The Hug That Defined My Teaching Career

“Can I give you a hug?” It was a simple question, really, spoken by a person who was trying to extend compassion to someone who was hurting. Yet, simply asking that question meant taking a huge risk, possibly putting a young career in jeopardy. It was 1996. I was barely 24 years old, just over a month into my second year as a teacher. I had gotten to school early that morning to prepare for my first hour science class. It was 7:15 am, which meant that I had roughly 35 minutes of peace and quiet before students were allowed in the building. At about 7:25 I heard some crying from the hallway just outside my classroom door. I discovered a girl standing in front of her open locker, sobbing uncontrollably. This girl was in my first hour class, and I asked her what was going on. She was barely able to communicate through sobs that some of the kids on the bus that morning had been making fun of her and said some pretty mean and hurtful things to her about her appearance. I had flashbacks to my own childhood, in which a lot of my classmates had made some pretty mean comments about my big ears and about that one time I had been mean to a classmate. I knew her pain all too well. I invited her to come into my classroom to get herself together before everyone else arrived. I handed her a box of tissues and kept on getting ready for the lab we were going to do that day in class. After a few minutes her sobs became more sighs, but she was still obviously hurting. As a young teacher I thought that I was ready and able to take on whatever challenges I would face in the classroom. I was wrong. There had been nothing in my own education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to prepare me for this particular moment.

calvin hug

Not knowing what else to do, I sat on a chair near her and asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. Yet, when I looked into her eyes I could see that she was barely keeping it together, the tears still welling up. I couldn’t just let this girl suffer like this. What was I supposed to do? In that moment a bunch of thoughts whizzed through my head. It was obvious that this girl needed a hug, some reassurance, some humanity. But, if I gave her a hug I could get fired for “inappropriate contact” with a student, right? Or maybe get hauled off to jail? Bye-bye, teaching career. Bye-bye wife and young daughter. Seriously, those thoughts were going through my mind at that moment. Instead, I looked at this girl as someone’s daughter who needed some help to get through her own teenage crisis. So, I pushed the negative thoughts aside and mustered as much courage as I could as I asked her, “Could I give you a hug?”. She nodded and we embraced. At that time my own daughter was only two so I had never known what it was like for a young adult to literally melt into your embrace. After what seemed like several minutes but was actually probably only 15-30 seconds she took a big breath and sat down again. Only, she looked at me with what appeared to be a slight smile, a marked change from moments before. She excused herself to the bathroom to wash off her face and returned a few minutes later all ready for the school day to begin.

I was glad that she was feeling so much better but still very nervous about what had just happened. Had I crossed some line by giving her a hug? I reassured myself that I had done nothing wrong by showing her some kindness and compassion in her time of need. I was actually feeling pretty good about it when I received a voice mail from her mother the next day. I nervously played the message from her and was greatly relieved when she thanked me for being so kind and understanding. It put my mind at ease that I had done the right thing. A few weeks later I met her parents in person at Parent-Teacher Conferences. The first thing that they brought up was this specific incident and thanked me again for my thoughtful actions. As we talked more I learned that their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was coming up in a few weeks. Having been raised in a Christian home I had no idea of the amount of preparation by the child that goes into such an event. They graciously extended an invitation for my wife and I to attend the ceremony. It was an eye-opening opportunity for me to learn more about my students and another culture that I doubt would have happened if not for “the hug”.

Looking back on this incident from nearly 20 years ago I think that “the hug” was really a career-defining moment for me as a teacher. It showed me the importance of being real with my students. I had heard some professor during undergrad talk about the importance of developing rapport with students and he tossed out one of my favorite quotes

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. -Theodore Roosevelt

This particular experience perfectly illustrated his point for me. I had been told by some older, more veteran teachers, that I was being too “real” with my students. That they would only respect me if I kept them at arm’s length. Don’t ever let them really know you. Yet, that wasn’t me at all. One of the things that I loved about teaching was the relationships that I could build with my students over the course of the year. I truly wanted to make a difference in their lives and I felt that would only happen if I showed them my humanity; showed them that I cared.

