Posted tagged ‘teaching’

I Survived Parent-Teacher Conferences

October 23, 2020

Call me weird, but I was kinda looking forward to them. “Them” would be my first parent-teacher conferences…as one of the teachers. I had always been on the other side of the table, hearing how one of our kids was killing it…or getting killed by it: multiplication tables, biology labs, and Spanish tests.

And now I was on the other side of the virtual table, staring at thirtysomethings and a few in their forties. Would they attack my other three teaching teammates (science, social studies, and math) and me (language arts)? Would they be searching for hope in the midst of the lostness? Would it seem like they were our teammates in arriving at some solutions to their son/daughter’s academic struggles? I went into the day and a half of 20-minute get-togethers wondering. Comparing the events to an amusement park, would some of the conferences seem like a ride on the park train, chugging along at a relaxed pace and enjoying the moment, or would it like the merry-go-round going around in circles and never getting there, or the out-of-control roller coaster that caused screaming and the nauseation?

Twenty-six virtual conferences that we didn’t have to pay admission to ride! Truth be told, the worst thing about the experience was the amount of time we spent staring at our computer screens. This morning I’ve got a bit of a headache from the strain, but I’m sitting on my stool in Starbucks sipping my second cup of Pike Place and pondering the possibilities of a three-day weekend.

For the vast majority of conference attenders, there was an openness to hearing what we had to offer and suggest. They quickly perceived that our role was not to unload a torrent of complaints about their almost-teenagers. In fact, some of them were surprised that we were more interested in how they, the parents, and their children were doing in the midst of our hybrid learning structure than we were in talking about the letter grades of the students.

The pandemic has created struggles dressed in different outfits. Some students who have achieved straight A’s have struggled with the absence of school friends who they are socially separated from. Other kids who are not doing well academically have seemed more comfortable in the smaller class sizes and three days online. Students with family drama have sought words of encouragement from the teachers, and those who have always struggled to grasp concepts and ideas are looking to their instructors for a hand to keep them from drowning in the lack of in-person assistance.

I was proud of my three teaching teammates. We were all on the same page, shepherds herding our students toward safer pastures of understanding and conveying demeanors of calmness and our confidence in the abilities of our students.

We’re looking forward to Monday and the continuation of our journey on this new educational frontier.

“Mr. Wolfe, Your First Name Is…William?”

February 22, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 22, 2020

                      

The class was about to begin and I was fiddling with my laptop, trying to get a connection with the classroom projector. (Using the term “fiddling” is a hint of my advanced age. It’s not often associated with computers and other technology.) I finally am able to display the image from my laptop to the screen at the front of the classroom, and then the question is asked.

“Your first name is…William?” There’s a tone of disbelief in how he asks it, turning his head from side to side looking at the screen and then back at me sitting behind my desk. 

“What?” I ask, not sure what he’s getting at.

“It says your first name is William.”

I stare at the screen and then notice in the upper right hand corner that my name appears on the slide I’m projecting: William Wolfe.

“Yes, it is,” I say with a calmness.

“I didn’t know that was your first name!”

“What, did you think my first name was Mister or Coach?”

“No, but I didn’t think it was William!” He draws out the pronunciation of the seven letters like a bungee cord. “Why is it William?”

“That’s like asking why the sky is above us?”

“I just never thought…you’d be William!”

He walks away amazed and dazed. Kids are often perplexed when their teachers are possessors of “normal things”, like hiking boots, trumpets, contact lenses that never get worn in the classroom, and families. They’ve associated their teachers with a classroom, a school, and an academic routine. 

Suddenly, they meet their science teacher in the produce section of the local supermarket and their life equilibrium is thrown off. As Ms. Brown is checking out the peaches they stand there perplexed and, depending on the teacher, happy. Their teacher is being seen in another place! The student has a sudden release of endorphins that tells him he has been blessed in some odd way.

My oldest daughter, who teaches third grade, experiences this quite often when she goes to the mall and sees one of her students. It’s like a rare bird sighting for the youngster. Mrs. Hodges actually goes shopping!

My student remains amazed for the first few minutes of our class period together. It’s almost like his teacher is…human!

