Speaking In Absolutes


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How can I tell the new school year is about to start?  My social media feed – it is filled with posts aimed at new teachers, veteran teachers, administrators, new parents, parents of high school students, and, of course, students.

These posts are filled with absolutes.

~10 (or 15 or 20) things to NEVER  do the first day of school.

~10 (or 15 or 20) things to ALWAYS do the first day of school.

~MUST do learning space arrangements

~NEVER do learning space arrangements

~5 (or 10 or 50) MUST use technology apps for teachers

~The latest MUST have back to school fashions

~This year’s MUST have school supplies

~10 (or  20 or 100) MUST pack lunches for your child

~Things you MUST have on your college application (or in your essay)

~Words you should NEVER use when writing your college application (or in your essay)

You get the idea.

Advice written in stone.

Advice that comes across as fact rather than opinion.

Advice that cannot be ignored because if you do you must be a bad teacher (administrator, parent, student).

I’ll admit I read through them – some because I’m looking for ideas, others because I can’t believe someone can be so presumptuous.

I think it’s great to offer advice on what we have experienced or see as successful, but I think we have to be cautious in how we project that.

If we assume that there is an all or nothing approach to the first day of school, the perfect packed lunch, or the Holy Grail of college applications then we lose sight of the big picture in education: meeting the needs of students.

I believe that when we speak in absolutes we lose credibility.

We come across as a “my way or the highway” kind of person, and I don’t think that’s what most of us want.

Do I think teachers should smile before Christmas? Yes!

But it shouldn’t be forced or fake. Kids can see right through that.

Do I think the first day of school should be about more than rules? Yes!

But I know there are big picture thinkers who really NEED to know what you expect.

Do I think kids should have healthy lunches? Yes!

But I know that just because you pack it doesn’t mean they’ll eat it.

Do I think time and effort needs to be put into college applications? Yes!

But when my 11 year old states he should stay in 4-H (something he did not enjoy) because it would look good on his college application, we have a problem.

This will be year 28 for me. No two have been exactly alike.

I learn.

I grow.

I change.

Most of all, I get to know the group I have and go from there.

I may have curriculum to follow and standards to meet, but I know that students are not standard.

They come in all shapes and sizes and abilities.

And I do them (and myself) a disservice if I only work in absolutes.





The Importance of Real Conversations

Then the world turns around, And the boy grows tall. He hears the song of the river call. The river song sings, “Travel on, Travel on!” You blink away a tear, and the boy is gone.(River Song from A Musical Adaptation of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer)

I’m not sure why this song has been stuck in my head recently. I haven’t watched the musical, and honestly, the only way I know the song is because Mrs. Ringer made us sing it in 7th grade.

Maybe it’s because C has grown tall(er) and S is just a few short months away from high school. Maybe it’s because I’m counting down the days with another amazing group of seniors – excited for their futures but sad to see them go. Whatever the reason, it serves as a reminder that time waits for no one – hat tip to Chaucer (and the Rolling Stones) for that bit of wisdom.

I’ve always enjoyed the time in the car with the kids – sounds crazy, I know, but both of them are good travelers, so that time is usually pleasant and, more often than not, filled with conversations we wouldn’t have anywhere else.

I remember when S was little, pre C days, and she and I would sing along to the Wiggles as I drove her to daycare. (There’s a funny side story about the Wiggles, my lead foot, and a speeding ticket I should have gotten but didn’t.)

Then there was the time when she was in 1st grade, and she said to C, in her most grown-up voice, “I hope, when you get to school, you have Mrs. Sheahan and Mrs. Vogel because they are both phenomenal teachers!” Without missing a beat, a then 3-year-old C replied, “Does that mean the rest of them aren’t any good?”

And one of my most favorite conversations was about agronomy test plots (C: Who in their right mind would camp in a cornfield?) that led to a discussion on franken-foods (C’s word) and bioengineering which made S say, “I thought engineers built bridges,” which led to a discussion on bridges which jumped to bungee jumping and ended with a lively debate about the laws of physics and bungee jumping off a jello house.

Now that they’re older, I often find myself in the car with just one of them, and I love that time.

