The U.S. Is Not #1 in Math! Who Cares?

Illusory truth effect: the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.

In other words, it is a lie that has been told so many times that we just accept it. We forget to be skeptical. We forget to examine. We forget to question. One of the biggest lies that has been promulgated on the American populace is that our public educational system is broken. All of it. Everywhere. The folks who love to bandy this about also want us to believe that the United States is lagging woefully behind the rest of the world in education. Usually, this claim and its supporting data are accompanied by screaming headlines, hand-wringing, and the gnashing of teeth. Throw in some rending of garments, and you’ve got yourself a crisis of biblical proportions.

It’s true, some individual schools and a few school districts are, indeed, in crisis. Schools anywhere are a reflection of the culture in which they exist. My premise is that this is NOT the epidemic that we are led to believe.

I just waded through several reports on international education rankings. They all say (the authors wringing their hands all the while) that the United States lags in math and science. The United States has been slowly going downhill since the 70s. The United States isn’t a world leader in education. Blah blah blah.

While it is important to share information with other countries—most importantly to share GREAT ideas for the good of all—it is absolutely NOT important to compare ourselves to them with these scores. We have become so used to hearing the mantra that our schools are failing, our teachers are failing, our kids are failing, that we actually believe it.

I, and a whole mess of other teachers, however, have actually BEEN in schools around our great nation and we’re here to tell you that MOST schools, teachers, and students are NOT FAILING. In fact, we’re performing MIRACLES—every day! The fact is, school is a good deal more complicated than it ever was when our policy makers attended it. The fact is, the American family is more complicated than it’s ever been and the effects of that affect our schools. The fact is, some schools are set up for failure because of harmful policies and practices–too many kids in the classroom, not enough resources, parents who are not doing their jobs. But rather than go into an explanation of all the ways schools are doing a great job and increasing rigor well past the high water mark of 1975 –DESPITE the odds being stacked against them–I’d like to take this in a different direction…

We’re Not #1 and You Shouldn’t Care!

Here’s Why:



Inequitable Comparisons

1. The rankings do not compare apples to apples. No other country on Earth has the diversity in both socio-economic and ethnic traits that the U.S. does. Yes, some of our European friends are dealing with immigration NOW the way we have for years, but the sheer size of the United States rather diminishes the comparison. Why on earth do we care if we rank behind Luxembourg in reading? Or China in math? Or Sweden in science? Does it really matter? How many people does Luxembourg even have? 15? Just kidding, they have a whopping 602,005–about as many as Baltimore, MD–the 30th largest city in the U.S. Further, why would we want to emulate polluted, lead-toy-making China? No amount of great math scores make ANY of that okay. All three of these example countries have either a highly homogenous population OR virtually no immigration–COMPLETELY unlike the United States.

Poor Journalism


download2. WHY doesn’t the media examine any of these reports by digging a little deeper. Why isn’t the media pointing out that even though Singapore scored higher than the United States, it is a tiny homogenous island. It has about as much in common with the United States as my Aunt Fanny has with Albert Einstein.

Equitable Comparisons

3. The only statistics we should worry about are our own. Yearly improvement is a good goal. Improving one’s own classroom, one’s own school, one’s own community should be the bellwether, not comparing ourselves to educational systems that have little in common with ours. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for our schools to be tasked with the job of raising the children that are sent to them “just” for an education. The internet is rife with blogs and articles illustrating how schools are taking on more and more parental roles; trust me when I say that schools and teachers do NOT want to be raising your children. The sad truth is, however, that if parents won’t care for their children, schools and teachers feel that they must. Here is a related piece from Psychology Today:

Differing Values

4. Many of the countries to which we are compared have a completely different set of values in place. Finland, for example, PAYS its teachers well. France, for example, feeds its children nutritious meals–and doesn’t put up with all that “picky eater” hooey. Australia, for example, has pre-natal home visits for children up through age 3.

download-1On our Camino last fall in Northern Spain, we had the serendipitous opportunity to meet some wonderful folks from Australia. Anne is a registered nurse there whose job it is to work with families and new parents from prenatal to AGE THREE. It is a government funded program—free to the participants—which supports the prenatal health of the baby as well as those important first years. She not only meets with the families, but she also makes home visits. What a perfect time to see how they are coping! Is there ample nutrition in the household? Is it a clean, safe environment? Is there familial support? What habits is the family engendering with their young one? Are there books? Do they understand that they MUST read to their child? Do they understand the importance of a sleep schedule, etc. According to Anne, everyone takes advantage of this wonderful program—not just the poor. Getting children off to a strong start before they are even born is a priority. What a change THAT would make for our schools, don’t you think?