The Weirdness of Being Energized

February 1, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    February 1, 2020

                                 

I looked at the class, my eyes wide open and fully caffeinated. The 29 students, most of whom have some distinctive characteristic (hair style, short and tall, reserved and animated) or possession they always have with them (Think smart phone, air pods), stare back at me.

“I know you’ll have a hard time believing this,” I begin, “but I look forward to coming here each morning and being your teacher.”

The confession causes eyebrows of each student to lower, like they’ve just been told by their parents that their family is going to move to a remote area of outer Mongolia. 

“I know, I know, that sounds weird to you. You’re wondering what is wrong with Mr. Wolfe. Is my life so lame that I need the company of 115 seventh graders each day?”

Heads nod in agreement to my statement of lunacy.

“But, believe it or not, I get excited to come to school each day. It energizes me!”

For eight weeks I’ve been given the opportunity to teach these 12 and 13 year olds, while their teacher takes care of a family member. Perhaps in these two months or so I’ll be able to convince them that someone can be energized in a way that doesn’t have to include a can of Red Bull. Perhaps they can catch some of my passion for young people and discover what they’re passionate about.

This week they’ve learned that I’m funny, use sarcastic humor like I’m doing standup comedy, and that I have high expectations.

They’ve also discovered that I can be like a military sergeant. If class is to begin at 8:04, I tell them, they are to be there at 8:04…or earlier! Not 8:04:15. The four that came waltzing in 30 seconds late owed me the first minute of their lunch period that day.

For most of them, I realize I expect more than they expect from themselves. Perhaps it’s my penance for the sins of my 7th Grade Language Arts year with Mrs. Blauvelt back in Williamstown, West Virginia. I still clearly remember doing an oral book report for her on the book Swiss Family Robinson and being “found out”. That is, I had seen the Disney movie version of the book, which is nothing like the book, and tried to make Mrs. Blauvelt believe I had read the book. 

Perhaps my expectations for these 7th Graders is to atone for my sins and to allow Mrs. Blauvelt to rest in a more comfortable eternal peace.

I’ve learned so much this week. As my teaching teammates have welcomed me, they’ve also welcomed my many questions. Most of those questions deal with technology. “How do you do this thingy right here?” “Why do they call it power point when I feel so helpless trying to do it?” “Where did MY SCREEN GO?”

As we say, “We’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy!” I’ve learned there’s a new state I’ve been blown to called Discovery. 

The Kid Who Always Needs a Pencil

January 22, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           January 22, 2020

                                

He comes into class with $200 Apple ear pods firmly in place. They are a sign to his peers that his parents will buy him anything. I notice that he surveys the classroom, deciding who he wants to greet and who to ignore. His $60 backpack gets dropped on his table like a sack of potatoes, and then he goes to infiltrate the ranks of unsuspecting students. His $150 pair of athletic shoes compliment the rest of his privileged life. Not including his clothes, I estimate his classroom value at over $400. 

Two minutes later I use my voice to blow the trumpet for the launching of class. “Have a seat and let’s get into it!” is my usual summons to order.

Ear pod boy plunges into his seat like he’s launching into one of the water slides at Great Wolf Lodge. 

I take attendance and then give the plan for the next 55 minutes. The kid who, by the way, the teacher I’m subbing for has left me a scribbled note about is in his own world of “peer-dom” pretends to listen as he dreams about the tall blonde two tables away. She looks his direction and he puts a hand on one of his ear pods, as if to convince her of his value and coolness.

“Today”, I tell them, “you’re going to be completing these two work sheets.” I explain what they need…textbook, copy of the work sheets I’ll hand out, something to write with. The kid is unwrapping a Pop Tart as I’m talking. Crumbs dot the sides of his mouth. If he’s trying to impress the blonde with his ear pods, he negates its effect with the remnants of the Pop Tart.

The work sheets get passed out and students begin to fill in the blanks. Five minutes later ear pod boy comes to my desk and says the words that he has spoken so many times before.

“Can I borrow a pencil?”

“You remembered your Pop Tart and your overpriced ear pods, but you couldn’t remember to bring a pencil?”

