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In What State is your Plate? Teacher Tips to Keep it Together!

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I was just reflecting on a journal entry I wrote recently. “Why do I come home from work feeling undone everyday, even though I love my job?”

It might be the plight of every dedicated schoolteacher in the world. (Notice the term, “dedicated.”)

Or, it might just be because I have no idea what I am doing!

I really hope it’s not because of that. (Smile here.)

Recently, I had a friend say to me (We’ll call her Bettie… because that is, in fact, her name), “Your life is like a paper plate. But instead of a nice, sturdy Chinette plate, your plate is from the dollar store. It’s paper thin and flimsy. And your commitments are like heaping piles of hot food. You just keep piling more on. Yes to burgers. Yes to fries. Yes to that… thing, whatever it is. I mean, I can’t tell by looking at it, but I’ll say… YES! Then you say yes to… GRAVY!!! You pour that over the steaming hot pile of food, aka commitments, and the plate is heavy, the gravy is greasy, and eventually that paper starts to tear apart. That’s when things ‘fall through the cracks’.” Ah, my brilliant friend Bettie! (I love her.)

Notice Bettie didn’t just mention to me the food on my plate, but she started with THE plate.

It’s paper.

It’s thin.

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It’s not going to stand the test of time and commitments. Doggone it!

I think there are thousand questions that I, personally, can dig into that analogy and ask of it.

Why is my plate not quality? I mean, that’s the foundation of my life, right?

What are the piles of food I plop on it? And do I do so haphazardly? Letting all of the foods mix and mingle together? Sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy, are they all getting mixed up? (This might explain why I feel confused often.) Because if they are all mixed up then, well, most of the time it’s just pretty gross.

I wouldn’t want a Waldorf salad to be mixed in with my mashed potatoes and gravy. That wouldn’t taste good and it wouldn’t “go down” well, either! In fact, I might even gag.

With all the great places the analogy can go, let me focus in this one blog entry on the big question for this particular venue… what does it mean to me as an educator? Why do I come home at the end of the day feeling undone, even though I love my job? What are the commitments I’m piling on my plate everyday? More importantly, WHAT is the gravy? Because whatever that is, I need to avoid it!

The Plate

It is the foundation of your teaching experience, and thus the experience of your emerging life-long learners as well. It needs to be Chinette! Or even, it needs to be china. Let’s face it; no gravy is going to break down china.

Making the Plate Sturdy:

In my vast 4 years of teaching experience (I know, that’s funny, right?) I would say that there are a few things you can do that ensure your plate is made from solid materials.

Organizing That Which is Required of You
Organize Your Day

First, be organized. Oh, this is sooooo hard for the disorganized person! I have a worksheet that use every day, which I adapted from the wonderful Anne Vosskamp. She has a daily planner page that is well, brilliant. I took it and morphed it for the classroom. Thank you Ann! (click here for your own free copy)

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The “Classroom Daily” has these sections:

  1. The Day’s Dire– only 2 slots for this (I’ll explain more later*)
  2. The Definite– Emails! Because you really just can’t avoid them, unless you let your email box get so full it’s out of memory and yes, I’ve heard that excuse. Teacher A to me, “I couldn’t respond to your email because I have too many pictures in my email box and so it won’t let me send anymore email.” Um, really? Can you get pictures on your personal email? You know, so that you can use your work email for well, WORK?
  3. Duty- It’s a checkbox. The idea being that you fill out tomorrow’s Classroom Daily before you leave at the end of the current day. Checking that little box will remind you that you have duty tomorrow. You’re welcome.
  4. Meetings- because you can’t avoid them and in this profession you have more than you ever dreamed possible!!! CFO? Account Manger? You people have NOTHING on us teachers when it comes to meetings. (Principals have more, no doubt.)
  5. To Do- in Franklin Covey style, you’ll move your daily “to do’s” that you didn’t get to from one day to the next… just to keep them before your eyes. And you know how it goes, if you procrastinate an item long enough, it does often go away on its’ own!
  6. The Day’s Draft- with time slots so you can quickly jot down WHEN you are going to call that parent and WHEN your meeting is and WHEN you plan on making copies, etc.
  7. Notes- take them. They will save your bacon from time to time.
  8. Coming Up- to write down whose birthday is this week, what you might to have face tomorrow… stuff like that.

    I have my local copy store make a stack of these babies and glue them together in a nice little notepad! What a deal, right? And, you might even have them be a color so that they are easy to spot. Everyday before I leave I take 5 minutes to fill out tomorrow’s plan. IT WORKS. Do it.