S plays AAU basketball, and practice is more than an hour away. Some would say that’s too far to go for a youth sport, but she loves to play, and I love that time alone in the car with my daughter. On the drive up we talk about school, friends, books, upcoming games and tournaments, and a million other things. On the way home, she critiques her practice and I listen. We usually stop to eat – by then she’s starving – and we go someplace we enjoy that maybe Tim and C would not. The conversation continues but moves away from practice and back to other things.

My conversations with C are more random – he thinks like I think, and together we have lots of “Squirrel!” moments.

Last week, on the way to baseball practice, the conversation was about music. His question (we were listening to Sirius XM Classic Vinyl and Freebird was playing), “Why were songs from your time so much longer than songs today?” He didn’t buy my first answer, “We had longer attention spans back then,” so we talked about how marketing had changed (radio now has to compete with so many other types of media) and how the emphasis has shifted from the musicians to the performance (stage presence, lighting, choreography, etc).

And just a few days ago, he and I headed out for dinner, just the two of us. Our conversation topics for the evening included the following:

  • The randomness of band names (Echosmith, Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum)
  • Antebellum (as in pre Civil War)
  • Fossil fuels on the moon
  • Vail, Colorado (mileage sign in the restaurant )
  • The right way to round numbers (based on the inaccuracy of the aforementioned mileage sign)
  • Sense of smell triggering memories
  • Overachieving (his humor coming through when he closed the door a little more forcefully than he intended)
  • Dendrites and brain synapses (me explaining why he should remember what we had both just forgotten – young brain, more dendrite growth. 🙂 )
  • The color of syrup vs. the color of caramel ice cream topping
  • Monopolies (brought about after noticing a CVS being built across the street from a Walgreens)
  • Monopoly – the game
  • Paying homage (Yes, his words)
  • Play-doh vs Plato (brought about by a Plato’s Closet commercial on the radio)
  • Correct pronunciation of Plato (emphasis on the T so it’s not confused with Play-doh)
  • Uma Thurman (thank you, Fall Out Boy)
  • The Munsters (I mentioned that the Fall Out Boy song sounded like the theme song for the Munsters, and he had no idea who the Munsters were)

I learn so much about my kids this way – conversations driven by their interests, their curiosity, their willingness to be themselves with me.

And I try to have similar conversations with my students.

Some of my favorite memories from the last 27 years are from those moments that have nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with building relationships.

Conversations about sports – the ones they play as well as the professional teams they follow.

Conversations about books – okay, so this might be curriculum related, but more often than not, these conversations come about because of a love of reading. There is something pretty amazing about a former student seeing a title on my office shelf and then sharing a memory from reading that book in 5th grade.

Conversations about fashion – I learned early on that elementary kids can be brutally honest about fashion (3rd grade boys who pointed out I wore the same pair of earrings everyday and the same dress every Wednesday).

Conversations about music – I have taught through more boy bands than I care to remember, but I have learned to listen with an open mind to current hits.

Conversations about feelings – I’ve learned that when students feel safe in the classroom, they will share what excites them as well as what frightens them.

Conversations about life – It can be something random or something deep, but either way I have to admit, these are some of the best conversations.

Whether it is one of my former 5th graders (last group are juniors this year), a student from one the two electives I have been lucky enough to co-teach (Intro to Education and Global Studies), or just one of the seniors who likes to hang out in the library, I love our conversations.

Sometimes it’s a quick little walk down memory lane – back to elementary school and a favorite or funny memory.

Sometimes it’s a question that leads to a much bigger discussion – the survey about how much TV you watch each night led to a lively debate.

Sometimes it’s a serious conversation like when I asked the Global Studies class to think about this question from Angela Maiers – What breaks your heart about the world? Act on that.

Sometimes I catch a tidbit as I walk by and either smile or laugh, and that opens the door for a lengthier discussion about any number of things.

You can’t schedule these conversations.

You can’t write them into your lesson plans.

You can’t have a script.

You can’t force them.

They have to be real.

They have to be genuine.

They happen when you take time listen.






What The Test Doesn’t Tell Me


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I’m not a fan of standardized testing, especially not the barrage of tests we throw at kids these days.

Tests that take time away from real learning.

Tests that may or may not cover what has been taught in class.

Tests that teachers are not allowed to look at.

Tests that students are often told not to share anything about.

Tests scored by non-educators earning $10 an hour.