He stares at me with a blank look that conveys his disinterest in writing utensils. Pencils are not high on his list of priorities. The blonde is. Munching on a Pop Tart that he had to remember to get out of the pantry at home, that’s high! But to bring a pencil…to any class!…on any day!…for any reason!…that has not appeared on his radar yet! That’s what the teacher is there for, to keep him supplied! 

He’s a visual aid that communicates that the simplest things in life seem to be the hardest for some people to do.

Having a Teacher’s Third Eye

December 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     December 7, 2019

               

In many ways I’m clueless.

Don’t ask me about who is singing what song. I can recognize Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”, but I’m a loser in identifying Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Same goes for the whole gaming area. If you ask me about “Fortnite”, I’ll look as lost as a child in the Chicago Futures Exchange.

But one thing I’m pretty good at is figuring out who to keep an eye on in any middle school classroom. My third eye, that is! I don’t have to actually keep my first two eyes on the student, it’s the invisible eye that knows and sees. 

Most of us who have been around the block a few times can still remember teachers we had in school who we couldn’t fool, and others who seemed to be oblivious. One of my high school teachers was so clueless that when he’d leave the classroom for a moment, students would climb out the first floor window and leave, while other students would climb into the classroom. 

Having that third eye is essential for classroom survival and control. Recently I was sitting in on a class who’s teacher I would be subbing for a few days later. The teacher told me that the class was made up of great kids, but there was one student who I’d have to keep an eye on. She said to me, “See if you can figure out who it is.” Even before the class had officially started I knew who the suspect was. She looked at me and I motioned with a slight nod of my head in the direction of the young man. She smiled and nodded back to indicate the accuracy of my choice.

Yesterday I had two classes of sixth graders in the afternoon. Same thing, my third eye knew who I had to be aware of. 

On the other end of the spectrum, a teacher can usually figure out who the students are who will help him steer the class in the right direction. It’s almost like having teammates who are on the mission with you. Whereas some kids will lead the herd to the edge of the cliff, the students who you praise God for will help the teacher in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

There are the kids who seem to think the world revolves around them and there are the students who have a desire to help make the world right. 

Oh, there’s been a few times where someone has gone undiscovered in their antics…like the boy a couple of years ago who was handing out Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that he had also doused with a hot sauce called “The Devil’s Blood”. I didn’t catch on for a few minutes. When  the fifth student came to me and asked if he could get a drink of water, as tears ran down his cheeks, I finally figured out something was up. 

Most of the time, however, I’m like a wise ole’ cat fully aware of the mouse trying to get a nibble of the cheese nearby. In each of the sixth grade classes yesterday I knew who had the potential to some day be on the FBI Most Wanted list before I had even finished taking attendance…and they lived up to their potential!

Middle School Weirdness

October 26, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                              October 26, 2019

                           

When I walk down the halls of Timberview Middle School each day I’m taken back by the weirdness. The weirdness is a strange recipe mixture of cluelessness, pseudo-coolness, and a special spice of individuality. It goes like this:

“Mr. Wolfe, I can’t get my locker open and I’ve tried ten times.”

“Okay, let’s have a look.” We walk a few feet to a locker. “I see the problem.”

“What?”

“Your two inch thick backpack strap is hanging out like a human hand trying to escape jail.”

“Oh! So, you think that’s the problem?”

Then there’s the boys who take a clump of their hair and stand it up like a corn stalk with a rubber band or small scrunchie. If a boy wears a scrunchie around his wrist, evidently it means that he is “taken”! That is, a girl gives it to him because she likes him and he wears it to tell her he likes her back. Weird! The corn stalk hair, however, that just looks stupid.

The awesome kids who bring flavor to each of their teachers are offset by the few students who are committed to being bitter herbs in the midst of a great school day. They are the bite of “raw horseradish” in the midst of an apple pie. They come to school seeking to destroy class momentum and the grasp of concepts and ideas. One boy who makes me break out in hives has strengths in the areas of annoyance, immaturity, and inappropriate comments. He works well in a classroom all by himself, but in a classroom of 30 students he is determined to lead the Titanic into an iceberg. I have nightmares of a futuristic scene where he’s been cloned.