 

*The Two Slot Day’s Dire– a brilliant principal I once had used to say this to me all the time and it saved my life my first year of teaching, “Decide on two things you have to do today… TWO. Do those. Go home.”

 

YES! Repeat after me:

 

Decide on TWO THINGS I have to do today.

DO those TWO THINGS.

GO HOME.

 This is your “2 Do” to do mantra… make it work!

Organize Your Space– there is not much to write on this except that it is so important and so personal. I comb through Pinterest for ideas. I find the most important pieces of organization for me are:

  1. An inbox where EVERYTHING from my teacher mailbox goes. Period. And do not let anyone else take anything out of your teacher mailbox. I mean, come on, that workroom mailbox is part of the organization of your brain, right?! ELD scores? Oh yea, still in my mailbox. Duty schedule? Still in my mailbox. Materials I ordered from Scholastic? Still in my mailbox…

    Then, the inevitable happens… someone, out of the goodness of their heart, takes all of my stuff out of my mailbox and takes it where? MY CLASSROOM! Oh no! All that stuff is now lost in the abyss! At least when I it was in my mailbox in the workroom, I KNEW where it was!

    Yea, don’t be like me, and rely on the teacher workroom mailbox to organize your teacher life.

    Bad idea.

    Bad.

    Make a real physical “inbox” and put it on your desk.

    Mantra 2. Repeat it:

    Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox. Mailbox to inbox.

  2. Mon – Friday bins. I got this idea from Pinterest. I use stand up magazine holders. Each one is labeled. This has worked great for me and my classroom aides. If they copy a worksheet we are using on Tuesday, I don’t even have to ask. They bring it to the room and instead of putting it on a surface somewhere in the abyss; they put it in the “Tuesday” magazine holder. Brilliant!
  3. Classroom Aide/Volunteer Inboxes- yep, I’m that teacher. When my parent volunteer comes in to do Friday folders she doesn’t have to ask. All that PTA paperwork, etc. is in her box and a stapler is conveniently located next to it. She just gets to work. She puts all that lovely paper in the students’ inboxes (yes, they have inboxes, too!) all stapled and ready to go. From my teacher mailbox to her inbox. It’s beautiful!
  4. Student Work- simple and easy. Hanging file folder system to sit on a classroom surface. Each file folder is labeled with a student name/number. When something is completed (aka worksheet) and ready to go home, have the child “file it” in his/her file folder. On Friday while my students are at recess I pull each stack of papers from each file, browse it, make sure everything has a check mark indicating I have seen it, and I staple and put it where? In the student’s INBOX. It’s ready to go home and it’s all there and nothing has been thrown in the trash or lost in a backpack.

Organize Your Student’s Week-  This is all about the teacher bulletin. Click here for a copy of mine (email me if you want that in *.doc form for editing).

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This bulletin does A LOT of great things:

  • Gives students a chance to share what they learned in class that week
  • Documents work ethic and behavior
  • Allows me to write a note
  • Spelling pre-test and post-test scores
  • A joke to lighten the mood (I let kids contribute the jokes, they love this)
  • And very importantly, notifies parents of upcoming events.

That’s the biggest thing. Parents need to know. Trust me, it will make your life a bit easier.

And even though I put things in the student’s daily planners and forms go home, well, these are kids. Things get lost. And, you know that abyss of a classroom you have? Well, backpacks are also the abyss. And some of your kids go home to a paperwork abyss… you know the little darlings who can’t organize their way out of a paper bag? Well, that fruit does not fall far from the tree sometimes.

So, help your student’s upcoming week be better organized by a Parent Bulletin. I know what you are thinking… sometimes the bulletin doesn’t get read either. But, half of your parents will read it and if the bulletin doesn’t get written one week someone will ask for it, letting you know how much they appreciate it. It’s just a good idea!

 More, more, more organization!

Admittedly, there are a thousand more things to address when talking classroom organization; curriculum, supplies, calendar, events, etc.

This, dear teacher-reader, was just the tip of the iceberg, as you well know!

I may, or may not, ever get around to writing a post just on organization because, frankly, I’m not that organized. I’m no expert believe me.

But, let’s get back to “the plate”

 

Let the Plate Breath

I am sorry. I cannot.

Mantra 3. Repeat: I’m sorry. I cannot. I’m sorry, I cannot. I’m sorry. I cannot.

Hmmm… depending the size of your plate, the amount of food on your plate and what your plate is made of, you might want to practice the following:

Someone needs help with the talent show? I’m sorry. I cannot.

Someone needs a teacher to lead up After School Patrol? I’m sorry. I cannot.

A parent asks you for ANOTHER meeting? I’m sorry. I cannot.