Before writing this post I contacted the girl I wrote about above. Of course, she’s no longer a “girl” because, well, that was 1996. We talked on the phone about this incident and how it impacted her life. She agreed to let me use her first name but I sensed some hesitation so I’m not going name her. Interestingly enough, she is a teacher herself. She told me that there were three teachers, one in elementary school, one in middle school (guess who?!) and one in high school that really impacted her in a positive way. She lives in a major city on the East Coast and teaches third grade. She said that she, too, has discovered the importance and value of being real with her students, something that she learned way back in middle school. I have to admit that it made me a little nostalgic for my teaching career. I miss the relational aspect of it. But not enough to give up my current gig. (Not even close.)

Finally, while I believe that “the hug” was a defining moment in my teaching career, I know that it has also impacted my career as a Stay At Home Dad. I try to show my kids how much I care every single day. Sometimes it’s a hug, sometimes an encouraging word, sometimes just a safe place to let them vent. All I know is the importance of being real with them. I’ve worked hard to establish a trust and rapport with them so that they will feel comfortable with bringing big stuff to me for us to deal with. Together.

hugs-101

Advertisements

9/11 Memories

West Pierce (Washington state) 9/11 memorial

Thirteen years ago today, September 11, 2001, I woke up early before work to play basketball with some other men at my church. After basketball was over I drove to Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, Wisconsin, where I was a 7th grade science teacher. I taught periods 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9. In between I had meetings, supervision and planning time. At 7:50 am the bell rang and the students entered the building and made their way to their first period class. In Science that day I was giving them their first quiz of the young school year and then preparing them for the next day’s lab. Since all of my science classes included children with varying special needs there was an adult para-educator present each hour. As the 8 am start of the day neared the “para” for 1st hour asked if I’d heard the news about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. I was shocked that something like that could happen and had not heard the news since I’d been playing basketball or at work since 5:15 that morning. After the bell rang to start the day and the Pledge of Allegiance and announcements had finished over the speaker I welcomed my students to class and handed out their quizzes. While they were quietly working I quickly retrieved from my storage closet in my classroom the TV/VCR cart that the other 7th grade science teacher and I shared. I placed it near my desk, facing me (away from my students) and turned it on. I was curious to see what was going on in New York. What I saw on the TV screen horrified me. By that time, maybe 8:15 am Central time, both of the WTC towers had been hit by jetliners and black smoke was billowing out of the buildings. The para and I stood there speechless as the network announcers tried to keep their composure, watching along with the rest of us at the unfolding spectacle. Little did we know how much more would happen over the next 90 minutes. We had no idea we were witnessing one of the most significant events in the history of our nation. As my students turned in their completed quizzes they started to watch the news along with me. Once all of them were done, I turned the TV off for a moment and explained, as best I could, what had happened in New York that morning. I made the decision to scrap the rest of that day’s lesson plans and allowed my students to watch the news, as that was clearly of great interest to all of us. Just before the class was to be dismissed American flight 93 slammed into the Pentagon. I think I had NBC on, and they scrambled to show footage as best as they could of both the twin towers and the unfolding scene at the Pentagon. At this point I knew that this would be a day that none of us would ever forget.

8:50 am. Second hour kids entered more quietly than usual. Word had spread that something was happening in New York…and that Mr. Wilke had a TV in his room showing it. Once passing time was over I turned the TV away from the kids and told them that we were going to still go ahead with the quiz but that the rest of the lesson for the day had been scrapped so we could focus on the current events. They seemed to understand and started their quizzes. That gave me an opportunity to glance at the news again. It was about 8:55, and the crew was still in disbelief over the three hijacked planes and the subsequent attacks. They were trying to calmly talk about the rescue efforts going on in both locations when suddenly the South tower of the WTC collapsed. I’m pretty sure I made some sort of gasp or whelp because my students all looked up at me at the same time, wondering what I had just seen. I wondered the exact same thing. What had I just seen? Did that massive building just disintegrate before my very eyes? Oh, dear God, please help them. This is beyond terrible. All I could do was robotically turn the TV to face them so that they could see for themselves what had just happened. The sound was off but the picture was clear. This was destruction that none of us could ever comprehend. I collected their quizzes (I guess, although I don’t really recall doing it) and we all watched together. Then, not even 10 minutes later, United Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. More chaos on the TV. I was only 28 at the time and couldn’t make sense of it. I knew that my students couldn’t either. As the time wound down for second period I did something that I had never done before. I encouraged my students, “If you’re of the persuasion that believes in the power of prayer, now would be a good time.” I told them that I was not saying this as their teacher, but rather, as a fellow human being who was having trouble understanding what was going on. I don’t know if any of them prayed or not. I know that it’s all that I could do at that moment. As that class was being dismissed the second WTC tower collapsed. We all just stood in place for a few moments in stunned silence. Trying to process.

