Avoiding Dirty Laundry

positivityThe other morning I was driving to work and that Luke Bryan song came on where he sings about how he believes most people are good.  I’m not a big fan of country (even though my playlist may prove otherwise), but that song resonated with me.  Instead of following the theme of his lyrics, I found myself wondering about how much negativity, criticism, and finger pointing are in the world today.  I couldn’t get my mind off of how the good in the world is constantly buried under a growing pile of negativity.  The news, the internet, and social media seem to be dominated with complaint, cynicism, and devastation.  Where are all the good people?  There is more than that out there, right?  In his song “Dirty Laundry,” Don Henley basically calls us out on how much we love sensationalizing the drama, the grief, and the painful spectacle.  Are we really like that?  Is that actually what we want or is that just what we’re fed?  It feels like the world is constantly filtering us towards the disapproval, the hatred, and the unconstructive tension.  What if – instead of piling on and feeding the negativity – we became known as beacons of light and positivity?    

I know, I know.  It sounds like sitting around the campfire and singing kumbaya, but hear me out.  Imagine if people saw us as a source of encouragement, grace, and promise.  It’s ideal to visualize, but it won’t happen by accident.  Intentional positive thinking is more important than ever because we are already up against so much.  Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  Simply put, the world needs our positivity and our courage to stand by our convictions.  Being positive is more than being in a good mood, reciting optimistic mantras, or posting inspirational quotes on Instagram.  It’s about a deeper faith in a vision of a world where we lift each other up, find the good in each other, and purposefully utilize the good that is in each of us.  We don’t have to set out to change the world, just start with the world around us.  Whether it’s mental health, influencing others, or maintaining good relationships; being intentionally positive can score victories. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I have negative thoughts, daily doubts, and plenty of things that test my patience.  However, I can confidently testify that being intentional about my positive thinking enables me to consistently overcome the negativity.  As an educator in a middle school where I work with at-risk students, I must renew my focus on positive thinking every single morning.  As a husband and leader of my family, I can’t successfully guide my most important people without dedicating myself to intentional positive thinking.  My struggle with OCD and anxiety would absolutely consume me if I didn’t harness the power of intentional positive thinking.  It’s possible that my societal influence is negligible, but my convictions will carry my positivity even if it only impacts a few.  Whether you’re looking for ways to be more intentional about your positive thinking or you are just plain curious, here are 5 principles that I use every single day to power mine:            

1.  All things are possible.

When we live from a positive frame of reference we are more likely to overcome obstacles.  Will we accomplish everything we dream of?  Maybe not.  Will life be perfect just because we have a positive outlook?  Definitely not.  But will we find success?  Will we grow?  Can we get better?  The answer is yes.  At the first sign of an obstacle, our character takes over and it helps determine the outcome.  If you’re weak, you’ll run.  Weak people give up or even pretend it doesn’t matter.  If our character is strong, we will dig in and try to find a way.  The reality is that positive thinking can strengthen our character.  For me, this has been a powerful weapon to overcoming obstacles. 

2.  Peace generates power.

It’s impossible to accomplish even the simplest of tasks when we are struggling with inner conflict. Anger, yelling, and pitching a fit will not get us anywhere.  It is extremely important to find peace.  When we are at peace, we have a greater ability to focus and to utilize our resources. Peace enables us to move forward from a position of strength and confidence.  I taught 3rd grade for 17 years, and amidst that patience-testing environment, never once did I yell.  Peace is powerful! 

3.  Prayer changes things.

Maybe your beliefs are not the same as mine.  My daily walk with Jesus is what empowers and sustains me.  Prayer can be an effective practice that adds strength, confidence, and peace to any experience. The idea that “prayer changes things” is rooted in the positive affirmations of literally millions of people. It makes practical sense to tap into the power that created the universe. God doesn’t require a membership card; God simply listens.

4.  Happiness depends on you.

When we begin to understand that other people are not responsible for our happiness, we are freed to experience more satisfaction, meaning, and happiness than ever before.  Setbacks and obstacles may frustrate us, but our character must be strong enough to overcome them without impacting our long-term happiness.  Obviously, seasons of struggle may require us to lean on others for encouragement, support, and advice.  However, we can’t blame the world for our unhappiness and we certainly can’t wait around for others to make us happy.  We must find our own happiness and be strong enough to maintain it.    

5.  Expect the best.

Regardless of the circumstance, we tend to get what we expect. Pessimists and optimists both tend to confirm their points of view. When we expect the best from our experiences, our challenges, our day-to-day lives, then we will experience more positive outcomes than going in with a negative attitude.  The same environment exists around us, regardless of how we choose to see it.  We make ongoing choices about how we interpret our environment, and those interpretations are based on our attitude.    Our attitudes really do determine the outcome of the experiences in our life. 

Positivity 3Intentional positive thinking is not only an avenue for enjoying a more peaceful life, but our positive choices also impact those around us.  My wife’s boss recently told her that she is a blessing to have at work.  This compliment goes so much deeper than being told she’s a good employee, a knowledgeable professional, or even simply a nice lady.  If we are to be a blessing, it requires intentional positive thinking.  We would all like to be considered one of the good people Luke Bryan sings about, but we are only one choice away from being included in Don Henley’s dirty laundry.   


I Love You More

IMGP1673-16As with most couples, my wife and I have certain sayings and expressions that are embedded into our daily routine.  Drive safely.  Have a good day.  Be safe.  Hey babe.  Hey babe?  Sweet dreams.  I love you.  You get the point.  However, my favorite phrase is one that has taken on more meaning and significance now that my wife is pregnant.  It’s the phrase I love you more.  It’s a phrase that I started saying to my wife when we first fell in love.  When I say it I mean that I love her more today than yesterday and I love her more than I ever thought I could.  Cheesy?  Perhaps.  But the message is sincere and it’s a blessing to be able to fall deeper in love with my best friend as our marriage grows.  The added significance of that phrase could easily be linked to the pregnancy.  More accurately, the pregnancy has provided me a new lens through which I see my wife.  I see her in ways I’ve never seen before and it simply yet emphatically makes me love her more than I ever thought I could.

thumbnail_IMG-4312My wife has gracefully navigated the predictable obstacles and the unexpected turbulence throughout this pregnancy and I couldn’t be prouder.  I watched her battle the flu with sheer determination because all the best meds are not on the baby’s safe list.  I learned how “morning sickness” actually means “all day” sickness and it sucks as bad as I thought.  She experiences sudden tiredness, extreme fatigue, and daily soreness.  There are specific cravings for Firehouse subs and Waffle House, but mostly for ketchup.  The opposite is also true with strange food aversions, even if it’s only the smell of something trapped in my beard (apparently).  Most of her clothing is no longer comfortable, her sleeping patterns have changed, and the baby appears to be using her bladder as a trampoline.  My respect for moms and moms-to-be has grown exponentially!  It is obvious that the arrival of a baby changes a family, but the baby changes a mom’s life long before that moment.