Opportunity for All Is about More Than Education

5. Have you ever wondered how we could have such a robust economy if we weren’t educated? If our schools weren’t doing a lot of things right, our economy would be in the tank, entrepreneurs would be few, and the opportunity to live the American Dream would be dead. I submit to you that while there are still too many families that struggle, this isn’t the fault of the educational system. It’s the fault of policies that make it difficult for folks to afford basic needs. download-2In my hometown, there is a lot of gentrification and building. Virtually none of the housing that is being constructed is for the working poor, but rather for those with deeper pockets. What would happen if there were affordable housing for all? Would we see a dramatic rise in the all-important test scores? 

Excellent University System

6. Why do we have so many international students? Because our university system is second to none. I recently became an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University–consistently one of the top five largest universities in the country. I don’t know what the actual number of international students is, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that it is in the thousands. Just yesterday in the short walk to my classroom, I heard at least 8 different groups of students speaking a language other than English. American students also benefit from our amazing university system. More kids are going to college than ever before; there is a need for a conversation about the fact that NOT everyone should go to college, but that is not the subject of this piece.

Healthy Immigrant Growth

7. WHY do so many people want to move to the US? It’s not because our schools are “failing”! It is because this always has been, is, and ever shall be the land of opportunity. Even though our teachers are asked to be parents, counselors, role models, and care-givers as well as educators, they are making it work. Our immigrant families recognize this.

What can we do to improve?

I. Help Families in Distress

We MUST teach our most vulnerable how to parent. We MUST reach children when they are babies. We MUST front load the information that a stable, safe home environment is absolutely crucial to the well-being of our students and their success in school. Reading is the hinge-pin of a good educational system, but reading starts in the home. Behavioral issues take away from time spent learning; how to behave, control impulses, and respect others starts in the home.


II. Accept our National Identity

We must also own who we are in all our mess. We have a vast country filled with every type of situation imaginable. One size does not fit all.  In the U.S. we are adept at including even the most challenging students and giving them opportunities to succeed to the best of their ability.  I will never forget when we had a delegation from Beijing visit the high school where I taught. As is normal in the United States, I had several students in wheelchairs and/or with aides. One of the Chinese visitors whispered to me that in China, those students wouldn’t be allowed in a “normal” classroom. Is THAT who we want to be? 

III. Eradicate the Testing Culture

We must stop worshipping tests and the “data” that they collect. We must allow schools and teachers to carry out their mission according to their trained expertise. We must stop teaching to a test. We must worry about improving ourselves year to year—no matter what is happening in Timbuktu.

IV. Involve Educators in the Process

Our politicians MUST stop making educational policy without input from the primary stake-holders, i.e. teachers/students. Unless they are willing to swallow their hubris and ask for help in understanding, our government will never be able to enact the necessary policy to actually work on the problems we do have. Raping our wonderful public school system with “school choice” and “vouchers” is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Voting carefully for elected officials who support our long and illustrious tradition of educating ALL is paramount. Having elected representatives who have actually attended public school is critical to their understanding.


Education for ALL = American Dream

I am aware that not all schools everywhere are perfect. You know why they’re not? Because people aren’t perfect and schools are composed of people, warts and all. If we could just set schools and students up for success—less testing, more positive parental involvement, stable family environments, a government that doesn’t fight the educational system at every turn—who knows what might happen? This is MY American Dream.

A Love Letter to Spain

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

I first fell in love with Spain in the summer of ’85 during my study abroad in Madrid. The program that Bowling Green University ran at that time (I attended Ohio Northern, but we didn’t have a study abroad option then) included intensive classes at the University of Madrid in culture, history, geography, and language, as well as fantastic field trips to nearly every corner of Spain on the weekends. My love affair continued in my life as a Spanish teacher, as I led student trips all over Spain. When my son (also a Northern grad) student-taught at the American School of Valencia in his final semester of under-grad, we took a family trip to see him and loved every minute.

It was THIS trip to Spain, however, to walk El Camino de Santiago from León to Santiago, that crystallized for me what it is about Spain that makes me love it so much. My admiration is not only for the physical aspects of Spain, but also for the ways that Spaniards do things, how they live, and the sense of community that is imbued in all aspects of Spanish life. Some of my observations are rather superficial, while others delve deeper into the Spanish weltanschaung—their world view. Read on for all the ways that Spain hasn’t changed since I first saw her and loved her, and for the ways she speaks to me.

Broad Strokes

La tierra

Sometimes, those who haven’t been somewhere, imagine it to be all kinds of things it isn’t. The geography of Spain is one of those things. Spain is about the size of the state of

The Camino Francés, leaving the Meseta and entering the León Mts.