Third hour arrived and quietly took their seats. I made the same announcement as before about the quiz and change of lesson plans. While they worked on the quiz there was a knock on my door followed by a student handing me a note from the office. Apparently, the principal had decided that the tragic events in New York were too much for the 6th, 7th and 8th graders to watch. The note was to all teachers in the building, asking us to refrain from talking about it any more. Don’t show it. Just go about business as usual. Stick to your lesson plans. I ignored it. For the only time in my six years of teaching, I purposely disregarded the wishes of my administrator. There was no way that I could possibly try to stick to my original lesson plan. Not with what was happening. This was historic. This was, in my mind, on par with the Kennedy assassination. Bigger than the Challenger accident. Bigger than the original Gulf War “shock and awe” in 1990. I wanted my students to see this in real time. This was an event that would change America. I showed the para in my class the memo and she agreed with me that we should keep watching. I told my students what the principal had written and explained why I wasn’t complying with his wishes. They began to cheer but I quieted them with a reminder that this wasn’t about me being a rebel but rather about the significance of the moment. I told them

Remember where you are right now. Your kids and grandkids are going to ask you about this some day. 

The principal never showed up to check on my classes the rest of the day to see if I was obeying him. That’s not surprising since he only actually came to my room maybe four times in my five years at that school. By the time my 8th hour class arrived there had been no new attacks or developments like there had been in the morning. The kids were still unusually quiet. I believe that the severity and significance of the events earlier in the day were beginning to register with them. The school day ended without anything more significant happening and I was eager to get home to my family.

At that time we only had two daughters, ages 6 and 2. My wife was six weeks from completing her final rotation of Medical School and eight weeks from her due date with our third daughter. As a first grader, my oldest hadn’t heard anything about the day’s events and I was glad for her continued innocence. I guess she picked up on a little bit of the news so we tried to explain to her what had happened. I remember holding my two year old a bit longer that night when I rocked her to sleep in my arms. I’m pretty sure I sang God Bless America while holding her body, tears streaking down my face. Mourning the events of the day, the loss of so many innocent lives and  loss of innocence and security for people. We all know how much has changed as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Whether impacted directly through the loss of a loved one to the attacks or indirectly because we’re all part of one country and the human race, we must never forget what happened on that terrible Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Like I told my students 13 years ago, if you’re of the persuasion that believes in the power of prayer, now would (still) be a good time. Please take a moment (or more) today to honor the memory of those who perished, whether they were in the towers, on the planes or on the ground trying to help the victims. Even if you think it’s all too dramatic for your taste or that it somehow doesn’t affect you, at least have the courtesy to be quiet and allow others the space and freedom to remember in their own ways. If you have a memory of that day or a story to tell, please feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you experienced on this day 13 years ago.

God Bless America

 

Newton’s Laws of Parenting?

Before I became a Stay At Home Dad I was a teacher. I taught fifth grade for one year and then seventh grade science for five more years. I absolutely loved my teaching job as I was paid to get hormonally-challenged 12 and 13 year olds excited about science. Why would I love that? Because I got paid to blow things up and/or light stuff on fire. Okay, there was also a lot of actual scientific stuff but that’s not the point. Despite my love for fire (safety, of course!), my favorite unit of the year was the six weeks we spent on Physics, studying Newton’s Laws of Motion, among other things. I’m guessing that many of you are having trouble reading this because your eyes are starting to glaze over at the mere mention of science. Please, stay with me. I promise I’ll try to make it fun. You might even recall learning about Sir Isaac Newton, that famous guy who is credited with “discovering” gravity when he observed an apple fall from a tree. Sadly, it didn’t actually fall on his head like those Saturday morning cartoons portrayed it.

hqdefault

He also contributed mightily to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century in the fields of mathematics, physics and philosophy. You might also remember learning about Newton’s Laws of Motion. Words like inertia, force, mass, acceleration, rest, motion, action, reaction. I’ll wait for you to rub your eyes. Ready? Here’s where I hope it gets fun. It dawned on me recently that Newton’s Laws of Motion could easily be applied to parenting, especially if you happen to have teenagers in your house. So,buckle up! (Yeah, that was a nerdy Newton reference. Seat belts.)