Then there’s the new fashion of jeans with rips and holes in them. Yesterday one girl had more holes than Swiss cheese in her pants. I remember the old days when my mom would iron on a patch over a hole in the knee of my jeans. A pair of jeans that needed a third patch ironed on meant it was time to go to J.C. Penney’s and buy a new pair. 

Weird! 

Yesterday a 7th Grade boy stood in front of his locker with an empty Dorito’s chip bag balanced on top of his head. I didn’t understand it, and I don’t think he did either.

There’s students who seem to have bathroom issues. That is, their need to go to the restroom happens about once every class period, but never during lunch and the few free minutes at the end of their lunch period. Put a mathematics calculation before them and they suddenly have irritable bowel syndrome. 

Every passing period there are a few students who walk down the hallway entirely focused on their cell phones. If the school hallway suddenly had a sinkhole they would be swallowed up…still looking at their cell phones until they hit the bottom. 

And in the midst of this climate of strange emerging adolescents are the teachers who seek to lead them to a brighter future through the jungles of their present. 

Teacher Love and Life

May 6, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     May 6, 2019

                                     

The PTO at Timberview Middle School sponsored a pretty cool project this weekend. They had students and parents “chalk up” the front sidewalk entry to the school with words of affirmation and thanks for the teachers and staff. I’m sure when the school staff arrived this morning their faces broke into smiles. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, a welcome event for weary educators as they crawl towards the finish line of another marathon school year. 

Yes, they are underpaid and sometimes under appreciated, taken advantage of by self-centered parents who assume that educators have nothing else to do but watch their children, and discounted by other obnoxious parents who think their children’s poop doesn’t stink!

But let me tell you about some of the things I see teachers do that aren’t stipulations in their contracts.

I see several Timberview teachers eating lunch in their classrooms…along with anywhere from 15 to 30 students. Thirty minutes of quiet between classes is sacrificed so kids can chatter around them.

I see a couple of teachers giving up lunch time to play football or some other game outside with students, who want nothing else but to impress their instructors!

I see teachers staying after school to help students who are having a hard time understanding the subject material. The teachers are “off the clock”, but willing to give whatever time is needed to have things finally click for the student.

I see frustrated teachers sending emails to parents about their children’s academic struggles or unwise decision making…and getting no response. They see it as a partnership with the parents, but some parents seem to be more interested in whatever sports team is playing.

I see teachers giving hours and hours of their time for events like Science Olympiad, Chess Club, Student Council, and food drives.

I see teachers taking heat for the state mandates on testing, like they’re the driving force behind it!

I see teachers giving words of encouragement to crying kids, hope-filled hugs, and listening ears to student stories that seem to have no end or purpose.

I see teachers giving high-fives and inquiring how the past weekend’s hockey game went. I see them showing interest in their student’s lives, not just how well they understand the latest unit of linear algebra.

I see teachers giving their students nicknames that become marks of distinction. In my time as a guest teacher I’ve nicknamed kids “Mary Poppins”, “Braino”, “Beano”, “GOAT”, ‘Steak and Shake”, “Princess”, “Fruit Loopz”, “The Blonde Bomb”, “Dictionary Boy”, and “Kermit the Frog”. 

I see teachers trying to give their all for their students and then experiencing guilt about short-changing their own families.

I see teachers trying to expand their own knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, while staying current on what they are expected to teach in the present.

I see teachers coming to the aide of students who don’t have the necessary supplies, teachers who do things like bring a pair of gloves for a kid who doesn’t have any, shoe laces for a student whose tongues are flapping uncontrollably, and handing a granola bar to a hungry kid who has no lunch to eat. 

I see teachers as being on the frontlines of our society’s efforts to go forward, to prepare the next generation of difference-makers. No one can make more of a difference in a student’s life than a teacher who is passionate about his/her opportunity to teach!

Hopefully, this week you’ll also see teachers for who they really are and what they do!

Perplexing 8th Graders

March 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 7, 2019

                                    

There are some eighth grade students who I have gotten to know in the past two years as I’ve substitute taught in their classrooms and coached them on athletic teams. Some of them I joke around with in “perplexing ways”! That means that I’m able to bring a look of confusion or perplexity to their faces!