Texas and within its boundaries you will find nearly every kind of topography possible–mountains, coast, desert, fertile valleys, plains, broad rivers, forests. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe–second only to Austria. After walking the Camino, I can attest to this firsthand!


Arte Público e Historia

Spain is chockfull of public art, monuments to history, and beautiful architecture. Because of its Catholic roots, every town is clustered around the local cathedral or church with a central plaza somewhere nearby. It seems that every locality has a legend attached to it that is not only available to read about on a placard, but also to hear about from one of the locals. Past and present are blended together in a tapestry of culture. The history of each place, rather than being forgotten or pushed to the periphery, is celebrated with both education (signage, monuments, etc) and the town festival.



This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Upon closer examination

So many small things make up the larger picture of the way Spaniards do things. Their eating habits—both what and how haven’t changed. The way they greet each other, the centuries-old door knockers in the shapes of ladies’ hands, the abundance of flowers around their homes, the pride in regional customs,





and how in a country that is the size of Texas, one can sense a different culture every hundred miles or so. All these things remain static in daily life in Spain; she hasn’t changed in the time I’ve known her. 


A comer…

Spain first introduced me to tapas (or pinxtos–pronounced “peenchos”–in the Northeast) all those years ago. Not only is it delicious to try a small portion of something, but it is beautiful as well. The Spanish custom of including a small bite of food with an aperitif is wonderful and smart at the same time. In the foodie capital of Madrid, grazing tapas at the Mercado San Miguel is an experience for all the senses.


In 3 weeks, we never once used plasticware of any sort. Every single restaurant, pub, or glorified concession stand on The Way used glasses. Silverware. Real plates. Cups and Saucers. Not only did this reduce waste, but it also is just more civilized. Café con leche most definitely tastes better in a real cup.

The silverware they use is also different from that found in the US. They have “normal” knives, forks, and spoons, of course, but they also have smaller spoons for coffee, smaller forks for dessert, and larger spoons for soup or other items like cereal. The smaller spoons and forks have the psychological effect on me of making me feel like I am in a more elegant era or place—and indeed, I think I was. The smaller fork surely indicated fewer calories, but also seemed to say—slow down. Savor every bite. Eat in smaller bites and enjoy it. Eating my caldo gallego with a large spoon was satisfying; this soup is hearty, nourishing, and deserves to be eaten with gusto.




The food is, generally speaking, a Mediterranean diet which I think we’re all familiar with, so I won’t go into detail on that, here. What remains the same in Spain from ’85  that is so wonderful is the lack of convenience foods. I think they exist, I just don’t think they’ve caught on. A primary example of “real” goodness is the orange juice. Every bar (and I’m using the word in the Spanish sense here—please don’t picture a place where people are getting drunk) had an orange juice machine—for squeezing FRESH orange juice. So delicious!

Café con Leche. I don’t even drink coffee in the States unless it is labelled as “mocha” and has whipped cream on top. In Spain, though, I drink it every morning and sometimes at midday. They make it strong, only fill a cup halfway, and then fill the cup with heated milk. Artificial sweeteners haven’t found their way into the Spanish diet either, so sugar is an option that I, and everyone else always take advantage of. Delicious. Starbucks has no idea.

Churros con chocolate at Madrid’s oldest churrería–San Ginés.



De compras

Another item from a more elegant era is the way that they wrap purchases individually. This isn’t at the grocery or pharmacy, but rather at shops selling any sort of specialty gift item—jewelry, glassware, trinkets, etc. They generally have wrapping paper and tape handy to wrap up every.single.item for you. It makes one feel pampered and like each parcel is a precious gift. The time taken to do this says something else about Spain—slow down. Little gestures matter. There is no one huffing and puffing behind you in line because the clerk is spending a few minutes taking care of your purchases in such an intimate way. Enjoy the ride.


Beneath the surface

National Values

How Spaniards live is vastly different from life here in the States. The most striking is the incredible sense of community that is part and parcel of Spanish life. As we walked for 200 miles across North-Central Spain, we noticed that nearly all homes are in a village or town—VERY rarely is there a home standing by itself in the countryside as it would be in the United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what this said about the core values of each country. A core American value is independence, even solitude or isolation—indicating strength and ability to us; a core Spanish value is conviviality—indicating community, togetherness, enjoyment. Therefore, Spaniards live in towns or cities almost exclusively and to this day gather on the plaza in the center of town in the late afternoon (or any of several plazas in larger cities) to stroll, have an aperitif, meet up with friends, hear the news of the day, let the children run and play. They do this all year long and at all ages—which brings me to another observation.