I readily admit that I could never handle all of these pregnancy symptoms and changes with the grace and beauty that my wife does.  In addition to sacrificing her own body and lifestyle, the invasive doctor’s appointments constantly put her in vulnerable positions.  I’ve seen my wife strip down to a hospital gown at least five times in the past two months.  I know she is uncomfortable each time, so in those moments I can’t help but love her more.  I cringe each time she has to give blood or talk about platelet treatments, but then I love her a little more.  When the nurse asks her to step on the scale I remind her that she is beautiful and I love her.  Then, as she hesitantly steps on the scale with a sigh of surrender, I love her more.  When the technician shows the ultrasound on the monitor and I can see the baby, it is indescribably amazing!  But then I look over at my wife’s situation with the poking, prodding, and cold jelly and I can’t help but love her more.  I am constantly reminded that the most vulnerable moments create the biggest opportunities for our love to grow.  Life is full of vulnerable moments, but I’m learning quickly that pregnancies are predicated on them!

thumbnail_IMG-5256Witnessing the miracle of a human growing inside of another human being is mind blowing.  Granted, my view of the process is likely more up close and personal than most because my wife is a sonographer who performs ultrasounds for a living.  In other words, I have been able to watch our baby on the ultrasound monitor at home like I’m watching a reality TV show.  It might only be a few times a week, but for the past 17 weeks it’s been my favorite show.  However, it’s not the best thing I’ve seen.  The best thing I’ve seen is my wife’s amazing ability to embrace the vulnerability.  It takes courage because vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.  My wife’s courage through this season of our lives is inspiring and undeniably attractive!  That’s why it’s never been easier and it’s never been clearer…I love her more.

Words Worth Holding

pen-and-paperA friend once told me that a written note can be more powerful than telling someone in person because a note can be read and reread forever.  I realize that notes can’t replace the unspoken emotional connection that exists during a face-to-face conversation, but I agree that a note can be like a sweet little souvenir for the soul.  Notes don’t even need to be pretty or professional.  Use a sticky note, a napkin, or that notepad lying around your house.  It’s not about what the note is written on, but what is written on the note.  Even the simplest notes are extremely effective at putting a smile on someone’s face.  A note can be a sweet surprise and it also helps others feel our presence when we are not with them.  There is a special sense of importance, connection, and love that comes along with a note; felt both by the person who received it and the person who wrote it.

I definitely find joy in leaving notes for others, but what is it that makes me feel so good about it?  On a deep, psychological level I feel like Mother Teresa would remind me that achieving fulfillment and happiness comes from making others happy.  I may have gotten too deep with that reasoning, but I do believe that the truth lies somewhere in that nerdy thought.  On a much more realistic level, I feel like leaving a note for someone is kind of like planning a miniature surprise party for their emotions.  That’s when my warm and fuzzy feels are heightened as I begin to anticipate the surprised reaction and emotion I just set up.  After all, it’s unexpected and it makes your intended target feel good.  It may even change the trajectory of their day!  And who doesn’t love that kind of surprise, right?

As a dad, I enjoy leaving notes for my daughter, especially in her lunch box.  Some of the notes I leave her are reminders while others are written with the purpose of encouragement.  I think her favorite notes are the ones that involve inside jokes.  One time, my wife and I took a selfie with our daughter’s Instamax camera, wrote a silly inside joke on it, and snuck it into her lunch box.  I’m pretty sure we got the eye roll for which we were hoping.  I’m also pretty sure we made her feel special and loved the way we intended.

Image-9 (2)Writing notes to my wife is a blast because she’s my best friend.  I put them in her lunchbox, on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom mirror, and even in her underwear drawer.  I always want to encourage her, make her laugh, help her feel good about herself, and remind her how much I love her.  Leaving notes for her allows me to do that even when we’re apart.  Before we were married, I snuck into her house while she was at work just to leave some sweet notes for her.  I hid them around the house, left some in obvious places, and didn’t say a word about it.  She spent weeks uncovering those surprises.  It made me happy to picture the smile on her face as I envisioned her finding them.

Not all notes are going to change your life, but they can be food for the soul.  I realize that receiving a note may not solve all of your problems, but it might improve your outlook and make you feel better about yourself.  For me personally, I feel invigorated and confident whenever I am the recipient of someone’s kindly written or well-timed words.  A sweet note makes me feel special and it’s a pleasant reminder of how the person writing it feels about me.  The notes my wife leaves me are simply amazing because they are so personal and loving.  Back when we were engaged, she totally surprised me by sneaking a reminder onto my phone.  She secretly set it up so that her sweet message would find its way to my notifications while I was at work.  In that moment, it wasn’t just about the message.  It was about the effort and love she put in to making that reminder happen.  Over a year later, that weekly reminder remains on my phone.  Not only is it still effective, but it is a sweet memory of falling in love.


You don’t have to be an amazing author to harness the power of writing a note.  This is absolutely one of those times in life when it’s the thought that counts.  Leaving a simple “I love you” on your child’s napkin for them to find at lunch is a day maker and it provides meaningful encouragement.  When it comes down to it, it’s not even about the actual words you use; rather the feelings and emotions you create.  Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Without a doubt, writing a note can be a powerful way to spread the feels.  It’s not only a gift of meaningful words, but it’s also a way for someone to hold your words in their hands, even if for just a little while.


Droppin’ Beats and Barbie


My daughter loves to DJ with me, but I’m banned from Barbie (except for this photo shoot I snuck in while she was at camp).