Yesterday as I subbed in a social studies class, that I enjoy greatly, I brought uncertainty and pondering to one student’s face, and a realization to another.

In the classroom there was a constant, annoying, ringing sound, almost like a humming, that could be heard in the midst of a silent moment. I wondered what it might be, but then a student sitting next to my desk asked me the question.

“Mr. Wolfe, what’s that sound?”

I paused and listened, sensing that I could lead him on towards perplexity. My face took on a moment of extreme concentration as I pretended I was trying to hear what he was hearing. I shook my head.

“What sound?”

“That sound!”

“I’m not hearing anything.”

“You can’t hear that humming, or whatever it is?”

I listened again like I was a contestant on that old TV game show, “Name That Tune”.

“No!”

Unbelief dotted his face.

“I’ve heard about people like you,” I said. “I know there’s only been a few cases, but they do happen.”

“What are you talking about?”?

“People who’s hearing is as acute and sensitive as a dog’s. It’s called Auditory Canine Syndrome.”

“What?”

“It’s when someone can hear sounds that no one else can.”

“You can’t hear that?”

“Hear what?” I turn to the boy sitting in the chair beside him. He is perceptive enough to go along with “the play”. “Do you hear anything?” He shakes his head no.

Perplexity has landed on Student #1’s face. For a few seconds he thinks he has Auditory Canine Syndrome. I let him swim in the currents of confusion for a few seconds before I confess to our ploy. Yes, we can hear the humming. One class period later I have someone check it out from the maintenance crew. It ends up being something in the heating ventilation system.

And then there was the “realization” that came to another student. The class had watched a video that dealt with the “Trail of Tears”. A study sheet accompanied the video, some questions that could be answered as they watched the 20 minute video, and a few others that they would answer afterwards. With 15 minutes left in class one young man hadn’t answered any question, even the most obvious ones! I walked by and he smiled at me. 

“Freddie (not his real name!),” I said. “Your paper has so much open space on it that it resembles South Dakota!” 

“Huh?”

“I’m not seeing anything on your paper but open space!”

“Yes, there is! There’s the ink print on it.”

I just give him “the look”. A few minutes later I walk by again. He looks up at me and says, “See! I answered number 1!”

His answer consisted of two words, short words at that! 

“Great!” I respond. “Now it looks more like North Dakota!” And I look at him with eyes that express disappointment. He realizes that I believe in him, that I don’t think he’s as dumb as he wants people to think. For a moment he realizes he is underachieving…and then he lets it go!

Dear Kecia Corin

November 8, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                              November 8, 2018

                               

Dear Kecia,

It’s hard to believe that you turn 37 years old today! What am amazing young woman you are! When you arrived at 1:21 A.M. on that birth day I called your grandfather to tell him that he had his first granddaughter- Kecia Corin Wolfe. Grandpa Faletti was a bit groggy as he picked up the phone and when I told him your name his first response was “What? Quiche Lorraine?”

He soon discovered the blessings of “Kecia Corin”!

I know that you’ll be blessing your third grade students today at Stetson Elementary, as you do every school day. You’ve impacted hundreds of young lives in your 13 years of teaching. Years from now they will encounter something that they see or a situation that they have knowledge of and it will suddenly occur to them that they learned that in a classroom at Stetson from Mrs. Hodges. It’s a sign of the fact that you had been and are a forming influence in their lives. 

Mom and I have so many good memories of your growing up years. Now, not when it happened, we can even laugh at some of the things you did…like when you put a “surprise” in your brother’s dresser drawer! Or how you wouldn’t admit you were wrong! A trait you inherited from my mom, Virginia Wolfe!

And now we see how you guide your kids, our three grandkids, in learning about life and shaping their minds and hearts.

I was emotionally overjoyed when you read my first novel with them, taking a chapter each night at bedtime to get to know “Ethan Thomas” and “Red Hot Randy Bowman”. And then the night when my cell phone rang and the ID said you were calling, but when I answered it was my grandson, Jesse. 