The Spanish have mastered the art of multi-generational living. Because they are living in population centers, their older folks are still a part of everything. Nothing stops an older Spaniard from taking his or her evening stroll. There are canes and arms to lean on, but they keep at it. BECAUSE they keep at it, there are able to keep at it. Obesity (not someone being a little plump, but true obesity) appears to be non-existent in Spain, I can only surmise from this active life-style and the diet. Octogenarians are often seen with a younger person for support to get out and do their stroll, their shopping, their visiting with the neighbors.

The abuelas(grandmothers) also haven’t changed in 34 years. I don’t know what age is the cut off for turning into an abuela, but the “look” remains the same: short hair, blouse, skirt, sweater, hose, pumps, pocketbook, necklace and earrings. I saw a very, very few who were wearing pants and being sassy, but by and large—abuelas haven’t changed! Please enjoy my album of abuelas:



This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The people—and this includes hundreds of interactions over 34 years—are simply kind. They are always willing to help, to chat, to interact, to engage, to debate, to joke, to guide. They are a social society. They even have a word for sitting around the dinner table chatting after eating—la sobremesa. Wonderful.

In my previous piece, “Angels on the Camino”, I talked at length about Mercedes and José, two wonderful Spaniards with whom we enjoyed a few sobremesas. There were other, shorter, interactions that I would like to describe to give a sense of the Spanish psyche.

A philosophical taxi ride

The day before we were to begin our Camino, we had to transfer by taxi from Madrid to León. The driver, Estéban, came from a long line of taxistas and was proud to be part of his family’s company. The drive from Madrid was roughly 3.5 hours; Dan speaks no Spanish. Well, Dan can order a beer, a gin and tonic, and say that he likes “fútbol”, but that’s about it. So Estéban and I set the world to rights. Around 30 years of age, Estéban and I covered soooo many topics—including Dan as we could. The one that sticks in my mind, however, was our discussion of immigration and bigotry. Although the area of Spain we visited primarily on this trip does not have many immigrants, the coastal cities (and Madrid, of course) have changed drastically since ’85, what with Spain’s proximity to Africa. Spain, once an insular country, is dealing with what we in the States have long had to wrestle.  To welcome immigrants and refugees while keeping control of the floodgates is a delicate balance that needs attention, certainly. Further, as we delved into the racist aspects of this discussion, this young man said, very resolutely, “Para combatir la intolerancia, hay que viajar.” Yes! To combat bigotry, one MUST travel! When we SEE the plight of others, when we EXPERIENCE some of their story, when we KNOW the truth of a situation, THEN we can understand. THEN we cease to fear “the other” and realize that humanity, in all its messy glory, can work things out. If only we could work together and make the effort to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Eavesdropping can get you everywhere

On the day we arrived in Santiago, we obtained our number to get our compostela—the diploma that certified that we had completed the Camino. The pilgrim’s office serves around 1500 people a day—our numbers were 1013 and 1014. We had a bit of a wait. Luckily we could monitor the progress of the line via an app, so we did some shopping, did some eating, and eventually settled at a café along the street to the pilgrim’s office to pass the time.

At the table next to us were three friends in their 30’s, two women and a man. As I gradually tuned in to their discussion and began to shamelessly eavesdrop, I learned that they were discussing the particular usage of a phrase in English. Antonio, the chief complainant, was describing a telephone interaction he had had in English (which he speaks fluently) in which the person helping him said, “I appreciate your frustration.” This infuriated Antonio who had apparently never been on the phone with Time Warner, and wasn’t aware of this usage of the verb “to appreciate”. His learning had taught him only the cognate to “apreciar”—to enjoy. I let this go on for a bit, and then finally turned to them to interrupt and educate.

As is often the case in Spain and at outdoor cafés, they welcomed my intrusion into their conversation; what ensued was a spirited discussion of linguistics, “false friends”—those seeming cognates which have different meanings in different languages (*embarazada” does NOT mean embarrassed, for example, but rather “pregnant”), and how the guy on the phone with Antonio really wasn’t an asshole. My only regret from the whole trip was that I didn’t give Antonio my email address so that he could ask me further English questions (and I, Spanish questions to him) should the need arise. Our connection was brief but intense. I wish that I had had the foresight to extend it. 


What is the larger lesson in all of this rambling? Perhaps that there is more than one way to eat a meal, more than one way to live a life, and more than one way to view the world. As for me, my glimpses into Spanish life have made mine all the richer. ¡Hay que viajar! 