As a new stepdad there are many things I have to learn on the fly.  The lessons are coming at me with relentless speed because I’m trying to catch up to a 10 year old girl who has 8 ½ years of life experiences without me around.  It’s the reality of being a step-parent to a child who has spent her lifetime developing her personality and character before we met.  She knows what she likes and she definitely likes what she likes.  However, the flip side to that reality is that she and I have a long life ahead of us in which we can learn and grow together.  There is a lot of love to share and a lifetime of memories to make.

My stepdaughter and I have a great, loving relationship.  We share inside jokes and we enjoy many activities together.  I’m a kid at heart, so I enjoy posing her stuffed animals in various situations to make her laugh.  She laughs at my dad jokes.  More accurately, she rolls her eyes at my dad jokes.  We even team up to play jokes on my wife.  We ride bikes together, cook together, solve life’s problems together, and pray together.  My daughter’s favorite activity with me is definitely droppin’ beats!  She loves music and dancing so I often let her have a turn on the DJ decks when I’m practicing at home.  I enjoy being involved in her activities (except making slime) and I do my best to participate in sync with her preferences and style.  However, the cold hard truth is that I sometimes get kicked out of things because I don’t do it right or simply because I’m a boy.


During a recent trip to IKEA we found this prop more interesting than the furniture.

Let’s face it.  Kids are apt to kick others out for not playing the right way.  I can recall times as a child when I told my mom or dad, “You’re not playing it right!”  After all, imaginations change as we develop and grow.  I also have flashbacks to the daily battles with my brother in which I reminded him to keep his hands off of my Lego creations.  Kids have preferences and they stick to ‘em!  They often create their own little world in which they can make the rules, design the layout, and do things their way.  Humorously, I believe I crossed this boundary with my daughter during a game of Barbie.  Do you even call Barbie a game?  I don’t even know.  Anyway, my apparent antics got me quickly escorted from a game when all I was doing was using my imagination.  Yep!  I got kicked out of Barbie.

I’m not sure if it’s a rite of passage for dads or if I made a naive rookie mistake.  I see now that I should have known better, but let me explain how I was duped.  My daughter was having a sleepover with two other girls at our house.  My wife and I were having a good time with the girls and all was well.  We had all enjoyed dinner together, gone out for shaved ice, and even watched a movie.  The point is, we were all getting along together beautifully.  So, when the girls invited me to play Barbie, I gladly accepted.  Of course, I went straight for Ken because that felt like the right move.  I immediately made him start flirting with Barbie using a deep manly voice.  To my surprise, that didn’t go over well.  Strike one.  Next, I decided that Ken should get in the car to drive around for a while.  Again, I was terribly mistaken.  Strike two.  The final strike came quickly after that when I tried to manipulate Ken’s legs in an attempt to make him walk.   Anyone with experience here knows that without bendable knees, Ken does not move very well.  Thus, Ken awkwardly moved like Frankenstein as he made his way across the play room floor.  In less than a minute’s time, it was over for me.

The manner in which I was asked to leave this playful gathering around the Barbie house was quite unexpected, but highly entertaining.  My daughter’s seven year old friend, as sweet and tiny as can be, gave me the tap on the arm.  As she repeatedly tapped my arm and looked me squarely in the eyes, she said, “Um…um…mister?  You can be done now.”  Wow!  I got the tap from a seven year old!  It reminded me of the scene in Grease where Coach Calhoun tells the dance-off contestants, “If you’re tapped on the shoulder, leave the floor, or else.  I mean it!”  I guess sometimes you just don’t’ have what it takes and this time I got told.


Right before I married her mom, my daughter and I had a prayerful moment that belonged only to us.

I am figuring out quickly that parenting can be a humbling experience.  My daughter’s influence on me is clearly life changing, and there are many lessons I will learn as our paths continue together.  In this case, I learned that everything has unwritten rules, including Barbie.  I had never played before so how was I supposed to know?  These girls were the Barbie experts and I didn’t even come close to their expectations.  It’s quite humorous, but in a way, I felt like a failure.  I would have appreciated a little feedback.  It made me think about what we ask of our children when they find themselves in unfamiliar situations.  Many times, they have no clue how to act.  As parents, we must communicate the expectations and provide examples of undesirable behaviors that will receive consequences.  Barbie helped me realize how confusing life can be when trying to act appropriately in someone else’s clearly defined world.  Another take-away for me was the feeling I had when the experts had no patience with me.  Being patient and responding patiently is a life skill.  We must not only teach it to our children, but never forget it ourselves.

What’s on Your Plate?

prints (325 of 335)

It’s not always easy to tune out all the distractions, but we must be intentional about keeping family as the center of our world.

It seems that the pace of the world in which we live has become so fast that a meal around the dinner table is tough to come by for many families.  Whether we are motivated by the proverbially good life or the happiness of our children, we often end up with way too much on our plates.  The more we involve our kids in activities, the more we seem to race all over town trying to keep up.  Intentions are good, but we can quickly get in over our heads.  It doesn’t matter if it’s sports, dance, music lessons, clubs, or friends; the time we spend at home as a family can easily evaporate if we are not intentional about keeping it sacred.  As if parenting wasn’t already a schedule filler, the stressors and time constraints associated with being an adult slap us in the face each time the alarm clock goes off in the morning.  Husbands and wives juggle work, errands, bills, laundry, and kids.  But a date once in a while would be nice, right?  And single parents face these same obstacles at an exponentially more difficult rate!  Nobody ever said that raising a child was easy.  They don’t come with instructions and they certainly do not come with a pause button.  However, the dinner table can be that place where life slows down enough to provide the quality time necessary to cultivate healthy family values and relationships.

Growing up, the dinner table in my house was an important part of the family routine.  It was the place where we practiced manners, talked about our day, and ate our biggest meal.  Most importantly, it was the place where distractions were tossed aside in favor of quality family time.  There was no TV during dinner, permission was needed to leave the table, and even the dog was not allowed in the room.  It was that time of day where things slowed down for a little bit and the family could focus on each other.  My mom and dad taught us some of our most valuable lessons during our dinner table conversations.  I learned about emotions, good character, and how to be responsible for my own behaviors.  I learned how to be sympathetic when my brother or sister talked about their disappointments or hardships.  I also learned how share in the happiness of a celebratory moment when I was not the one being celebrated.  That’s tough for a child!  The dinner table was filled with laughter, but also with tears.  It was a place to voice frustration, but also a place to collectively solve problems.  We all knew that we could talk and we would be heard.  Above all, the dinner table was a safe meeting place where we could learn and grow together.  We supported each other, offered encouragement, and held each other accountable.

