letter says. “Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents. Harassment creates a hostile environment when the conduct is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school.”

Parents, please take some notes:

(1) As your child’s teacher, I am going to give you a warning about your child’s behavior and then escalate the issue as your child’s behavior PREVENTS some or all of the students in my classroom from learning and this is intolerable. It is your responsibility as a parent to work with your child to change behavior and/or get appropriate help to manage your child. You have a responsibility to the community as a whole.

(2) As a teacher, I am going to demand my administrators and school board do everything allowable by law to make you and your child comply with making my classroom a place of learning and not dealing with the inappropriate behaviors of your child because you have abdicated parenting.   I want the other students in my classroom to view school as a wonderful experience, not a scary one.

(3) You do not have permission to bully or harass me about your child’s behavior and how it effects their grades.  As necessary, I will invite you to come to school so you can do the appropriate parenting you are not doing at home.  I can not be solely responsible for what has not happened during the 5+ years your child has been with you.  I can and will expect support from my administrators so I may do my job effectively.

(4) Parents of children being bullied and not being able to learn – please know that I am now empowered to do something and you no longer need to feel I am not doing anything at  all  as a teacher.  In fact, I will explicitly help you drive home the message to administrators of what needs to change (I was already doing this personally, however my administrators lacked spine).

(5) The sign(s) on my wall about discipline and behavior are not just signs to cover a wall in poor condition – they are a clear statement of what will happen when student behavior prevents learning in my classroom.  I expect you to work with your children at home to change their behavior.  If you find you need more help/support on how to work with your child, I will gladly help you find school and community resources.  I will work with you to learn how to limit the things which reward your child for inappropriate behavior – TV, iPhone, cell phone, computer and so on as I know for certain no one has ever died from a lack of these things (I have lived in third world countries and saw it/experienced it first hand).


The Teacher/Professor of Your Child while at SchoolP.S. – Two really important sources: Groundspark, Southern Poverty Law Center

Further update 8 November 2010:

Update: 24 November 2010

Paragraph Five and the last paragraph.  I don’t need to make a comment – Mr. Friedman said it nicely!