Chicory, Ditch Lilies, and Queen Anne’s Lace: An Homage to Late Summer in the Midwest

When you live in a part of the world that enjoys 4 distinct seasons, it is possible to enjoy the sensory feast that is each one. Too often, however, we are so accustomed to our surroundings that we fail to notice the everyday beauty that is on our doorstep. Each place on this earth has a unique, purposeful amalgamation of flora, fauna, weather, and the like that makes it HERE.  Currently, in my part of the U.S., we are enjoying mid-to-late summer sights, smells, and sounds. In the Midwest, the trinity of chicory, ditch lilies, and Queen Anne’s lace is lining the roads.

Ditch lilies/orange day lilies along a Midwest roadside.

The ditch lilies (what folks around here call the orange day lilies that spring up everywhere) tap out by August 1st, but the other two will keep going strong until late fall.

Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace: interesting fact–they’re doing all kinds of interesting things with chicory these days. It’s not just a coffee substitute for pioneers anymore!

They are so ubiquitous as to become almost invisible, but if you actually LOOK, they are quite beautiful. As September comes, they will be joined by goldenrod, asters, Joe Pye weed and ironweed. The roadsides, however, will remain the domain of the periwinkle colored chicory and the bobbing heads of Queen Anne’s lace.

Another sight this time of year is the corn blossoming into tassel. When the dew starts to fall as the August evenings cool, driving through corn country with the windows down is a sweet treat.

Corn in tassel on a lovely farm.

It always makes me feel like a child again, tucked up against Dad’s side in the ’67 Chevy pick-up, coming home from the softball field. Dad ran the Old-Timers’ League in Carroll, Ohio, in the 70’s, where he spent MANY an evening supervising men’s softball games; sometimes we’d go along to watch him play. This was in the days when men generally still wore jeans to play recreationally—and sometimes even a collared shirt. “Activewear” wasn’t even a thought yet–but I digress.

Besides the fragrant corn, even grass takes on a different, sweeter smell this time of year. In the spring, it is so vibrant and fresh, but now, when it is cut—if it is cut at all— it has a golden, ripe aroma. Its fragrance is of the last swell of growth before going dormant in the fall.

On late summer nights/early late summer mornings, the air sometimes condenses into thick fog which isn’t nearly as common in other seasons.

The fog hovers above the ground on days like this and it looks like you could tunnel under it.

The fog’s cool fingers let you know that winter is somewhere out there in the white swirling around you, but it won’t find you yet. 

They say that the first frost comes 90 days after you hear the first cicada each summer. As a teacher, I always dreaded hearing that first trill since it meant that fall, indeed, was coming. The year we were painting Abby’s room, we had the windows open on a beautiful July 2, when she and I first heard the clarion call. Now that I’m retired, I enjoy much more the raucous cacophony that makes up an Ohio August. Just as spring peepers tell your ears that it is late March, the cicada lets you know that summer has reached its zenith in the Midwest. The crickets and other insects can keep up quite a symphony on a Midwest night, only abating as the birds sing the sun up.

After so many years—55 really—of living according to the rhythm of the school calendar, it still feels as if I’m playing hooky in August now that I don’t have to be preparing for a fresh year. So far this August, I haven’t had one of my anxiety dreams about the classroom (it’s still early yet, though!). It is a luxury to be able to enjoy the winding down of summer: days that are still long, but aren’t as scorching, the bounty of the garden, and the natural chronicle that lets us know instinctively where we are in Mother Nature’s world. Breathe deeply. Look. Listen. Repeat.

A Case of the Worms and What I Learned about Managing my Classroom

Several experiences over the last few weeks got me to thinking about the baptism by fire that is the first year of teaching. One of my former standouts in Spanish class let me know via the miracle of social media that she will be doing Teach for America next year. Another lovely young woman reported that she will be a teaching assistant at her university. Yet another family friend is currently in her first year of teaching special needs middle school students, and her parents were regaling us with stories about her day to day adventures. The young woman doing Teach for America said she would appreciate some hints for working with difficult-to-reach students, so here goes.

downloadFirstly, why is it a “baptism by fire?” It’s hard to explain to someone not in education, but the reality of one’s first year of teaching is that it is a perfect storm of learning one’s craft versus being foiled at every turn by reality. No matter how well the teacher college at your university prepared you—and in my experience with student teachers, the universities are doing a good job—the fact that you are dealing with human capital means that nothing is predictable. Like many things, this is a profession that you must learn by IMMERSING yourself in it, not by learning ABOUT it.