Today, my wife and I continue the dinner table experience as one of our intentional ways of leading our family.  My 10-year old daughter has many of the same responsibilities that I had growing up.  She helps set the table, she practices manners, and she takes her turn in the conversation.  As part of our nightly dinner conversations, my wife and I ditched the age-old “How was your day?” question in favor of something we call POWs and WOWs.  A POW is the worst thing that happened to you that day or simply something that bothered you.  On the other hand, a WOW is the best thing about your day or something that made you extremely happy.  Each of us gets our turn to share, and it provides valuable insight into one another’s day.  My daughter’s POW often presents an appropriate opening for a valuable life lesson or character building moment.  My wife’s POW usually helps me understand how I can best support her feelings and most effectively love and serve her.  Just like POWs, our WOWs can be simple or huge.  But the most important aspect of the WOWs is the daily reminder they provide us about what makes each other happy.  The POWs and WOWs routine is an asset to our family relationship because it provides an avenue into our most personal space.  This type of sharing requires some level of vulnerability, but it also empowers each of us to become a supportive listener and a loving encourager.  Quite simply, it is the feedback that fuels our daily teamwork and support system.  Our dinner table helps us grow individually and collectively.  It makes us a better family.


She’s not always this happy to set the table, but you get the point.

Being a family requires many things and it takes determination to keep all the moving pieces in sync.  Life can get busy in the blink of an eye and you can quickly get pulled in a thousand different directions.  It is important to guard what you love and be intentional about protecting the time you have to enjoy it.  As for my wife and I, we are very intentional about protecting the time spent around the dinner table because of the incredible return on investment for our family.  It is certainly not easy to nail those daily dinners, but we work hard to make it happen because we value the opportunities they provide for growth, stability, and a deep-rooted sense of belonging.  Like most families, we are susceptible to being consumed by the hustle and bustle, especially during the week.  My wife and I both work full-time, we exercise at the gym regularly, and we most definitely make time for dates!  On top of that, our 10-year old daughter plays volleyball, takes dance, plays the violin, and is getting into theatre.  There are certainly moments when time is fleeting and we are forced into a bold tag team attempt to cook as fast as we can.  I’m not sure what goes on in your house, but I feel like we are probably pretty similar because life has a way of consuming all of us.  Therefore, as a last line of defense against the elimination of quality family time, we make the dinner table a priority.

Discipline without Yelling

TrainingWhen I talk with teachers or students about discipline, the focus inevitably shifts to consequences and punishment.  By nature, teachers want well behaved students and a smoothly run classroom.  However, when striving for that perfect classroom, a teacher may only approach discipline as the responsibility to strictly enforce rules and dole out consequences for the kids who won’t behave.  As for students, the idea of discipline tends to make them anxious about unwanted consequences and “getting in trouble.”  However, at its core, discipline is an act of training.  Sure, if you look up the definition of discipline you will find the words disobedience and punishment.  More importantly, you will notice that discipline is an act of training people.  As educators, this is often where we fail to successfully realize our ideal vision for student behavior…in the training.

When you think of training, what comes to mind?  Is it a boxer training for a fight?  Maybe it’s a marathon runner building up the stamina to finish the brutally long race.  When I think of training, I see sweat and hard work.  I get a sense of pain, fatigue, and soreness because training is a grind.  Training takes time, effort, and diligence.  It is a long-term process filled with struggles, disappointments, and a bunch of re-do’s.  But if you want it badly enough, you will do what it takes to make it happen.  Just like any worthwhile goal for which we may train, discipline in the classroom requires unwavering perseverance and enough patience to realize that the desired results might take longer than expected.  Like the marathon runner or the boxer, teachers must have a well-designed plan and a dedicated commitment to being intentional with every aspect of the training.

This sounds like a simple plan, but clichés and slogans don’t make our students behave.   Effective discipline must include training and it must be intentional.  If a teacher is not diligent with the training or intentional about appropriate feedback, even the best behavior management plans can quickly go astray.  As the teacher, you must possess a great deal of grit and determination with and understanding that your actions matter as much as the students’ behaviors.  You will face obstacles, difficult decisions, and setbacks.  In these moments, it is your responsibility to carry your students through it, and your actions will be the difference.   When faced with a defiant student, resist the temptation to stew over why he was put in your class.  Instead, dig in and train hard, knowing that it will be harder to train him than the rest of the class.  When that talkative class has touched your last nerve, remember that your actions determine what happens next.  Teachers have told me that they tried to get their class to behave, but the kids just won’t listen.  When I hear this, I know I am talking to a teacher who must dig deeper into the training.  There is often a misconception that we are going to train students to fall in line, obey us, and fear our consequences.  We go over rules and they follow them.  The end.  This, however, is not discipline.  Discipline is not a matter of yelling at students until they start behaving.  Instead, it is the intentional steps we take in order to provide effective training for each student.

Throughout my 18 years in education, I’ve borrowed and adapted a simple phrase about behavior that epitomizes an unfortunate misconception.  When children do not know how to read, we teach them to read.  When children do not know how to behave, we yell at them.  Obviously, this expression sarcastically points out how the implementation of discipline can often be completely misguided.  Behavior is a skill and it needs to be taught.  When teaching a child to read, teachers take intentional steps with appropriate materials.  Learning and practice are very specific to the needs of the reader and read 2constant feedback is provided.  Students come to school expecting to read and practice reading.  A good teacher realizes the needs of his readers, pays close attention to progress, and continually adjusts the lesson plans to maximize results.  A great teacher does the same thing, but also goes to great lengths to create a reading environment in which all students are engaged.  If a student continually struggles with reading, one-on-one attention is given and parents are notified.  Learning to read is quite a detailed and dedicated process!  Just like reading, discipline is more effective when we look at it with a growth mindset.  We must have the diligence and perseverance to continue teaching behaviors with appropriate feedback even when students disappoint us or fail to meet our expectations.