Use discretion, obviously. Haven’t helped the PTA at all? Not once ALL YEAR? Might be time to say yes. BUT, look at your schedule. Probably not best to say yes to an event during your planning/pulling off Colonial Days. Probably not best to agree to host the Volunteer Breakfast if report cards are due that week (Heaven help you if your admin is planning the volunteer breakfast during report cards!).

And OF COURSE with parents be reasonable. If it’s the parent who has sent you 50 emails in 6 months and you have respectfully answered every single one, believe me it’s probably okay to say no. (Unless of course they’ve asked for an assessment in writing or something legal like that!)

Let your plate breath… meaning there must be room between the pile of mashed potatoes and the pile of green beans. Remember, you’ve got to eat and swallow all of that food! (I hope you like it… that stuff you’ve allowed on your plate.)

I’m not saying only do exactly what is expected and no more. Who wants that teacher for their kid? Not I! But don’t be a doormat either (or in this case the dollar store plate)… “Oh, Mrs. So and So will say yes, she always says yes.”

Don’t be that teacher this year.

Learn to say no based on the scientific evidence of what is actually on your plate and what is being served up next. Yes, I said “scientific”… provable. In other words, things that are required to do your job effectively get put on the plate first. That gravy? Well, think twice. If you have room and you want to and it’s reasonable, go for the gravy. But if the plate is loaded and you are tired then the gravy is just going to make the plate crumble, and without your plate what do you have? A teacher out on disability for mental stress. We don’t want that because we love teaching!

Ask for Help

I spent the first few years never asking for help. Then, last year, I had an available parent and I asked her to help with Friday Folders.

First of all, I made a terrific friend. What a great lady!

Second, I cannot express the load it took from me to NEVER EVER EVER worry about getting all the paperwork out of my mailbox, collated, stapled and put into Friday Folders. She was here every single week. She was trained on that first Friday of the school year and off she went. And, on occasion, this darling mom would show up with COFFEE for my classroom aides and me. The last day of school she brought us a home cooked meal that was out of the world, crazy good!

The point being, though, is I didn’t realize how a little thing like Friday Folders could add to my stress and workload even though it seemed to be a small thing.

A small task taken over and managed by a parent volunteer becomes a HUGE task when it is taken off of your plate. (That is a pull quote from me!)

Yes, my classroom aides (Special Day Class Staff) could have done it. But they were teaching just as much as I. And all day long they were picking up the things I was dropping… so it was a huge blessing for them as well that this parent came in and took over Friday Folders.

Huge blessing.

Ask for help.

Make the Plate Purdy (I know, I misspelled pretty… it was for emphasis.)
If you are the creative type, then by all means make the plate beautiful! Sometimes the biggest sigh of relief is when I, or my students, or we are making something in the classroom. Don’t overlook the science experiment, art project, Colonial Days or a field trip because that all sounds likes MORE to put on your plate (unless, of course, it is actually “more”).

Get creative!

Get outside of the box… or off the plate if you will.

Every once in a while we would just put all of our stuff away and make things… color pictures, cut out construction paper, MAKE PAPER AIRPLANES. Oh yea… airplane party!

I could feel the stress ebb away when involved in creative tasks with my students.

But, that’s what floats my boat; so if you are not the creative type, ask yourself what it is that helps your teacher stress ebb away. Shared reading? Writing? Playing the “Quiet Game?” PE?

Go for it.

Differentiate your plate!

Break it up (the day, not the plate)… make it different… make it yours.

A New Year, A New Plate

I’m going to try to not be undone everyday when I get home from work this fall. I’m going to delegate more, create more, and plan/schedule more, and say “no” more, so that in the flow of the day in my classroom I can find small moments of refreshment.

Time for another Bettie Metaphor: You are sponge.

You go to the work in the morning with your sponge full of water because you rehydrated the night before with all the things you enjoy doing. But as soon as you hit the door, people start squeezing your sponge. Every squeeze dries you out more. Then you get home, collapse on the couch, remote in hand, order takeout and ignore your spouse and kids.

Oh wait! I’m talking about ME here! You probably never do that!

Anyway, as with the plate (don’t pile on too much), don’t let the sponge get dry either. I have a coworker who went around banging on 4th/5th/6th grade doors last year and said, “Why am I the only one in the teacher’s lounge at lunch? Get out of your rooms and eat lunch with me!”

I’m SO glad I did. I looked forward to those 30 minutes times of lunch everyday. I know they helped me maintain balance during hectic seasons. I ONLY thought I had to work through lunch but I did not. Ever. Never again.

I’m going to keep my plate reasonable, fashionable and sturdy. I will not be a dollar store plate this year and I’m pretty sure I’ll be passing on the gravy!