Tests whose results come months later with a score and no feedback.

As a parent, I don’t need those test scores to tell me how my kids are doing. You see, I talk to my them about what they are learning. I look at the feedback on their assignments. I read the comments on their report cards, and I count on the teachers to share relevant information with me during conferences.

S is an 8th grader, and when she recently brought home her WKCE scores (the test was taken the end of October!), I glanced at the sheet and tossed it in a pile of papers to recycle.  That test told me nothing about what she has accomplished this year. I know she is learning when she tells me that she missed two questions on her Algebra test but that now she understands what she did wrong on those two problems. I know how she is writing because she is excited about it and shares her work with me. I know how she is reading because I am constantly getting texts to bring her books home from my school library.

So, why didn’t I opt my kids out this year?

Honestly, I thought about it, but curiosity got the best of me.

You see, my kids are good test takers. They know how to play the game. They don’t get anxious about the tests because I have always told them not to worry. The tests are not true indicators of what they know.

I figured this was the first year of the new test (Wisconsin’s version of the Smarter Balanced Assessment). The state had issues with getting the testing off the ground as there were multiple glitches in the online testing system.

I was curious to hear what the kids thought about the test.

S tested first.  She didn’t have much to say, other than that the wording on the math test was really confusing.  Once she figured out what they wanted, she could do the problems, but she felt the directions were worded to trip them up. She also commented that several things were not things she had been taught.

Keep in mind, this is a kid who has always been in advanced classes. She has had the equivalent of high school algebra as her math curriculum the last two years, yet questions on the test were things she had not been taught!

C tested this week, and in true C form, he nailed my concerns with the testing.

When I asked how testing was going, he told me the math was ridiculous.  “Mom, they had us solve equations that I will never solve in real life. I mean, they had like ten steps! I could do it, but if I had to for real, I would’ve used a calculator!”

Then he said, “And there were some problems on there that I know from advanced math (He’s a math kid. He’s always loved numbers, and he loves participating in math club.), but not things we’ve been taught in our regular math class.”

Then he paused and added, “I knew how to do them, but, mom, I don’t know how my friends who aren’t in math club could be expected to know that.”

Another pause, “I know some of them were upset because they didn’t know how to do some of the problems, and I felt bad for them. It doesn’t seem fair to test us on things we aren’t taught.”

Yeah, those are the words of my 5th grader.

More worried about how these tests make his friends feel than anything else.

And now we wait for results that won’t come for months.

Results that will not arrive in time to inform instruction.

Results that will come with a score of what was right vs. what was wrong.

Results that are lacking in any meaningful feedback.

Results that will be used to sort and rank students.

Results that will be used to judge teachers and schools.

Results that will have no real connection to what my kids have learned this year.

I have no problem with assessment or accountability, but I know a standardized test does not provide either.

I trust my kids’ teachers to use classroom assessments that are relevant. Assessments that inform instruction. Assessments based on real learning.

So, what will I do next year?

I will join the ranks of parents across the country choosing to opt their kids out of the testing madness.

My kids are more than a number.




Busy Is Not A Four Letter Word

“No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time. All you get is life time. Go.” ~ Henry Rollins

I keep reading posts about busy.

Busy is a sickness.

We wear it like a badge of honor.

We say it to get people to feel sorry for us, admire us, envy us.

I get it.

But I don’t necessarily agree with it.

I think it’s like anything in life – depends on your personality and your perspective.

For me, busy is a good thing.

It’s the hustle and bustle of a well-oiled routine as the kids and I share the same space and all manage to eat breakfast, pack snacks and lunches, and get ready for school. Throw in a little attention for the dog, a quick rundown of the day for Tim, and we’re all out the door with quick good-byes and I love yous.

[I love that start to my day because I know it won’t be this way for long – S starts high school in the fall, and those years will fly by, and I’ll miss the busy-ness of our mornings.]

Then I have a short car ride of just me time – time to listen to what I want on the radio (currently classic vinyl on Sirius XM) before the busy-ness of work kicks in.

[I love that time, but there’s a part of me that misses the drive with a toddler or two buckled in the back seat and the Wiggles CD in place of classic rock. And the questions they asked – a different kind of busy time.]