Let’s face it.  The most important part of the equation is the teacher’s response to behaviors.  The teacher is ultimately the one who shapes behaviors, dictates the tone, and creates the environment.  Quite simply, the way a teacher responds to a behavior determines the behavior that follows.  The discipline battle is often won or lost in these simple, but pivotal moments.  So, how do you respond?  What would your students say about your discipline skills?  The words you choose, the volume of your voice, the posture you maintain, and the look on your face all matter.  In these moments, as the trainer, your actions are powerful and influential.  These moments happen continuously throughout each day and you must be prepared.  Not planning for these moments could lead to missteps, causing a chain reaction of bigger behavior problems down the road.  Every classroom has rules and expectations which must be upheld and enforced.  It takes a good bit of people skills for a teacher to accomplish this smoothly, but there are a few simple things that make a big difference.

First and foremost, leave the sass at home.  Discipline does not require sarcastic redirection or demeaning language from the teacher…ever.  This reveals more about the teacher than the student and it creates unnecessary tension.  It models inappropriate behavior, belittles students, and creates an environment in which an adult bully is in charge.  And nobody likes a bully.  Point out the misbehavior, state the consequence, and reteach the desired behavior if appropriate.  But remember, it is never a good idea to engage in sarcasm at a student’s expense.

Second, there is no need to yell.  Don’t get me wrong, being stern and direct when correcting behavior is often necessary.  But that is not the same thing as yelling.  When you yell at a student, it makes a spectacle of two people and one of them is YOU.  It could also lead to resentment from the student which damages the relationship necessary for effective training.  When yelled at, a student usually becomes disengaged which means you have lost them for a period of time.  When it comes down to it, it is harder to get them back than it is to keep them involved.  Even when a student’s behavior angers you or completely lets you down, it is important to foster the relationship because you need to continue training with them.

Third, remember that it takes time.  Discipline is a process and baby steps are okay.  But you must be intentional and you must keep taking those steps.  The famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”  Start with a vision for your classroom and be the strong leader who guides those intentional steps that are necessary to make it happen.

Finally, stay positive and don’t give up.  Keep training even when you’re tired and you think the students should know better.  In a class full of energetic students, it is too easy middle school classto blame the chaos on them.  But don’t forget at look at yourself as well.  A wise teacher once told me that our anger towards students usually stems from something we are angry about with ourselves.  Your class is a reflection of YOU so what have YOU not tried yet?  Why are you not getting through to your students?  Teachers are leaders and leaders must find a way to lead.  On the flip side, be sure that your good kids know it.  Find the positive things and point them out…a lot!  Don’t let a student’s disappointing decision or ugly behavior get in the way of your positivity because that adversely affects the training for everyone.  I have found that the more I focus on facts, the more positive my culture remains.  The way you deal with a behavior issue should clearly let the student know that you dislike the behavior, not them.  Yes, grace is appropriate even when you think they should know better.

In the end, students learn quickly which behaviors are important to us because they watch our every move.  We set the expectations and lay out the consequences, but they mean very little if we fail to follow through.  If we do not effectively execute the agreed upon consequences for unwanted behaviors like blurting out, we not only shape the behavior of the offender, but everyone else as well.  On the other hand, rewarding a student for desired behaviors will not only lead to repeated behaviors from that student, but it simultaneously trains the others.  Keep in mind that students also learn quickly from the moves we do NOT make.  Failing to recognize desired behaviors advertises to your students that these behaviors are not important which trains them to stop performing them.  Failing to model the desired behaviors can be equally detrimental.  For example, not showing respect to your students provides them with a powerful example which they are likely to follow.  Yes, I know…being a role model is hard work!  The most effective discipline is a purposeful, positive element of the classroom environment.  In other words, discipline is not just what happens when kids get in trouble.  Discipline should be happening constantly because it needs to be woven into the fabric of your culture.  Students should come to school with an expectation that there will be some discipline training going on today because it’s what we do.  As the leader and motivator in your classroom, you have the ultimate influence and responsibility to effectively train your students to create that ideal vision of classroom culture.  Training doesn’t require sarcasm or angry yelling.  All it takes is discipline…from everyone.

The Impact of a Teacher

All through my years as a student in public education there was one teacher who had the most powerful impact on my life.  It was my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Hogan.  On August 5th, HoganMrs. Hogan passed away at the age of 88.  The legacy she leaves behind is one of incredible inspiration, kindness, and grace.  As a teacher, she was definitely a master of the subjects she taught.  She obviously took the time to craft her lessons, making sure to include fun activities that grabbed our attention and kept it!  However, the impact Mrs. Hogan had on my life stretches far beyond academics.  Quite simply, Mrs. Hogan made me feel important and loved.  She constantly encouraged and inspired me to be better and to let my good qualities shine.  That wasn’t something that came naturally for me, but she made me feel like it was possible.

I make it no secret that I did not always enjoy school.  But I absolutely loved 3rd grade!  I can still remember the tadpoles we watched turn into frogs and the pet bird that she brought to the classroom.  Her read alouds were epic and I was always tuned in.  I recall one time where Mrs. Hogan was reading to the class and she really got into character.  She was so animated with her reading that she had to pause to make sure that the principal wasn’t coming to investigate the ruckus.  Like everything she did, we ate it up!  At the end of the year, Mrs. Hogan had each of us make a book of our best 3rd grade writing.  The book gave us a chance to showcase our work, but I think the real purpose was to provide our parents with a keepsake.  Wouldn’t you know it, that book became a keepsake for me instead (sorry Mom and Dad).  Now that I am a 3rd grade teacher, I keep that special book in my classroom.  My students love to read my writing from the time when I was their age.  I love to read the written feedback that Mrs. Hogan left for me 30 years ago.  That book is just one reminder of the special year I shared with her and the impact that she had on my life.