Newton’s First Law, also called the Law of Inertia. Simply put, a body at rest stays at rest and a body in motion stays in motion, unless acted upon by another force. This could be renamed the Law of Sleeping In. Or the Law of Not Helping With Chores. Or the Law of Netflix. If you have teenagers in your life then you know that asking them to do anything before noon during the summer or weekend is pretty much not going to happen. Unless it’s something that they want to do, in which case they can be up and at ’em by 7 am or earlier. Trip to Six Flags leaves at 6:30 am? No problem. Could you please take out the trash by 8 am? No way. I’ll be sleeping. The motion part of this applies to toddlers/preschoolers. Once they’re awake it’s GO TIME! There is no slowing them down. They run (or crawl) everywhere. Sit down to eat? Maybe for a couple of minutes but they’re going to be squirming the whole time. Stop playing and go use the potty? Not a chance. And don’t bother trying to get them to wash their hands. And don’t get me started on bed time. Ha! Of course, Newton understood something that we as parents often forget. We have power. Use the force! (Wrong force, but I had to drop that in there.) Amazingly enough, we can help direct our children to change what they’re doing through a variety of methods, hopefully more creative and kinder than using actual force. Unless you lick your hand…it’s a joke my 10 year old taught me. Be the force that changes lives for the better.

newton-rest

His Second Law states that Force = mass x acceleration. You unknowingly apply this truth whenever you drive your car or even toss a ball to your child. If you want your car to go faster you need to press the gas pedal giving it more force. If you want to throw the ball down the hall so your kid has to go farther to retrieve it so you can play several turns on Candy Crush (shame on you, pay attention to you kid!) then you know that you have to use a small ball (less mass) and throw it with enough force. Hopefully you have good aim. But how does this apply to parenting? It doesn’t. It’s about motion. Kidding. Really, though, I like to think of this as showing that you don’t always have to use a lot of force to be a good parent. Sometimes being strong and forceful isn’t what’s needed. Maybe your kid needs you to lighten up a little bit and change the pace from the usual big bad wolf parenting that’s easily assumed. Run around with them. Have a sense of humor. Keep them on their toes. Be quick-witted. Push them to succeed without being oppressive. It’s a delicate balance that may need to be tweaked daily. If you’re too heavy-handed in your approach then you might force your child away. By the same token, you can draw your children to you (think of it as a reverse force or gravity) if you’re full of love and joy and patience.

The Third Law is the Action-Reaction Law. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It’s rocket science. Really. Balloons whooshing through the air if you let go of the untied end after blowing it up. It’s that toy that you see with five steel balls in a row suspended by string. One of my favorite toys from my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. This one is pretty easy to apply to parenting. Ever try to tell a toddler or teenager “no”? What’s the usual response? They do the opposite. Please don’t eat the dog food. Chomp. Chomp. Please set the table. Please leave your brother/sister alone. I suppose it’s all part of the push for independence in our kids. At some point they’re probably going to have to make decisions on their own and they won’t always be the ones we would choose for them. But, here’s the thing. As parents, we can help guide the direction of our young “rockets”. They don’t have to be like the aimless balloon going crazy all over the place. With some self-control and perhaps a fair amount of tongue-biting we can help give some direction to our children, starting when they’re young and innocent and continuing on all they way into their teenage years and beyond. My oldest is 19 and moved out two days after graduating from high school about 14 months ago. Yet, my parenting with her is not finished. She still calls and texts me (almost daily!) to ask for advice or simply to talk. Just because she’s not living at home now doesn’t mean my job is finished. My influence may not be as evident with her now as it is with my toddler, preschooler or my school-age children still at home, but it’s still significant. And all six of my kids are watching my actions just as much as I’m watching their reactions. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, our actions influence the lives of our children.

I hope my nerdy application of Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion to modern parenting was as entertaining for you as it was in my mind. If you like my action here, please give me some reaction by commenting, liking or sharing this across social media.

Short Shorts and School

Recently in Montreal, Canada, an 11th grade girl named Lindsey Stocker was suspended after her teacher enforced the school rule about her shorts being too short and she refused to comply with it. After she was suspended she posted flyers around the school that read:

Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing short. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.

A photo of Lindsey Stocker in the offending shorts.