I love the work kind of busy. I don’t think you can stay in education as long as I have and not appreciate the beauty of busy.  No two days are the same, and that challenges me to keep a schedule, use a to-do list (Remember the Milk is my go-to on this), and rely on my Google calendar to remind me where I need to be.

[But that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to chat with a friend, talk with a student about their weekend, or to drop everything and write a recommendation letter for one who realized the scholarship deadline was today.]

And after school?  Sometimes there are meetings. Sometimes I teach graduate classes. Sometimes I stay at school and work on my dissertation because my office has fewer distractions than my house. Often, though, I leave to pick up one kid or the other from practice or go to a game.

[Classes and committees are choice busy – I love to be part of those kinds of education experiences. The dissertation is bucket list busy. I know a lot of people don’t get my drive to do this and I have read often enough that on my deathbed I won’t be clutching that diploma, but it’s a brain kind of busy that I do  just for me. And youth sports? I have never made either of them sign up for a sport they weren’t into, but I have encouraged them to try lots of different things, and then to choose the ones they love. And the busy of running S to her AAU practices? That hour+ car ride may keep us busy, but it also gives us the time to just talk, her and me.]

Eventually, I find my way home.

The dog greets me at the door – howling like I’ve been gone for weeks, not mere hours. One kid or the other needs something signed or help with a homework question. Both want to know what I’m making for dinner. Most nights a load of laundry needs to be washed or sorted and put away. Dinner gets made and eaten (usually with a compliment or two from C).  The dishes usually get washed but sometimes they sit in the sink til the kids are in bed.

[I have things to do – an article to read or another few pages to write on the dissertation – but when C says, “Do you want to watch an episode of Psych?” I say yes, and he goes to the next episode on Netflix, and even though it goes past his bedtime, he curls up next to me on the couch, and we watch it til the end.]

Backpacks get repacked. Teeth get brushed. Both kids still get tucked in. Good night kisses and I love yous are said.

Lights out upstairs.

Back down to finish the dishes or the laundry or both. An uninterrupted conversation with Tim who sometimes is just getting in from the barn.

[I should probably sweep or mop or dust, too, but busy lets me be okay with a house that’s clean, not spotless.]

Papers out – to read, to write just a little more.


Let the dog out one last time.

Check the doors.

Set the alarm.

Turn out the rest of the lights.

Go to bed satisfied with the day -knowing I was busy in the right kind of ways.





What’s Your Groundhog Moment?

Yesterday was Groundhog Day; a silly little weather predicting holiday to most, but to the alumni of the University of Dallas it’s OUR holiday. (We are #4 on this list from the History Channel!)

My Facebook feed was full of pictures of groundhogs and wishes of Happy Groundhog Day! One friend mentioned watching Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog Day, and the conversation turned to “If you could relive a day like Phil Connors, which day would it be?”

That made me think.

One friend mentioned a day we spent in Assisi, Italy during our semester abroad. I smiled at the memories made that day, and thought, “Yep, that Saturday in Assisi would rank in my top five.”

Then someone mentioned their wedding day and the births of their children.

I thought about that for a moment.

A late June wedding, Texas heat (96 degrees), and a long satin dress with a train, 23 hours of labor with S and 20 hours of labor with C – as wonderful as the days were at the time, I wasn’t convinced I’d want to relive them.

So, then I thought about the fact that Phil Connors kept reliving the same day until he got it right…what day would I like to relive to get right?

I had a list…

An argument I had with Tim where I said something I wished I could take back as soon as it was out of my mouth.

The day in London where I was tired and cranky and my sharp words made S cry because she was tired and cranky, too.

The day C told me he had a fragile heart – not that I don’t love that explanation, but I’d love to fix what made him feel that hurt in the first place.

The day I decided I was angry at a friend, and that anger kept us for talking for almost a year.

My first year teaching when I confiscated a note from a student and hung it on the wall for all to read.

The day I questioned a student’s ability because she didn’t want to jump through the hoops everyone else did (as a GT teacher now, I wish I could re-do that whole year!)

The list went on and on…

Lost opportunities to let people know how much I cared for them…

Lost opportunities to spend time with people who are no longer here…

Reality is I can’t fix those moments.

There is no time warp to send me back to undo what I did.

But I can make the most of the life in front of me.