My first year of teaching, I taught Spanish I and 11th grade “Basic” (not the honors kids, fyi) English. I still feel okay about the job I did in the 4 Spanish I classes because I had done my student teaching in Spanish. The English classes were a different story. I had not student taught in that subject despite double majoring in English and Spanish and getting my teaching certificate in both. I’ve always been my harshest critic, but I felt less than confident about the job I did in that subject area. Still, I got through it and did a better job the second year.

How did the cosmos conspire against me? First of all, there was a shortage of space in the school (which has been a problem in all 4 high schools I’ve taught in). As such, I taught in the band room. I had collapsible desks that we put up and took down three times a day, since I taught in that room before and after the band used it and then they used it after school. That was a lot of nonsense, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The icing on the cake was what I’m going to tell you next.

This particular high school had been built during the energy efficiency craze of the 1970’s, i.e. it had no windows. In fact, despite changing school districts, it would be 19 years before I taught in a classroom with windows. I think it is criminal to have to work/learn/be without windows, but I digress. The second problem with the building was that it was completely constructed out of cement block—which had never been painted. Ugh. The third and final problem was that it had been built on a rather low-lying field and the grounds around it were perennially wet. When it rained—and guess what, it was Ohio, so it rained a lot—worms would find their way under the door to the band room (it had an outside egress) and would prostrate themselves all over the red carpet in a desperate quest for safe habitat. Instead of safety, what they found was a group sacrifice reminiscent of Jamestown minus the Kool Aid. When I would come in to the room in the morning, it was completely normal for the custodian, dear Dale, to be vacuuming up the worms. images-1It was a very large room and there were a whole big bunch of worms covering it. Eventually, Dale made a salt dam around the cement pad on the outside of the door so that the worms could commit hari-kari outside the building and I could teach in a worm-free environment. 

Another bit of nonsense that I had to deal with as a baby teacher was the fact that I was very young when I started. My birthday is in September, so I was still 21 for a few weeks at the start of the school year. Some of my students in Basic English 11 were 19. They smoked and had tattoos. I kept a can of air freshener for the room after they left each morning because it smelled like such an ashtray. I managed them, but just barely. One of them was particularly hard to like. Since it was 1986, he was 135 pounds of mullet-headed, tank top-wearing, lightly-mustached bad attitude. He hated me, but he loved to stare at my chest. Experienced teacher me would have handled Mullet-Boy so much differently. Baby teacher me just ignored his horribleness most of the time and prayed for the period to end. Here is an approximation of his likeness: images-2

Paying It Forward

All of this is a long-winded way to say that novice teachers are on my mind. What words can I offer them to give them some guidance in case they have a case of the worms or have to deal with a Mullet-Boy?

1. In a previous post I wrote about relationships. That’s the key, so start there. I wasn’t able to cultivate a healthy relationship with Mullet-Boy; I don’t know if it would have been possible, but I didn’t have the tools I needed at the time. Rapport, the human touch, being relatable—that’s where good classroom management starts.

2. If a student requires some kind of discipline, try your absolute best to deal with the discipline privately. In other words, allow the student to save face—and you, too, while you’re at it. A calm (or calmer) discussion in the hallway is generally a good idea.

3. Do NOT send your students to the office for every single infraction. Try to manage the behavior in your space on your own. That being said, when something keeps happening, or it’s something pretty egregious, don’t be afraid to go to your administrative team for help. It has been my experience that your admin will have your back if he or she knows you’re doing your level best to handle things on your own and that you wouldn’t ask if you didn’t need to. There were many times as I mentored a novice teacher who was out of ideas for trying to change a child’s behavior. At those times, one of the suggestions could be that it was time to “go to the office” for help.

4. Some magic words that I learned were, “Let’s have a fresh start tomorrow.” Sometimes this is accompanied by assurances that you are not going to hold whatever the kid did against him/her. Sometimes this is accompanied by an apology on YOUR part—maybe you feel bad (and it’s bad, not badly, btw—you don’t say “I feel sadly”, do you?) that you flew off the handle or that you didn’t handle the situation as well as you could’ve. Taking some ownership for the interaction if it is appropriate can be powerful.

4a. To continue with #4, one of my former all-stars who has been in the classroom for 6 or so years says that she was surprised to find that kids themselves usually don’t hold grudges (I’ve experienced some notable exceptions, but she’s mostly right). They WANT to have a good existence for the time that they’re in your class. Allow them the gift of acting like the previous day’s nonsense didn’t happen. We all need that sometimes.