In what state is your plate? What kind of plate do you carry? What kind of food do you pile on? What is the one food item you cannot say no to?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

 

An Orange Marmalade Christmas

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Several years ago I turned my beautiful friend, Cathleen, on to the Mitford series written by Jan Karon. If you’ve never read the series about the delightful Father Tim, you really must. When my friend Stephanie gave me book one, she said, “give it 80 pages.” Well, I didn’t need 80 pages. I had just finished a series on the apocalypse, so the light, refreshingly comical and sincerely poignant characters of Mitford were just what I needed!  I’ve read the entire series twice and some books a third time (Because you know, heading out the airport, so you grab an old favorite off of the shelf and stuff it in your carry on. 4 hours later, you’ve read it for a third time or fourth time!)

Anyway, I gave my friend Cathleen the first book for her birthday. Her husband emailed me a few days later, “Cathleen is on her way to Montana to see family. She asked me to tell you that she loves the book and she has instructed me to go online and order the rest of the books for her so she will have them up on her return home.” Yep…I knew she would love Mitford!

So, that Christmas I wanted to do something special for Cathleen but struggled to find the right gift. Then it dawned on me… Cathleen treated sweets very carefully. Being a very healthy and successful lifestyle coach, she only had sweets once in a while; birthdays, holidays, etc.  And when she had a sweet, she HAD  sweet… none of this hold the whip! She enjoyed every moment of her indulgence. So, I knew that for a very special day like Christmas, a sweet it had to be. And not just any sweet… it had to be…

Edith Mallory’s Orange Marmalade Cake!

A quick search online yielded the famous recipe from one of Jan Karon’s most adorable characters, Edith Mallory.  In the stories, Edith is known for creating this masterpiece… and for baking many at a time… and her famed cake almost put the hero of the series 6 feet under with a terrible sugar coma (Father Tim is diabetic). The cake is legendary to Mitford and it’s gentle readers.

So, I baked the cake. I managed to put a flower of some sort on top of it and put it in a clear plastic cake box.  But I couldn’t just “give” Cathleen an orange marmalade cake. I mean… I had to do something else to make it even more special, right? I wanted her to KNOW it was Edith’s cake. So, I did the unthinkable.  I actually wrote Cathleen a letter from Edith Mallory to go with the cake. Why is that unthinkable? Well, because no one can write Edith Mallory like the incomparable Jan Karon. But, I had to try.

So, that night before the cake was revealed I gave Cathleen her gift. A simple, handwritten note.  She opened it and began to read aloud. (I wish I could put my hands on my copy of the letter but I have no idea where to find it. Should I actually find it some day I’ll update this post with it.) Anyway, I remember that it went something like this:

Dear Mrs. Frank,  

I cannot tell you how delighted I am that you have come to live in Mitford.  The cottage on the corner of Church Street has been vacant far too long for my liking. I wondered when anyone would ever have the courage to take over the crazy rhodendron!  I like what you have done with the yard so far, and I can’t wait to see the rose beds in Spring.

Lord’s Chapel is blessed to have you as a congregant. Though, I’m not sure why you sit on the pentecostal side, but I understand to each his own, and all that.  Wasn’t that Christmas potluck a humdinger?  Did you make the Swedish meatballs? I thought those were wonderful, but could never figure out who brought them.  I had plenty of that, as well as Father Tim’s scrumptious ham.  I heard that you make amazing Heavenly Cranberry Oatmeal Bars. Will you be making those for the Primrose Tea? I’m partial to a lemon square, myself, but something with oatmeal can’t be half bad.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. I don’t know how I have time to write such a lengthy note whilst there are Orange Marmalades to bake and deliver! Which brings me to the purpose of this letter.  Please accept this Christmas gift of one of my Orange Marmalade Cakes (… cue my husband Todd, who walks around the corner with an Orange Marmalade Cake)… I originally made it for Lew Boyd, but I dare say he seriously overcharged me for a break job a few weeks ago, and well, I’m not over it. Anyway, this cake is lovingly yours. Enjoy.

Sincerely,

Edith Mallory

As Todd rounded the corner of the kitchen with Edith Mallory’s Orange Marmalade Cake in hand, Cathleen started to cry.   I can’t remember if had EVER before (or since) given a gift that evoked such emotion. I was surprised and touched.  She went on to say that it had been a very hard Christmas (no, I had not known that) and she felt like her holiday had somehow been hyjacked and that she was feeling so tired and grieved upon arriving at our home.  And that this gift… this cake… made her feel that Christmas was restored.  She too, had fallen in love with Mitford. And this cake- this little thing- made her feel connected to something and someone she loved.  Imagine that a gift so simple could make someone feel restored.  Wow.