I only get one shot at today, so I need to make sure I get it right the first time.

That means…

I work on making my words gentle.

I work on maintaining the dignity of my students.

I work to understand the learning needs of each one.

I work on spending time with those who matter.

I work on telling people how I feel about them.

I work on protecting fragile hearts.

I’m trying to get it right the first time.

So, what are your Groundhog moments?






No Points For You!

Confession time.

My kid failed 4K screening.

I’m a total failure as a parent.

Okay, not really…the failure as a parent part.

Or the failing 4K screening part.

You don’t fail a screening, but you do get labeled.

I was told that C was developmentally behind.

Total disclaimer: I had no intention of sending him to 4K as I loved our play-centered daycare, but I did it because ‘everyone’ is supposed to.

It hurt my heart to hear those words…developmentally behind.

Then it made me angry when I was told the why.

He failed cutting.


He was not quite four and a lefty.

They gave him right-handed scissors and asked him to cut out a semi-circle.

He did a bang up job until the end where he cut off part of the black line.

Perfect almost three-quarters of the way around, but then…

He failed to stay on the line.

Had he left white around the line he would’ve gotten points,  but once he cut off part of the line…no points.

In my head, I imagined the screener as Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

No points for you!

Ah, but he was behind in more than just cutting.

He couldn’t hop on one foot.

She had to repeat questions for him as he was easily distracted.

When I asked for clarification on what that meant, I was told he kept looking around the room instead of focusing on the adult.

Imagine the nerve of a not quite four-year-old to check out his surroundings!

Posters covered the walls.

The shelves and counters were filled with toys.

The adult asking the questions wasn’t nearly as interesting.

It didn’t matter that I knew my little guy was a chatty, active, inquisitive kid.

It didn’t matter that during well baby checks the pediatrician placed him at or above all the developmental milestones.

What mattered was that according to some magical school readiness checklist – he wasn’t ready.

So I politely (through gritted teeth) said thank you.

I took that chubby little hand in mine, and we walked out of the school.

The kid who couldn’t hop on one foot skipped down the hall.

He pointed out things on the walls and asked a million questions.

And I knew their baseline data was useless.

He was full of curiosity and joy.

Who needed points for cutting?

I can joke about it now.

But it still hurts my heart.









I Don’t Want To Be A Dream Crusher


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Ask C what he wants to be, and he’ll tell you. He wants to play for the Green Bay Packers. In fact, he’ll tell you he wants to be the next Clay Matthews.

I know the chances of him playing at that level are slim. According to the stats from NCAA, there are over one million high school football players (about 300,000 seniors), and out of that number only 6.5% play at the college level, and only 1.6% of that number go pro.

That means

20,000 of those 300,000 high school seniors go on to play college football.

Out of the 16,000 playing as seniors, 254 are drafted.

So, when C says he wants to play pro football, I’m tempted to quote the stats at him.

But I don’t.

Instead I ask what he plans to do to get there and what he plans to do after.

We talk about the importance of a good education.

We talk about team work.

We talk about doing things because you love them.

We talk about not giving up when things get tough.

But more than anything, we talk about following your dreams.

During those conversations I’m reminded of a young man named Aaron from my Texas days.

He wasn’t in my class, but he was a talker and always struck up a conversation.

One recess I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said, “A football player and a lawyer.”

I asked why both, and he answered…

“Because my mama told me sometimes dreams don’t come true, so you have to have more than one.”

Maybe C won’t play football past high school.  Honestly, he’s 10, so maybe he won’t even play in high school.

But that’s okay.

Right now he has a goal…a dream to play a game he loves at the highest level possible.

Who am I to tell him he won’t make it?

I won’t crush his dream.

I’ll just make sure he has more than one in case this one doesn’t come true.

Teachable Moments

The world happens around our students all the time, and they bring it into our classrooms.

We don’t teach in a bubble.

That means we have to talk about the tough subjects.

It means we listen with an open heart and an open mind.

It means we keep our bias to ourselves so as not to limit the voices of others.

It means we teach critical thinking.

It means we teach respect for differing views.

It means we acknowledge the facets of our world that are beyond our control.

It also means we talk about the ones that we can control.

To do all that, you need to build relationships with students.

They need to feel safe to express an opinion,

ask a question,

or tell a personal experience.