“Granddad!” 

“Yes, Jesse!” 

“We liked it!” 

“You what?” 

“We really liked your book!”

My first critique!

That showed how you value me! You show how you value Mom by entrusting 3 year old Corin to her each Friday. Sometimes kids forget to let their parents know how important they are, but you are always treating us with respect and honoring us. Amazing!!!

We almost lost you on that morning of November 8th! You went Code Blue for a few moments- every parent’s worst nightmare- but then we heard the sweet sound of your cry…and we cried!

A woman of faith who models following Jesus for her children, a spouse who understands that a strong marriage is the merging of two voices…neither more important than the other. 

You were our first, and, therefore, our test project. You hated strained peas, chased your pacifier when we’d throw it across the room and then bring it back to us to throw again, and wouldn’t fall asleep in your crib unless I was laying on the floor beside it. More than once I’d try to crawl out of your bedroom only to hear you rising up and halting my escape. 

You were younger sister Lizi’s mentor and inspiration when you were growing up. She wanted to be like you, and most of the time it brought a smile to your heart to see her scampering along behind. 

You’re also responsible for most of the names our cats were christened with…Tickles, Prince Charming Kisses, Duke, and Katie Katie CoCoa Puffs. They showed your creativity and lightheartedness.

You are awesome! Mom and I wish she had some more time with you…just you! Not to say that we don’t want to see the rest of the family, it’s just that when one of the kids becomes the mom of their own family the opportunities to sit and talk to one of our own children gets pushed to the side. 

BUT we enjoy sitting by the side and seeing how you bring up your own! Happy Birthday! May your day be as amazing as you are!

The Hang Arounders

October 10, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   October 10, 2018

                                     

At the middle school where I coach and substitute teach there are a few students who are like fertilizer. When you have them in class you can feel the gray hair growing in abundance!

They are the students who don’t function well in a structured classroom situation, or relate well to teachers and authority figures. They are the ones that consume 90% of a teacher’s attention during a class period, but refuse to do more than 50% of the assigned work. 

It’s not that they’re bad kids and prepping to be juvenile delinquents. They just don’t have a problem with being the problems!

When I substitute teach in a class where there is a student who falls into this category I don’t go easy on him or her. I’ve sent a few to the office or had them join me for lunch that day away from their peer group. BUT…I always seek to greet them in the hallway in a welcoming manner. In other words, no matter what their transgression has been they’re still kids to be valued. The educational journey with some students just has a few more bends and curves in it than the rest! Some students don’t slide easily from A all the way to Z!

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed some of these students who scowl each morning as they arrive at school…hanging around after school! When the 80% of the student body who aren’t involved in after-school activities has exited the building and headed quickly away as soon as that dismissal bell sounds, these few students DON’T leave! An hour after school, if they can avoid notice, they’re still roaming the hallways or hanging out somewhere on the building perimeter. For kids who dread entering the building at 7:30 in the morning they seem to have a hard time exiting by 3:00.

They hang around. 

I’ve gotten to know some of them, their histories and stories. The story is never the same. It would make for a good read if all of the personal episodes were combined together. There are students from single-parent families and students who would be going home to an empty house. There are students who live in two different households, one week with dad and one week with mom; and there are students whose parents would prefer that they stay at school for as long as they are allowed so that the parent doesn’t have to deal with them at home. 

School has become their safe place and their place of consistency. In a good way it doesn’t change. It can be counted on when the rest of their lives are in chaos. 

The teachers that they seem to enjoy terrorizing during class periods after 3:00 become the trusted adults that they gravitate to. A teacher that one of the “hang arounders” wouldn’t add two plus two for in class suddenly becomes the teacher the student is willing to run errands for, wipe down classroom tables, and share a snack with.

I don’t have any substantiated research data for this statement, just a feeling…an inkling…that school is where they feel valued and safe, that school is the place they can count on in their worlds where they’ve been disappointed and discarded too many times. 

And so they hang around for an hour, an hour and a half, not wanting to leave and, oddly enough, in a few hours not wanting to come back. 

Well…come back for class, that is! There’s work to do, new gray hairs to create!