And then… WE ATE CAKE! HA!

Oh yes, she didn’t want to “save” it for Christmas day or home… she wanted to eat it right then and there, to share it with us. That is Cathleen’s beautiful style. And so, we ate cake. And yes, it was AMAZING!

Many years have passed since the “Cake Christmas Eve”.  And, actually, I do not spend time with Cathleen now. Not for any reason whatsoever that has to do with anything, but simply because life has moved us on to different places, and so being together is not easily accomplished nowadays. And that’s okay. I still feel deeply connected to her and her family. I would still bake her an Orange Marmalade Cake in a heartbeat if she asked me to. I miss her, but I know our lives are going in two different directions and some day we will reconnect, as true friends always do.

But, back to that gift.  What I wrote a few paragraphs back grabbed me… “Imagine a gift so simple that can make one feel restored.” Well, no need to imagine it.  

A simple gift…

a tiny baby…

in a manger.  

He was sent to give us life. To bring us restoration to God. A simple gift CAN and WILL restore.

All you have to do is receive the baby.

Receive Jesus.  

He can and will give you back what you have lost. That’s His promise.

“He was a wise man and a king,
adorned in finest gem,
Yet he travelled from the East
through the desert to Bethlehem.
And as he knelt before the baby,
He knew that what he saw,
Was the very presence of our God
Lying in the stall.”
(Natalie Jager, Christmas Poem, 1997)

Christmas, 2013

Miley Cyrus- You are Loved

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Dear Miley,

I don’t know how many people know your given name is Destiny Hope Cyrus, and that Miley Cyrus truly is just the name of the girl on the Disney show.   Destiny. Hope. What a GREAT name. I think you should use it all the time, not just on your birth certificate and at family gatherings. It’s beautiful. Just like you.

So, Destiny Hope, I have to admit that after I heard the buzz I (I’m a news junkie of sorts) had to go to YouTube and check out your vid. And, I must admit again, that I, too, added a comment here or there on a few Facebook pages that were NOT to your credit. Please forgive me for that. I’m opinionated and well, I enjoy tossing my hat into the rhetoric ring once in a while.   The next day I began to really think about you, and the performance, and I realized that I had been participating in the UGLINESS (Yea, that rhetoric FB ring thing). As I said, I’m sorry about that, young lady. You are free to be who you are as a human being, an artist and a woman, without judgment from me.

I realized upon later reflection after my two FB posts that I had been looking at you through eyes veiled with judgment, when I really should have been looking through my “Momma Eyes” and my “Artist Eyes.”  See, I’m a mom of a 23-year-old man who has a 23-year-old girlfriend who is part of the family. Many of my closest friends are moms to girls just your age… with dreams just as big.  Young women trying, like you, to find their way in this big, crazy, fast-paced, over-sexed, over-commercialized, over-technical world. YIKES. It’s way scarier out there for you today than it was for me in 1987, for sure!

And, I’m an artist. Though now I teach special education to 10-year olds, once upon a time I earned a vocal performance degree from a university in Oklahoma. I had BIG dreams of making it BIG as a singer.  But now I find so much more joy in teaching little struggling readers and writers how to read and write. I just do the “music thing” on the side… weddings, funerals, etc. And, I have been a voice teacher for over 20 years. I’ve heard a few voices here and there!  I do consider myself an expert, by the way. 🙂

So, let me start out (sorry for that seriously loooooooong introduction to my boring self) seeing you through my artist eyes.  When you were Hannah Montana, your show was on regularly in my home. Guess what? My then 17-year-old and then 3-year-old were not the ones watching! Nope. I was. That’s right… a 39-year-old Momma tuned in every week to catch your cute little antics and hear your adorable voice.  As a voice teacher I knew this was only the beginning for you vocally. I thought, “Wow. A young singer with that much going for her vocally is going to have a long career.” And I meant it. And I would say that you today, still. Your voice has a wonderful, dramatic (and even edgy) timbre to it. I love that about your voice.  I would LOVE to hear you letting your voice SHINE just as it is; a little raspy, a little sweet, a little sultry. Your voice is COOL, girlie.  And you know where I’m going here… you don’t need all the theatrics to be successful with your VOICE. It’s very good. Use it. Enjoy it. Don’t thrash it. Please don’t waste it.  It’s a GREAT voice!