Most importantly,

it means you have to realize you teach students not content.

A teachable moment is going to throw off the lesson plan,

disrupt the scope and sequence, and

it probably won’t follow the curriculum guide.

But that’s okay.

Don’t be afraid to have the tough conversations.

Don’t be afraid to hear student voices.

Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have the answers.

Don’t be afraid of the teachable moments.




I’m Still Waiting for Flying Cars


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Sometimes I have no filter.

Those of you who know me…stop laughing.

I really have gotten better at tempering what I say and keeping the snark under control except with close friends.

But sometimes, I just can’t hold it in, especially when it comes to education buzzwords created by those far removed from the classroom.

No Child Left Behind

Thanks, policy makers. Prior to this becoming law, I frequently, purposefully left children behind…said no teacher ever!

What we did was meet children where they were developmentally; understanding that no two were exactly alike.

College and Career Ready

Wow, I wish my teachers, way back in the 70’s had known they needed to prepare students for college and careers.

I mean, I don’t know how my friends and I muddled through to become successful adults.

Future Ready

This one showed up repeatedly in my Twitter feed yesterday (and was the proverbial straw that pushed me to write this post).

Future Ready…what does that even mean?

Ask a hundred people, and you’ll get a hundred different answers.

Are we insinuating that prior to this initiative schools weren’t preparing students for the future?

I read through the Future Ready pledge.

How sad is it that a friend and I both thought of a Tommy Boy quote?

“Here’s the way I see it, Ted. Guy puts a fancy guarantee on a box ’cause he wants you to feel all warm and toasty inside.”

To me, that’s what this is.

A guarantee on a box.

A hollow gesture that allows policy makers to feel good.

When I think about the future I want for my kids, it’s what my parents wanted for me.

I want them to work well with others.

I want them to have and support an opinion.

I want them to listen to what others have to say and be able to disagree without attacking.

I want them to be positive, productive members of a global community.

Most of all,

I want them to be happy.

Let’s face it. We have no idea what the future holds.

We can make predictions.

But we don’t know.

A quality education is about giving students real world skills and experiences that transcend generations.

It’s not about the technology or innovations.

If it was I wouldn’t still be waiting for flying cars.

Thankful for the Little Things

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to limit my time with those who see the glass half empty because they suck the life out of me.

It’s not that everything in my world is perfect, but I’ve decided to try to always look on the bright side of life. (Monty Python fans, are you singing the song? 🙂 )

I’ve found that the littlest thing can have the biggest impact – from a simple thank you to the kid who waited and held the door for me on my way into school to a passing hello in the hall, it matters.

I’m convinced that it’s the little things people say or do for us that set the tone for the day or the week or even a lifetime.

This past week I didn’t have to look too hard for the bright side, it just seemed to find me.  These are the highlights that made me smile.

  • Last Sunday I wished a former student happy birthday via Facebook.  This was his response:  “Thanks! Me and Sean used to make finger skateboards and play with them when you weren’t looking. Now that I’m 32 I feel comfortable telling you.” 🙂 I laughed because I’m sure they did. I probably knew it at the time and ignored it, but I loved that he wanted to share that all these years later.
  • Tuesday at the Veterans Day Assembly, a World War II veteran from the local American Legion Post gave me a big hug. Then he told me how they’d been talking about me on the car ride over and how much they appreciated me.
  • As I was leaving to head back to the high school, a young mom got out of her car, stopped and stared at me and said, “I know you!” When I asked how, she said, “You were one of my teachers, I think.” I asked her name, and as soon as she said the first, I said the last. Her face lit up.  I was a long-term substitute in her 4th grade classroom. It was 18 years ago and in a different district, but she remembered me.
  • Wednesday morning I had an elementary parent catch me in the hall. She wanted to tell me how much she appreciated all I do for students, but more importantly, she appreciated the time I took to talk with her about her child.
  • Thursday’s mail brought a handwritten thank you note from a former student. I had sent a little gift to him and his wife – a few books for their new baby boy. He’d already thanked me through Facebook, but then he took the time to write and send an actual note.

These are the moments that keep me centered.

They remind me why I do what I do.

They remind me that teaching is still an amazing profession.

They remind me that I’m truly blessed.