5. Lastly, do NOT be afraid to call home or to request a parent/teacher conference. Nine times out of ten, it will help the situation (there’s always that one…). A face to face (or at least voice to voice) conversation ensures that the parents are in the loop about what’s happening and that they have ALL the information. In all honesty, sometimes I did this and sometimes I put it off because of nerves. I can see now that I should have done it more—especially as a less-experienced teacher. Even if a student absolutely drives you nuts, for the moments you are working with him/her and the moments you are talking to that child’s parent, you MUST be a professional. It is NOT personal. You CAN and WILL be able to muster up concern for that child even if you’re not really “feelin’ it.” download-1


This ended up being more about classroom management than reaching difficult kids (I think?), but I hope something is useful. In the comments below, feel free to add other ideas for this subject or to propose a new topic.

All my best,


**Disclaimer—while I’ve not always had ALL of the very easiest of children as members of my classroom, I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that I have never taught in a really “tough” or “inner-city” environment. For the most part my administrators were supportive and I had the respect and support of my colleagues and families. My last few years were an absolute dream.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I started teaching in the fall of 1986.  Let me also say that my parents, my husband, my in-laws, and my son were/are all teachers too, so I might be a little hyper-aware to educational issues.  In the fall of ’86, I was hired into a rural school outside of Springfield, Ohio.  I had 2 preps (teacher shorthand for preparations, meaning classes that were in my teaching load).  At that school a normal load was to teach 6 classes, so roughly 150 students.  In subsequent years at that school, I had 4 preps, and always 6 classes.  We were expected to do all the usual things that teachers have to do:  prepare for class, impart knowledge, assign homework and give tests, grade those materials, average grades (with a calculator), handwrite interim reports and grade cards, maintain order in our classes, and contact parents if and when necessary.  Our principal required us to hand in a 6 week goals and objectives sheet (which was roundly derided by all) and he, of course, was required to observe us maybe twice a year.  I honestly have no recollection of being formally observed with the requisite paperwork, but do remember him sitting in my class every now and then—as he should have.  That was pretty much it.  The kids were pretty good—I still keep in touch with some of them today, and they have been wildly successful considering their humble roots—but that’s a story for another day.  The staff was also filled with wonderful teachers and some slouches just as every other staff I’ve ever worked with has been.  Schools reflect real life, after all.

As way led onto way, my husband and I decided to move to the Columbus area and I took a job in another rural district for a year and then ended up in a very large suburban district where I taught until I retired last May (25 years in that district alone).  The school that I last worked in is regularly ranked in all the ‘top’ rankings there are.  I was proud to teach there, but am ecstatic in my retirement.  So how was my job different in 2018 than it was 32 years ago?  Where to begin?

The One Constant: Relationships

I think I’ll begin with the one constant in all 32 years—relationships. Relationships remain THE most important aspect in education—or really in life. Relationships were important when my dad started teaching in 1961, they were important when I retired in May, and they are important to my son as he teaches now. Why? Why are relationships so important?images-4

The educational axiom, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” has been attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Nowhere is this more true than in the classroom. It seems that teachers that have the knack of creating good relationships with their students often are able to get more out of their students; certainly, the students enjoy being in the classroom more with teachers with whom they have good relationships. To truly great teachers, this piece, this relationship-building, comes naturally. It is like breathing. What is it that teachers (or anyone, really) who are good at relationships do? How can you improve your relationships?

1. Be confident

images-2The teacher (leader, manager, parent, friend, co-worker, owner, etc) is confident but not condescending. The teacher is warm without crossing important personal boundaries. The teacher is not judgmental or mean-spirited. The teacher lets it be known that it is OKAY to make MISTAKES. MISTAKES = LEARNING. The teacher might even make a mistake herself and should always own up to it. Be confident in the job you’re doing and that you’re giving it your best effort.

2. Be organized

Organization and executive functioning skills don’t come naturally to everyone. If you are someone to whom they don’t come easily, take the necessary steps to change. A disorganized person does not elicit confidence in the job they are doing and causes unnecessary stress and upset to the students (or employees or family members, etc). Relationships are not fostered when a teacher loses an assignment, doesn’t get those papers graded, and/or doesn’t follow through with planning for the trajectory of the course.

3. Be funny or fun if you can

Is anything worth doing without a sense of humor? The class should know that there is plenty of room for laughing together at situations that occur but that it isn’t okay to laugh at someone. The teacher should be the first one to laugh at herself. Even a somewhat serious person can play a game or two in class every now and then. A serious person can also have candy for prizes. In fact, candy for prizes is a sure-fire, relationship win!



4. Be present

First and foremost a good teacher knows the name of every student. A good relationship with those students is based on the teacher knowing something personal about each one. This is so very easy to cultivate—either explicitly or implicitly with small conversations as you greet them each day, asking them to take some sort of survey at the beginning of the year, journal entries for world language or writing students, etc. Beyond taking an interest in them personally, how the teacher acts within the classroom dynamic is important as well. Be willing to help, listen ACTIVELY, focus on the student in front of you. So many times young people just need someone to listen to them. It is a good thing when adults haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be young, and all the angst and feelings that go with it.