Now, through my Momma eyes. I’m not the mom of girls, but I am a girl, so at least I have that going for me here.  I am SO glad that the Internet was NOT part of my 20’s. I shudder to think of what I would have done or said online or in a video that might have UNDONE me. Sadly, we’ve seen that recently, haven’t we?  Young, innocent girls going out to parties to have a little fun… drink too much (of course, I ask why are underage kids drinking at parties, but I know that’s rhetorical at best)  and the next day there are pictures of them having sex with boys posted all over the Internet while they (the girls) are passed out. In at least two of those cases, those girls are gone. They’ve committed suicide. So tragic. So horrifying that people use the Internet for such selfish horrific acts of violence and then those they damage end up dead.  “Tragic” hardly describes it.

And so via this amazing thing called the Internet, I caught your “act”. And guess what? This middle-aged southern Momma could not see the art. I couldn’t find it anywhere.  It made me sad.  It just seemed so “not right” on so many levels. I saw this woman who is beautiful offering her gift to world as something entirely not beautiful (at least in my view).  Your mannerisms were odd, your face contorted and it was so dark and well, creepy (and maybe that’s what you were going for).  It looked like you were offering yourself to the world as an innocent lamb to the slaughter… as if you were saying, “I’m a slave to this crazy world of Hollywood, false glamour and money and I’m here not to take what I have earned by all my hard work, but to offer myself as a sacrifice on this vile alter of sex and greed and fear and desperation.”  I know that sounds judgmental and harsh. I do not mean it to be so. You are LOVELY.  Be LOVELY. Act LOVELY.  I want to hear your great voice and see your amazing talent and yes, I want it to be LOVELY. I realize I don’t know you… I have no idea how you see yourself. But, I hope that you can or do see yourself as I, a completely detached stranger, have seen you for many years, as a treasure.

Now, just in case you need to hear it,  I just really wanted to remind you that under all the publicity and negative attention, you are loved.

Sincerely,

Natalie Jager

Tea With Me

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I have a few different behavioral management techniques in place in my classroom. Teaching With Love & Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk is really the basis (along with all the great behavioral classes I’ve taken over the years) for my approach. The focus is on shared responsibility in the classroom and delivering consequences with compassion.  Knowing my students and letting them know that I know them goes a long a way. You can read more about that in my post The Top Ten Things.  

As my year progressed last year, as with every year actually, I had to change up the positive behavior support just a bit. I think the kids like it when I keep it interesting!  So, about two-thirds of the way through our year last year I instituted a new “thing”… Tea With Me!

Tea With Me is a positive behavior support in which I choose a different student to, you guessed it, have tea with me!  Typically, I draw a name from my stick box and that student gets to have tea with me. When I arrive in my classroom  in the morning I brew the tea. I put it in a very pretty little tea pot and I have cute little tea cups in cute colors and a special plate for our breakfast cookies!  

ImageWhen: First thing in the morning!  As my other students are sitting at their desks doing their morning work, the Tea Student gets to skip the morning work and come sit with me for tea.

What: I teach the student how to “serve” me the tea. They love that!  They choose the tea cup saucer/color they want and then hand me my cup. Then they pour the tea. I also teach them how to appropriately offer me a breakfast cookie. The breakfast cookie can be anything I happen to have on hand… cookies or granola bars cut in half, etc.  The Dollar Tree in my town has actually very good, wholesome cookies for a buck!  So it doesn’t cost a lot to add the “breakfast cookie” and well, they think it’s very special. I also buy decorative napkins at the dollar store or from the sale bin at my local party store.  They think the special napkins are also great!

The Talk: What do we talk about at Tea With Me? Whatever the student has on his/her mind.  We do not talk about behavior or performance.  We talk about anything else, though. Often they direct the convo to sports, movies, siblings, parents, etc. And yes, sometimes something comes up that makes me aware of things going on at home. It’s very valuable information and helps me know where my student is “at” not on just that day but in that “season”.

Do you know what I’ve noticed about you?  This is the question I got from the Fay/Funk text.  They call it the One Sentence Intervention.  I weave the one sentence intervention into every single day for all of my kids, but I try to make sure to touch on it at Tea With Me.  The student might say something about going camping or something and I’ll say, “You know, i’ve noticed that about you… that you like to go camping.” That’s all you have to do. If you use those words, “I’ve noticed something about you…” it goes a LONG way in building that relationship with that child.

Clean Up is Special, too!  After “Tea” the student cleans up… they love doing this! I get our morning greeting time started while the student goes and does the dishes. I don’t know if they like this because they get to play in the dishwater, or because they get to do something different than what everyone else does, but it doesn’t matter.  They love it. It’s a GREAT way to start the day!