Two years ago I was back in my hometown in New Jersey, visiting many of the places that shaped my childhood.  I tend to be sentimental, so taking it all in was a powerful experience.  But the most powerful of them all was visiting Mrs. Hogan in the Hogan and Meghannursing home.  It had been almost 30 years since I was one of her 3rd graders, but she remembered exactly who I was.  We shared some great memories and unforgettable stories.  As I pushed her around in her wheel chair, I told her about the incredible impact she had on my life.  I also told her that I was now a 3rd grade teacher, trying to give my students the same blessings that she had given to me.  My sister was with me during that visit because she too was one of Mrs. Hogan’s 3rd graders back in the 80’s.  And believe it or not, my sister is also a 3rd grade teacher.  So there we sat, three 3rd grade teachers.  We reveled in the memories of one classroom with a beautiful history, while celebrating two classrooms attempting to carry on that legacy.  On one hand, I felt proud to talk about my role as a teacher.  On the other hand, I felt like a happy little kid whose teacher loved him.

Driving away from that nursing home, my heart was so full.  My whole family was in the car, and my mom decided to share one more story about Mrs. Hogan.  It turns out, that the year after I had Mrs. Hogan; my 4th grade teachers wanted to put me on medicine.  As any good parent does, my mom sought the advice from the teacher where I had found success.  Mrs. Hogan’s response was simple and firm.  She told my mom, “Don’t you dare let anyone put my Colin on meds!”  That settled it.  Period.  I can’t believe how much this wonderful lady actually cared about me.  She didn’t just know my reading ability or math skills.  She knew me.  And she loved me.  I’ll never forget how she called her class “Hogan’s Heroes.”  And that is certainly the way she made her students feel.  We all felt like heroes.  Ironically, it was Mrs. Hogan who was the hero all along.  Thank you Mrs. Hogan.  May you rest in peace knowing that you made many lives better, especially mine.  May we all be so lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Hogan.

They’re Not All Spoiled

CharacterThere is a lot of chatter out there about how today’s children are spoiled, lazy, and suffering from an epidemic known as entitlement.  While I must admit that I have witnessed evidence of these unflattering traits, it is unfair and unfounded to lop all children into this “me first” category.  Good people still exist in this world and many of them are children.  I have been a 3rd grade teacher for 16 years, so I have experienced a plethora of personalities overflowing from children eager to be a part of the world.  Whether my connection with each child is immediate or it takes some cultivating; it is my job to grow with each child while modeling and teaching appropriate behaviors and effective character traits.  However, to think that I am the only role model in my classroom would be short sighted.  The classroom is a small, yet diverse community in which all children participate and play an important role.  Quite often, the most valuable learning experiences that children encounter come from each other.  Children are not always able to label good character, but it is impossible for them to miss it when it happens.

Let me share a story with you about Sarah Grace.  It’s a simple situation really, but certainly not a typical display of character for a 9-year old.  In 3rd grade, learning the multiplication facts is a big deal so we spend a lot of time mastering them.  Our class was having a competition one day to see who could finish 100 multiplication facts with the fastest time.  To provide a little motivation, the students wanted me to write the names of the fastest three finishers on the board.  As students finished the problems, they would simply look up at me so I could make a note of their time.  Sarah Grace finished in a tie for third place with another girl.  It was not a surprise to see her finish so quickly because she really knows her facts.  Sarah Grace is super smart and works extremely hard!  Her name went on the board as she proudly smiled.  At this point in the year, most of the students are getting all the facts correct.  But we still check them to be sure.  While checking over the facts as a class, Sarah Grace raised her hand.  When I called on her she had tears in her eyes.  While trying to choke back her tears, she explained how she had accidentally skipped a row of multiplication facts on her paper.  She wanted me to erase her name off of the board so that her classmate could rightfully have the third place title to herself.  Now, you might think I’m making a bigger deal out of this than I should.  I am not.  First of all, in a world where kids get trophies for simply signing up for stuff; third place in a contest like this is a big deal.  But the most important thing here is the character displayed by Sarah Grace.  Not only did she choose to shine through an adverse situation, but she did it in front of the whole class.  It takes a fair amount of character to admit a mistake.  She showed courage that most adults don’t’ have when she admitted the mistake in front of the whole class.  She was honest even though she was the only one who knew that she skipped a row.  And she was fair because she made sure her classmate got the outright third place title that she deserved.  To be there in the moment with her absolutely touched my heart.  I made sure to capitalize on that teachable moment with my class.  We need more people like Sarah Grace in this world.

Boys shine too!  Christofer was one of my students whose character consistently made me proud this year.  One particular time happened on our annual field trip to the state capital of Columbia.  The educational purpose of the trip is to study the animals at the zoo and see where our state government works in the state house.  However, for most kids the highlight of the trip is at the zoo’s gift shop.  This is definitely where money burns holes in pockets.  So, while all of the children are running around looking for a way to spend all of their money, I try to help them estimate their purchases and make good choices.  I’m pretty successful with the former, not so much with the latter.  In the gift shop, I went over to check on Christofer.  He had talked all day about buying a stuffed animal and he was trying to figure out his money situation.  He picked out the one that he wanted, and calculated that he had just enough money.  Then he paused for a moment as if thinking about what he really wanted to do.  He looked at me.  Then he looked at his stuffed animal.  Then he looked at these much cheaper Lego animals that you could buy in a box and assemble.  Finally, he asks me if he has enough money to buy two of the Lego animals instead of the stuffed animal that he picked out.  When I told him that he did, he explained to me that he wanted to get the Legos so that he could have one and his little sister could have the other.  Again, maybe you had to be there with Christofer to truly appreciate the unselfishness of the moment.  Or maybe you just need to imagine what the 9-year old version of you would do.  Christofer knew what he wanted.  He had enough money for it.  But then something made him realize that he’d rather buy something for his sister than get the one thing he wanted all day.  Christofer was cool way before that moment.  But now he’s the kind of cool that I’ll remember forever.

So these stories may be simple, but they are genuine and unscripted.  They are stories from which everyone can learn and be inspired.  May they be reminders that wonderful children are in this world, already making an impact.  Christofer is a shining example of thinking about others and not just yourself.  He never got his stuffed animal and he is okay with that because he got something money can’t buy.  Sarah Grace reminds us that we should do the right thing even when it is difficult.  Her name never went back on the board for that contest, but she ended up with the highest average in every subject for the year.  I learn from children every day and I am constantly inspired by their generosity and huge hearts.  It’s no secret that the world can be a difficult place.  Life is not always easy, but the correct answers are out there to be found.  Good character can help navigate that journey on the path to finding your true significance.  Let’s remember to celebrate and cultivate good character in our children.  Investing in their character will pay off now and in the future.