5. Be authentic

Little personality quirks or habits that helped me to form good relationships might not work for another person. I loved to give nicknames to kids, I was quite sarcastic most of the time—but NEVER in a mean way, and I gave kids sincere compliments and encouragement. Another teacher might have a different set of behaviors that work for him. Regardless, it’s important to be real and be yourself. Being yourself doesn’t mean, however, that you should share your personal problems with young people. It’s okay to share tidbits here and there about yourself, but kids do not need to know every detail of your divorce proceedings. Connecting with them about pets, hobbies, things you enjoy (or maybe hate!) make you relatable to them.  Finding common ground is paramount to a good relationship.

6. Be humble


It took me a long time to be able to admit that I didn’t know the entire Spanish dictionary. Admitting that I’m a learner too, helps the students in their learning journey. When a student would ask a word in Spanish that I didn’t know, I would simply say, “I don’t know; let’s look it up!” Learning WITH the student is powerful. Treating students as equal, sentient beings is important. They know you’re older and more savvy than they; there is no need to act superior just because of your age. Engendering the feeling that we’re all in this together goes a long way toward building good relationships.

7. Be vulnerable

This one comes with a word of caution. As I said above, don’t pretend to have all the answers.  Certainly, you should have an incredible amount of answers as the leader in the classroom, but there WILL be times when you don’t have the answer—and that’s OKAY. You, too, are a human being. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you talk about all your innermost feelings to the students, it just means that you show and share your humanity.

8. Be honest

There comes a time in every teacher’s career when they make a mistake. Maybe a grade wasn’t calculated correctly, maybe the test key had an error, and the list goes on and on.  The very best way to handle this is to be up front, name the problem, and TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. A sincere apology does wonders for relationships—with students AND parents. Kids can smell a lie a mile away. images-5Parents appreciate straight talk—especially when they may have been expecting a confrontation. “What can I do to make this right?” is a powerful relationship builder. In another vein, not every thing one has to learn is all bells and whistles. Sometimes, you have to have a little straight up learning to get to the exciting stuff where you get to apply what you’ve learned. Be honest about all that too. As Mary Poppins said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”

9. Be open

Be open to new ideas, suggestions from peers, AND suggestions from the CLASS. Letting a lesson go in a different direction can be powerful. Flexibility before, during, and after a lesson is one of the hallmarks of good teaching—and it is also good for relationships! Don’t throw out everything you’ve used before or all your tried and true methods, though. The new and the old can and should go hand in hand to create a robust teaching/learning dynamic.

10. Be the leader

It is your space, the classroom, make it welcoming. It is your time, the class, make it worthwhile. It is your subject area, the lesson, make it meaningful and real. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re teaching, how can you expect a child to be? Let your excitement for your subject(s) show!



This list is at least a start for examining the qualities of people who build good relationships, specifically the teacher-student relationship. I hope that I’ve not omitted something really important and I also hope that the reader has some good food for thought. Thanks for reading!

My Single Step

Thanks for joining me! I suspect if you’re here, you are a family member, friend, or former student or colleague.  Thank you for taking time to visit! If you are NOT one of the aforementioned folks, here is a little bit about me.

My name is Marla Morris and I taught Spanish (among quite a few other things) for 32 years and lived to tell about it. After teaching for 32 years, my husband and I both decided that the time was right to retire.  His reasons for doing so are his own, but I’d like to share mine with you.  In English, our word is “retired” for this phase of life.  That word evokes images of fading away, of resting, of a lack of vibrancy.  In Spanish (that beautiful language I dedicated my life to), the idea is completely opposite–as is often the case.  The Spanish word for this phase of life is “jubilarse”, to become jubilant.  What a happy thought!  The images this evokes for me are ones of having time to live the creative, devoted, purposeful life I’ve never had time for.  The ideas I have about “mi jubilación” are ones that will feed a part of my psyche that has been dormant, just waiting to be given oxygen.

Spending all that time around youngsters led me to believe that I like to help people and I have a few opinions about how best to do that. Working in a high-achieving school district in Ohio led me to be called upon to serve in many capacities as well–committee volunteer extraordinaire, department head, lead teacher, you get the idea. As such, I often find myself with SOME THOUGHTS, so this blog is my first step to begin a journey of sharing and reflecting with a larger (I hope) audience.

So. Here we are.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao-tzuThe Way of Lao-tzu