In the course of Tea with Me, all of my students got to have tea with me twice. And you know if I forgot a day they let me know about it!  And, I have successfully converted 3 hot tea drinkers!  One of my boys will drink 2 cups of tea (raspberry herbal tea).  I told his mom that and she said, “What? My son drinks HOT tea? Amazing!” So, it not only encourages the student/teacher relationship, but helps build social skills and broadens the student’s culinary horizons. It’s a win/win/win!!!!

What can you do that is special to you, which can become special to your students, too? I’m always drinking tea in class. They all knew long before I started Tea With Me that I was a hot tea drinker. I think this makes even more impact… “Mrs. Jager is including me in something she loves.”  Perhaps none of them think this, or maybe some do, or they all do they just don’t know it, I’m not sure, but I know that Tea With Me was very impacting in the ongoing development of my relationships with my students. I will definitely be doing this next year, too!  Oh wait… next year? I mean next month… it’s almost here! 2 more weeks!

Student At a Glance

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Student At a Glance- Maintaining a Positive Note at the IEP Meeting

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I am a parent of a student on an IEP. I have sat across the table at at least 10 IEP meetings for Q (my beautiful child with said IEP). He had the same teacher for 7 of those 10 IEP meetings. At our first meeting together she began the meeting with the PLOP (Present Levels of Academic Performance). I’ll never forget what she wrote about him in the very first section, which highlighted his strengths, “Q is a very handsome and sweet boy…” to paraphrase she went on to describe his love of Thomas the Train, Hot Wheels, his determination to always be the “leader” and his affectionate ways toward his teachers. I was SO touched that this woman (at that time a stranger to me) thought my kid was “very handsome” and “sweet”. The fact that she knew his likes let me know she was paying attention… and that thing about leadership? Well, that was a nice way of saying he was a bossy, challenging, pain-in-the-bottom handful!  I knew that, but I didn’t care. I LOVED the positive spin!

As a parent, especially in those early years when we didn’t really know what we were dealing with in the way of a bona fide disability, the IEP meetings were pretty scary to me. Only after 1st grade (his 4th IEP) did I begin to head into the meetings with confidence that he wouldn’t be belittled and I wouldn’t be judged for being a bad mother (I was not an educator at that time).  Of course, as educators we know that we should not, and hopefully do not, pass judgments on our parents and if we struggle with that, well an official school meeting is not the place to make such thoughts known.  Actually, if you honestly judge your parents in the recesses of your mind it is best to leave the judgment there, or confide it only in someone completely removed from the school district, classroom and your social circles.

As an educator I have probably now led about 30 IEP meetings (that’s a drop in the bucket to a 25 year educator who has probably lead 2500 meetings). At my meetings have been advocates, parents, grand parents, guardians, siblings, translators, family counselors and district leaders.  I’ve had a few meetings wherein no one came to represent the student.   30 IEP meetings do not make me an expert, but I think being a parent gives me a specific insight. So, when I set out to set up my IEP meetings, I followed the wonderful example of my son’s teacher of several years (Kristin Jacobson, the BEST teacher ever) and then added my own spin. Here’s my advice:

Be Positive!  FIRST and foremost keep it positive.  There may be disheartening news you have to share. If you can find a way, share it in a positive light. I try to avoid the words, “no, not, does not” in IEP meetings.  Instead of saying “he does not do” I might say, “He struggles with…”. These are basic diplomatic skills.  Which brings me to…

Be Diplomatic!  Avoid using blaming language or judgmental statements.   Be open-minded to the idea that this process is as much of a learning curve for the parent as it is for you or the student.  Parents may or may not do a lot of research. They may or may not use an advocate. They may have a ton of knowledge, or like me in the beginning of our journey, have none.  They may be hanging on your every word for a ray of hope. Keep your words “hopeful.” Speaking of being hopeful, let me add….

Be Compassionate!  Your parents may not be fully aware of their child’s challenges. I know that my husband and I had no idea how extensive our son’s challenges were at first. He was 19 months but had the skills of an 8 month old. Because I’d never had a child before, I didn’t realize how far behind he was. That information was a blow to my husband when it was delivered. I had suspected pretty bad news, but my husband was really thrown for a loop. He grieved over that one statement for a few days.

Consider that your assessment reports and behavior analysis may be a shock to the parent, or may confirm their worst fears. Some of them sit across from you with no hope for the future. Some of them do not know what to do or where to turn. Some of them are in complete denial. Some of them have suspected for some time that something was different about their child, but didn’t know until that moment in the IEP when you confirmed it. Believe me, I’ve held back tears in an IEP. I remember thinking in his 2nd IEP (when he was just 3), “Hold it together, Natalie. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” I held it together. After the meeting I wept all the way to daycare to pick up my child. I cried most of the weekend. I was just coming to terms with how frightened I was for his future.   Fear, hopelessness, uncertainty, and even anger, may rear their ugly heads at your IEP meetings. Be ready for that. If your parent is displaying any of those feelings then know it is not a reflection on you, but all about what the parent and child are facing.