Take My Recess, Not My Dignity

Colin Rork CoolidgeWhether good, bad, or ugly; every adult has memories of school.  Some have fond memories of a teacher who made an impact on their life.  Others look back with indifference at an educational process that was merely a requirement.  There are also those who simply did not like school.  That’s me.  Now I’m a teacher.  It was actually my dislike for school that evolved into my motivation to become a teacher.  I’m not complaining about too much homework, reading books that were chosen for me, or writing about topics that my teachers thought were cute.  With the “help” of my parents, I dismissed those overused excuses a long time ago.  The reason I did not like school has very little to do with academics, rigor, or requirements.  It has everything to do with the way I felt.  More specifically, my motivation for becoming a teacher has everything to do with the way my teachers made me feel.

When I began kindergarten, school was quite enjoyable.  My teacher would play the piano as we all marched around the room.  I loved centers because I could play with the blocks and use my imagination to build all sorts of structures.  It was so cool to be in the same school as my older sister.  From my perspective as a kindergartner, I felt like I had arrived in the real world of the big kids.  Life was good and I felt unstoppable!  But my feelings about school and about myself began to change when my teacher made me feel like a total loser in front of the class.

It was the end of the day and we were all lined up by the door, getting ready to go home.  It was some sort of special day where all of the kids in the class were bringing home a plant to their mom.  I don’t remember the type of plant, but I remember clearly how it sat neatly in the soil; packed perfectly in that small, plastic, black square in which plants are sold.  I couldn’t wait to give my mom the plant!  I held it carefully with my small, five-year old hands as I excitedly stood in line.  Behind me in line was a girl named Kate Phillips who lived on my street.  She also held her plant carefully.  I turned around to ask her if her mom would be excited to get a plant.  But as I turned to talk to her, my backpack hit her plant, knocking it to the floor.  The plastic potting square was now empty.  Dirt was all over the carpet and our shoes.  The plant looked hopeless and Kate was crying.  I felt awful!

I started to get down on the floor to clean up the damage.  But before I could move, my teacher’s voice froze me in my tracks.  She yelled my name with the same tone that moms use when they call their child by first and middle names.  All kids know that’s not good.  My instincts told me it was bad, and my body got tense.  The usual buzz in the air at dismissal time was abruptly muted and everyone turned to stare at me.  My teacher proceeded to yell at me for two minutes about how I was supposed to be careful.  She pointed to the pile of dirt on the floor and told me that it could only happen if I was fooling around.  She scolded me on how I ruined Kate’s day.  She announced that everyone was going to get a smiley face stamp on their hand except me.  She seemed to have a lot of spite towards me as she reminded me that I now had to explain to my mom why there was no stamp on my hand.  The way the scene unfolded, I was sort of left in the middle of all the spectators.  I was alone with the dirt.  It was fitting for the way that I felt.

After this happened, I never felt the same way about my kindergarten teacher.  At 5 years old, I realized that some adults are mean.  Some adults don’t take the time to understand.  Some adults are not actually on my side.  My eyes were opened to a scary new reality that teachers might misunderstand my intentions, disregard my heart, and hurt my feelings.  Knocking over the plant was an accident.  I was already embarrassed and wanted nothing more than to fix it.  Yet, my teacher piled on with the consequences and the verbal lashing.  What my kindergarten teacher never knew was that I walked home with Kate that day and gave her my plant on the way home.  I then went straight to my room and cried.  It was the kind of embarrassment that changed the relationship I thought I had with my teacher.

The rest of my elementary school years produced similar scenes and emotions.  When I was at school I felt unsuccessful and fragile.  I was nervous about fitting the mold that teachers liked.  I began to fear public humiliation as a consequence for not performing like the smart kids or behaving like the good kids.  Feelings of resentment towards my teachers grew stronger as I constantly stared down the reality of being one of the unchosen.  The problem was that I often did perform like the smart kids, but I didn’t know it.  My behavior was often respectable enough to rival the good kids, but I only received feedback when I messed up.  I had many shining moments as a student, but there was a consistent, underlying sense of betrayal that stayed with me throughout elementary school.  I was convinced that my teachers were not sincerely rooting for me.  At best, they were fair-weather fans who turned on me the moment I wasn’t winning.  I’ll never forget my feelings and emotions during those difficult times.

As my life progressed, I couldn’t wait to get away from school.  I remember asking my mom at about 9 years old if it was high school or college that was the optional school.  I wanted out as soon as possible!  But, sometimes in life your toughest struggle becomes your strongest motivation.  At some point in college I realized my unlikely, but powerful calling.  I began to believe that my struggle of emotions that buried me during elementary school had actually worked to prepare me.   Compassion is one thing, but difficult situations are entirely more relatable if you’ve experienced them.  It was too late to create a new school experience for me, but I was extremely motivated to become the teacher I always wanted.  I knew that I had to be the teacher that kids like me needed.

For the first time in my life, I studied with a purpose.  I earned my B.A. in Elementary Education in 2000 and followed it up a year later with a M.A. in Behavior Analysis.  After all, I knew that receiving detention in the 1st grade and repeatedly having my name written on the chalk board didn’t qualify me to become a teacher.  During my journey through elementary school, I felt overmatched and underappreciated.  But I was able to use my negative experience to shape my attitude, philosophy, and emotional approach to being a teacher.  It’s the reason I never yell at students.  It’s why I don’t write names on the board, flip cards, or have a poster that reminds everyone who is in trouble.  I don’t announce individual consequences in the hallway for everyone to hear.  When disciplining a child; I kneel or crouch to their level, use a soft voice, and always finish with positive.  Just like any relationship; disrespect creates distance, distrust, and dislike.  I know that I would have appreciated and responded better to discipline delivered with a little more respect and privacy.  Take my recess if you must, but don’t take my dignity.

savannahI root hard for my students and I make sure that they know it.  I reward effort and attitude with hugs, high-fives, smiles, and lots of praise.  I make it a point to use the kind of specific praise where students know exactly how they made a difference and why I’m such a big fan.  I remind students that mistakes are part of life.  If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not working hard enough.  Through the life lessons, the teachable moments, and the struggles; I feel it is essential to remain calm and approachable.  There, in itself, lies one of the most important examples I can provide for my students.  They may not always be shining their brightest, but I will never turn on them.  I strive to build confidence through encouragement in an emotionally safe environment.  For kids, there is an amazing freedom of expression and exploration when you know that someone supports you in this way.  I work with a lot of caring teachers who treat their students like they would treat their own children.  I don’t have any kids of my own, so I treat my students the way I wish my teachers had treated me.  It’s about forming the type of relationship with my students that I so badly needed when I was just like them.