This story is very interesting to me because people have taken it in a variety of directions. There are people who support her and feel that she was brave for standing up for herself. There are people who think she’s a spoiled brat teenager who needs to follow the rules. There are people who agree with her but also understand the idea of saving the short shorts for places where it’s more appropriate. There are people who feel that this type of school policy feeds into the rape culture of today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As a SAHD dad of six children and a former 7th grade teacher I can understand and appreciate many sides of this complex issue. I have five daughters. The older three, now 19, 14 and 12, all have their own sense of style and fashion that I, a 41 year old dad, don’t always understand. I have encouraged each of them to dress how they want as long as it’s appropriate for the situation. That gives them a lot of power and control over their wardrobe choices but also places some responsibility on them as well. Just because they could wear something doesn’t mean that they should. I was able to relate to them many instances from my short five year career as a 7th grade teacher when the wardrobe choices of students, both girls and boys, interfered with their education. If a girl is constantly tugging on her skirt or shorts to pull them down then she’s being distracted from concentrating on her studies just like if a boy is pulling up his pants so they don’t show his boxers. I want them to dress comfortably so that they can focus on their education and not their clothing.

Fair or not, another reality of school, and life in general, is that people will judge you by what you wear. Sure, there’s a wonderful saying to not judge a book by its cover and it’s true. Yet, at the same time, people all have their own preconceived notions and life experiences and they use those things to interpret what they see every day. It’s not always fair or accurate but it happens. I tried to dress professionally when I was teaching. Sure, I could wear jeans and a t-shirt every day, but I chose to wear khakis and a collared shirt and often a tie. Did that make me a better teacher than those that didn’t dress up? Certainly not. But it worked for me. I guess my former students would have to weigh in if they felt the appearance of their teachers made any difference in the quality of the education they received. Back in the 80s and early 90s I don’t recall any of my teachers wearing jeans or t-shirts. But by the late 90s and early 2000s that was more the norm at my school in Wisconsin. What’s it like now? My limited experiences in my kids’ schools shows a variety of attire among the staff, some that I would consider professional and some that are borderline unprofessional, if not downright sloppy.

While I appreciate that this young lady is trying to fight for her right to wear whatever she wants I think that she’s misguided in her efforts. A lot in life is about timing. It seems like she chose the wrong time and place to express her displeasure with the school’s dress code. Instead of disrespecting the teacher and administrator by refusing to comply with the established code she could have voiced her displeasure before it got warm and she wanted to wear the short shorts. It seems as though she was prepared to go into battle over this issue because she printed and posted the signs quickly after the initial confrontation. Instead of going into this with a mindset of I’ll show them she could’ve asked for an appointment with the administrator at her school and had a legitimate discussion. It wouldn’t have made for such a sensational story or gotten her the 15 minutes of fame with the media, but maybe it would’ve helped foster some actual policy change. Or at least saved her the humiliation of being on the wrong side of the dress code.

And speaking of the school’s dress code, I was reminded of a very heated staff meeting we had at my school when the principal dared to bring up the topic of the student dress code. People that I respected and considered friends were on opposite sides of the spectrum. Some felt that kids should be able to wear whatever they wanted while others felt that there was need for some modesty and consideration for others. After about 10 minutes it was obvious that there was little common ground and the issue was basically left unresolved. What that experience taught me was that even though there was a dress code in the student handbook, there were plenty of teachers who would refuse to enforce it and simply look the other way. Why did that matter? Imagine if a student came to my class in 4th period and I noticed that the shirt had something inappropriate on it that violated the dress code. If I bust that kid for not complying and he tells me that the teachers in his first three classes didn’t care…what kind of a message does that send the students? It’s confusing at best and downright impossible to follow at worst. As a teacher and as a parent, I’ve learned that my kids will thrive when I’m consistent with discipline and clearly communicate my expectations. When I fail to do those two things then I’m inviting trouble.

Finally, while I can appreciate that this young lady wants to make this suspension about rape culture in school and how this needs to be turned into a discussion about how to educate boys to not sexualize girls, I think she’s wrong. I agree that those are huge problems in our society that need to be dealt with immediately. But that’s unrelated to her suspension. She was suspended for not complying with the school’s established rules and disrespectfully disobeying when given the chance to make it right. It’s unfortunate, because those issues are important and must be dealt with sooner than later. The recent killing spree that left seven people dead in California should serve as a wake up call about how important it is to deal with misogyny in our society. Women are too often devalued and looked at only as sexual objects, a message that is promoted through television, movies, magazines, video games, the porn industry and many online groups. That thinking must change. But I don’t see how a high schooler defiantly wearing short shorts to school promotes that change.