Give your Parents the Benefit of the Doubt When You Can.  I’ve said it before; you are a mandated reporter so it’s always best to err on the side of the child. If you suspect abuse, report it. Period. But, also, don’t be quick to assume your parent is lying in an IEP. Admittedly, after a few years with a lying parent, you do figure it out. When there is a whole lot of talk but no action, you may wonder.  But always give the benefit of the doubt when you can.

When Q was in Kindergarten his teacher asked us what we did to discipline him when he melted down and emptied the contents of the bookshelf all over the room. WHAT?!  We had NEVER EVER witnessed that kind of behavior at home.  So, when a parent says to me, “He never does that at home,” well, yep, I often believe it.  In our case school was entirely more rigorous than home. He still had very little language. At home he didn’t need language, even though we were trying to force him to need language by not meeting his needs unless he spoke them. The bottom line was that he felt safe at home, as he should have and as we would have hoped he would feel.  When the rigor of the classroom took its’ toll, he took it out on the bookshelves, unfortunately for sweet Mrs. Jacobson!   Long story short, a behavioral analysis and a sensory diet went a long way as well as Todd & I making home more rigorous, while maintaining the safety and respite it provided to our son. Oh, and time was on our side. He flourished over time with the right positive behavior supports. But I digress, in that positive behavior supports is for another blog entry.

Back to the IEP…. 

Student at a Glance!

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This is a picture of the first thing I hand a parent at an IEP meeting. I print it up in color on an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. My hope is that they take it home and put in on the fridge as a reminder to the whole family how special and important their child is. When the parent walks into the room, this picture is on my Smartbaord, front & center of the meeting. It’s up there in “life sized” style.  I want to make an impact on the parent, a positive one. I hope this does it.

You’ll notice there is no negative word on this document anywhere.  Instead of writing, for example, “Does not like to do tasks he thinks are too hard” I wrote, “Avoids tasks he thinks are too hard.” And instead of saying, “talks to much” I wrote, “Areas to Develop: maintaining a quiet voice in class.”  Believe me, a parent of a child who has the need to vocalize constantly does not need me telling them, “Your child has to vocalize constantly.” They know it. But if I say, “working on maintaining a quiet voice in class” that implies I know it, they know it, and this is what their child and I are doing about it. It’s proactive.

Instead of using “Strengths and Weaknesses” I chose to focus on “Strengths and Areas to Improve”. Yep, they might be weaknesses today but the reality is that given time they can be areas of improvement. They might even become strengths someday!

I also include a section on the Positive Behavior Support system I have in place. This gives me an opportunity to reinforce what I am doing in class. Notice that this student is 50 stars behind the class average, but at least he is actually earning stars.  I focus on what he is earning and not how far behind he is.

This particular student (name and picture have been changed from the actual student) had just come from general ed to my SDC. I had had him for almost a year when I had his IEP and had the first opportunity to meet his family. His mother came in stoic and unemotional. By the end of the meeting she told me, “At all of his other meetings all we heard about was how hard he had been. How he had to move all the time and make noise and cause trouble. You are the first teacher to notice all the things that make him special, the things we love about him. Thank you.” The next day was Valentine’s Day. He proudly came in with a really cute, big teddy bear for me and a note that read, “I love you, Mrs. Jager.”  Ahhhhh…. That’s one reason I do what I do!

Now, in general ed defense, a student like this little guy in a classroom with 35 other students and a general education teacher possibly not equipped for his diverse needs (or certainly without the support of a classroom aide), might convey some things to the parents that are perceived by the parents as negative. If he is behaving completely opposite of everyone else and making it impossible for others to learn, then that is what the gen ed teacher has to report.  The other teachers may not have said anything negative… perhaps the parents just perceived it as such. It was a different educational setting… it was more restrictive to him and his needs as opposed to my class, which is his least restrictive environment. Of course he’s going to fair better behaviorally in my room with sensory input, access to frequent breaks, an appropriate workload, specialized academic instruction and a focus on small groups.  So, my meeting would appear to be more positive and to the parent may seem more productive.

In Summary! Look for the good stuff. Find it. Dig. If you look hard enough and long enough you will find a lot of positive things to put on your student’s “At A Glance.”  I am not perfect by any stretch. I do not always keep it 100% positive. I have had a few students that I liked a lot, but could not reach. Keeping their IEP positive was a challenge. But I keep trying!