Sunday, January 8, 2017

Patiently Pushing

I spent almost all of the recent holiday break from school at my parents' farm.  Most afternoons I sat inside a fish house on Secret Lake #2 or #4 to take advantage of some really good fishing on the early ice.....well, really good on #4, pretty lousy on #2.  To break up the monotony of staring at holes in the ice and a Vexilar screen I also put in some hours wandering around the farm property in search of deer sign.  Eight to ten inches of snow on the ground made walking a chore but provided good proof of where the deer had, and had not, been moving during the previous week or two.  The deepening snow also forced me to walk a little slower than normal which gave me time to do more than look for deer I looked at the trees.  (Side note:  Those folks who read my posts regularly will recall the hunting day I scoured the tree tops in search of deer and almost ran into one on the ground while doing so.  I'm not hunting in this anecdote, though, so no funny stories this time.)

Days prior to the school break I had a great morning conversation with a colleague who surmised that while our Title I students don't always appear to be making academic growth they are growing in ways that can't always be measured.  I had been grumbling about Student A and Student B.....and probably Students C through to the amount of input they receive to improve their reading skills compared to the output of their reading ability.  My wise colleague also pointed out that we do more than just teach reading to these students; we make them laugh, we give them structure, we listen to them - things they probably aren't getting opportunities for anywhere else in their lives.  Her words shook me out of my dour outlook towards these students' progress and led me back to the focus of teaching kids instead of reading.

The next day cosmic forces took a turn at shaking me up a little bit.  I was reminded that I had posted this Tweet to an educational chat a couple of months ago:  Push yourself and your students, but be patient with each as you do so.  Neither you nor they become great in one day.  My own words were now scolding my frustrations at our struggling readers, giving me nearly the same message I'd been given the day before:  Stay patient.  And now, back to those trees....

With snow on the ground and hunting season a distant memory our trees could be viewed differently than at other times in the year.  For starters, now I could actually study them rather than just walk among them while studying everything else.  Their growth was at a complete halt; they were what they were going to be until after the spring thaw.  The snow had pushed down and covered most of the grasses around the trees allowing them to be clearly seen from top to bottom, especially those trees who were still struggling to rise above the grass and weeds of summer.  Hang on.....struggling trees.....struggling to grow......behind the others......Holy Hannah, I was walking amongst my students!

Like students to school, these trees arrived at the farm as seedlings.  Students are planted in different classrooms, our trees in different areas of the farm.  In some spots the trees took off and grew immediately, while other sections of land have seen much slower growth from trees planted at the same time.  Same thing happens in different classrooms whether we want to admit it or not.  But even in areas where our trees have grown really well every year, there are still one or a few individual trees that have struggled to keep up....just like students in classrooms.  Unlike students in school our trees aren't receiving constant care from us, but we have applied a few interventions over the years to help growth:  spraying with deer repellent, removing pests like sapsuckers and porcupines, wrapping tree cages around younger trees, mowing down thick grass.  Even with these efforts there are still trees that just can't seem to overcome the hand they were dealt and continue to lag behind the surrounding trees that grow a foot or more every year.  However......

We planted several thousand oak trees over a decade ago.  For years these trees did nothing, and those that did would get clobbered by hungry deer every fall.  We wrote off the oaks as a failure and poured our efforts into the evergreens that were clearly thriving year after year.  But last spring, before the summer grasses had begun to rise up, my dad and I noticed something - those oaks we had given up on hadn't gone away, and were instead still reaching towards the sky.  Some were leafed out, some were even taller than the pines and spruces we had planted after calling the oaks a failure.  While walking last week I could easily find rows and rows of these persevering oaks that were now standing above the top of the snow rather than buried beneath.

We have to stay patient.  We all want what's best for ourselves and for our students, but sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, we aren't going to see that "best" right away.  I don't have any magic answers for how to balance a desire for greatness with the patience needed to let it happen.  Maybe there isn't an answer because of the complex nature of growth - each unique specimen having a unique set of needs.  Or maybe the answer is patience.  Maybe it's a serving of patience mixed with a pinch of faith.  I do know that growth won't happen if we don't expect it and nurture it and push for it.  But, like the oaks and pines and spruces......and Students A through L....the growth isn't always happening in ways we can see.  Remembering this has kept me patient and renewed my faith in the process of teaching and good grief maybe this whole thing is just one big cycle:  Patience and faith leading to growth that won't be seen without faith and patience.

I plant trees with the expectation that they will grow; I teach students with the same expectation, as do most teachers.  We would all do well to step back on occasion and look at our students through the lens of how far they've come instead of how far they still have to go.  Doing so will renew faith in ourselves, our faith in the process, and our faith in the students while also refilling our reserves of patience, the key ingredient to the growth of those students who need us the most.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


On this final day of 2016 my attention has been snagged by the Twitter hashtag OneWord2017.  I don't normally make New Year's resolutions or spend much time rehashing a closing year...but the idea of navigating the next 12 months under the guidance of one single word intrigues me.  So I've read #OneWord2017 Tweets and pondered possibilities and researched definitions.....

As the days of winter vacation have passed by I've been thinking about what I want to get out of the upcoming year; the first word that came to mind was "goals".  To achieve the goals I have in mind I'd have to make some changes, so that ("change") became my second word.  Both words seem overused, simple, boring.  "Growth" became a possibility, but growth to me implies immaturity, and while we all always have room for growth I don't feel the need to focus on it.  "Advance" came to mind...but it brings images of climbing the career ladder or maneuvering on a battlefield, and I'm not really planning on doing either of those.  "Expand" garnered brief consideration but would probably become an excuse to get fat......fatter.  I saw a pattern to these words - 365 days from now I desire to be different somehow - and shifted to a deeper, meatier word: "metamorphosis".  Alas, that brought too many butterfly images and I really don't feel the need to become completely different.  But the idea of a metamorphosis did lead to THE word:

E  V  O  L  V  E

While "evolve" probably conjures thoughts of cavemen for many folks it feels like exactly the right word for me.  It's the word that will be achieved by using many of those other words.  It's the word that will bring me beyond where I am right now....and where I am right now is almost exactly where I was a year ago.  Maybe it's old age creeping up on me, but knowing the calendar has moved 12 times while I haven't at all is a little frightening.

So, in the coming days, weeks, and months I will seek to make life changes by setting goals for personal growth, hoping to expand my life as I advance towards who I want to become, that new person being somewhat of a metamorphosis from who I am now.  Some of my evolution will involve material possessions, some will occur in my career, perhaps relationships will evolve.....the unending possibilities can become overwhelming.  By tempering life's possibilities with the focus of my one word I will return to this blog in one year and write about 2017 as the year I evolved into....well, who knows what I'll become?  But ready or not 2017 is only hours away, so here I go......