Classroom Technology is More than Games

DSC_0632If you are in a classroom that uses 1:1 mobile devices, I hope you have experienced an amazing transformation in the way that students and teachers are able to participate in learning.  In my 15 years of teaching, nothing has changed my perspective and approach more than the moment when my students all received their own personal i-Pad.  I have heard a lot of tech experts talk about how important it is to be a paperless classroom.  While this is a novel and green idea, that’s not my goal.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have definitely printed fewer documents and I have mad love for the environment.  But my daily goal is to harness the power of technology in order to enhance the way my students learn, share, and explore in my classroom.  Whether your classroom has i-Pads, chrome books, or BYOD; the potential for a revolutionary change in learning exists!

With the help of the i-Pad, I am able to explore pathways of communication that were previously unavailable.  One of my favorite relevant apps is edmodo.  It is like Facebook for the classroom and it is definitely our home base.  I use it to post directions, assignments, links, files, electronic quizzes, pictures, and videos.  The difference maker, however, is that students are also able to make posts.  With edmodo, I can ask a question to the class and everyone can answer at once.  The important thing here is that everyone can answer.  As the teacher, it is my job to find out what my students know.  Asking a question and simply calling on a few students until I hear the answer I’m looking for is superficial and ineffective feedback.  Providing a quick, efficient method for all students to participate provides me with a greater insight into what each student can do.  It makes it possible for me to plan more effective lessons because I know where each student needs me to guide them.

Allowing students to post on edmodo also levels the playing field.  As a former student, I know that in most classrooms it was easy to hide during lessons if I just kept quiet.  My experience as a teacher has shown me that the shy student who never raises his hand to answer a question suddenly finds his voice on a mobile device.  Since edmodo chats are electronic, I also have a record of students’ answers.  This  allows me to go back later and “review the tape” in order to analyze performance.  Teachers worried about students simply copying an answer that has already been posted can adjust the setting s to moderate all posts.  To be honest, I haven’t had that issue in my classroom, but I get that question a lot.  What I’ve witnessed is that students feed off of each other and it leads to some magnificently engaging, electronic discussions.  After all, I do not want my students to simply know the answer.  I want them to demonstrate learning by being able to talk about it.

Mobile devices have enabled me to considerably change the way I assess my students.  Using the socrative app, students can take quizzes and immediately receive feedback.  I consider myself to be a quick grader by returning assignments and tests the next day.  But I simply cannot compete with immediate results.  Technology wins.  I still give old-fashioned tests with paper and pencil.  But by consistently embedding short socrative quizzes in my lessons, I am able to plan more effectively and better meet the needs of my learners.  I can differentiate my teaching because I know the specific needs of my students in real time, before I continue.  The icing on the cake is that my students usually think we are playing a game when using socrative.  I obviously don’t mind.  Socrative also stores results for each student which can be accessed at any time.  In other words, pull them up at conference time or copy and paste them into your grade book for a minor assessment.

Edmodo is also great for assessment.  My 3rd graders learn quickly how to access files, write comments, and post pictures and videos in edmodo.  Students can post videos of themselves performing a task, reading for fluency, or explaining how they solved a math problem.  Students can post pictures of science projects, completed word sorts, or multi-step math problems that require drawings.  These methods lend themselves to being more authentic and revealing than a multiple choice or short response test.  One such example occurred when my students were studying the properties of shapes.  I wanted to see where they stood in their understanding of squares.  My task was for them to find a square in the classroom, take a photo, and post it to edmodo with a description of what makes it a square.

Some students nailed it.  Others were missing information about right angles.  Others still forgot to mention 4 equal sides.  Not only did I know who knew what, but I was able to pair up students who mentioned sides, but forgot angles with students who did the opposite.  They compared pictures and words and there were a lot of “oh yeah, that’s right” kind of moments.  Not only that, they were teaching each other. Win-win!

Nika squareMy favorite evidence of knowledge from that activity came from the girl who found a square, photographed it, and then said she really wasn’t sure.  On a multiple choice test, she could have very easily gotten it correct.  She knew what a square looked like, but her depth of knowledge ended there.  Her picture and caption helped me understand exactly where she and I needed to go next in her learning journey.

I love collaboration and discussions in my classroom, especially when students are leading the way.  So, during math lessons I often ask my students to work in groups to solve word problems or multi-step problems.  I give them paper and markers because they still love these supplies.  They talk it out, work out the problem, and show all their work.  Since they’re using markers, they get into it with the drawings and explanations.  Then one member of the group takes a picture of the finished product and posts it to the edmodo feed I began specifically for this task.  As a class we are then able to view every groups’ response in my edmodo feed displayed on the SMART board.  Right away.  Together.  Large!  It is big enough for all to see it easily and we can also continue to write on it.  The discussion continues about each one, and I can even leave a comment.  For the paperless fans, I guess it helps me save on my chart paper.  But the idea here is that we save time trying to stick it to the wall somewhere and we are able to view it even larger on the screen.  There is also an added element of excitement due to the fact that students are taking a picture which shows up on the screen.  It also saves the work to be viewed again later because it is in everyone’s edmodo feed.

groupThe use of mobile technology has infiltrated the environment of my classroom and I love it.  It’s not about adding an app to the end of a lesson or playing a game to review.  It’s about changing the way things are done.  My students are so familiar with mobile devices that they even make lunch choices electronically using the socrative app.  My star students showcase their items and pictures with their own classflow lesson.  Sometimes I even give directions without saying a word by merely holding up a little sign with the edmodo label on it.  Paper still exists, but technology is alive and gaining momentum.  Feedback is immediate.  Communication is constant.  Students are engaged and empowered!