An Apple a Day

The teaching of children should not be sacrificed in favor of paperwork - ever!

Monday, March 02, 2015

Teaching with Compassion

For more years than I’d like to recall, I lived with chronic pain. It was difficult to hide from anyone at my school, but I did my best to make sure it didn’t get in the way of my teaching. I would pace the back of the room during faculty meetings because I couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. I would lie on the torn hunter green vinyl couch in the teacher’s lounge when no one was around even for five minutes just to take the pressure off. I didn’t want pity, and I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to make concessions for me. But in my quest to appear strong I never received compassion either. No one understood why I couldn’t do bus duty or hall duty. They couldn’t see the source of my pain and it wasn’t an easy thing to explain. It’s hard enough dealing with our own afflictions. How can we then nurture those students whose special needs baffle or even disturb us?
            Students with learning, physical or developmental difficulties battle daily for a chance to learn. Some disabilities are easy to see when they wheel down the hallway or open their mouth to speak. Others are less visible, and some are even hidden from our view. Some students will go to great lengths to go unnoticed, while others have no way to control their explosion onto the scene. They don’t want your pity, but they desperately need your compassion.
            How do you respond to a child in need, especially a child whose needs you don’t readily understand nor relate to? Discomfort might sometimes slow us, but it should never stop us from answering the call God has placed on us – to reach and teach His children.
            Another’s infirmity is your chance to bestow an act of mercy or compassion. But we’re all disabled in some way. In your own feeble state you, too, can do whatever it takes to strengthen yourself even in your weakness, so that only holiness will be center stage and not your disability.
            Each child placed in your care this year is by divine assignment. If you catch yourself cringing when you realize the extra paperwork, additional conferences, and accommodations and modifications you’ll have to make for particular children, take a breath and remember it’s not a mistake. Your class roster is filled with children hand-picked just for you. When their many needs threaten to overwhelm you, be encouraged that God always equips those He calls.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many (Hebrews 12:12-15).

            If a child’s affliction feels like a thorn in the side to you, be mindful of it for what it truly is – a way to keep you humble, a reminder to be more compassionate, and an opportunity to pour grace by the buckets full on anyone within reach. Their afflictions should never be a burden to us. God will give you the grace new every morning so that you in turn can give grace to those who need you the most. I know it’s hard, but remember, you’re practicing your acts of mercy.

Vicki Caruana is an assistant professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in New York as well as the author of a number of books to encourage teachers including Apples & Chalkdust, Kisses of Sunshine for Teachers, and Recess for Teachers. Visit her website for more encouragement at

Monday, February 23, 2015

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson!

It's Teacher Appreciation week and I encourage you to take some time to appreciate the teachers you had THEN and NOW.

As I searched images to show you something that depicted the power of a teacher as a role model, I realized I already had one that was perfect from my own personal images. 1969, first grade, me and Mrs. Robinson!

That was the year I decided I wanted to be a teacher too.

What was it about Mrs. Robinson that caused me to look up to her in such awe? I was happy. Can you tell? But what I remember and what this picture shows is that SHE saw ME! I wasn't just one more student in her class. I wasn't a head to be filled with knowledge. When she looked at me, I knew she really saw me.

Being known and loved anyway - precious.

As teachers we are role models. But it's the power in our ability to build authentic relationships with our students that makes the difference. Six year old, little redheaded girls, don't look up to statuesque, confident teachers because of their hairdo's or because of their smarts. We're in awe of their heart-warming ability to see through the failed math test, the not so perfect handwriting, and the stumbling over three syllable words during reading and into the people we are.

So, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. You loved me more than I will ever know. Thank you for being the model I follow!

Need ideas for great gifts for teachers? Check here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The ABC's of Grades: Reflecting on the End of the Term

It's the end of the term and I am inevitably dealing with students who after spending little to no time on their assignments during the semester are asking on the last day "What can I do to get at least a B?"

They are in constant contact with me during the past 48 hours questioning every point, every missing grade, and every evaluative decision I've made of their work thus far.

I wish they had been that engaged DURING the semester. And I've even told them so.

But when this happens, I always take a closer look at how I orchestrated this course and whether or not I had structured it in a way to encourage students to become deeper learners and not just strategic learners or surface learners. Here's the difference.

  • Deeper Learners: respond well to the challenge of mastering a difficult and complex subject. These are intrinsically motivated students who are often a joy to teach!
  • Strategic Learners: are motivated primarily by rewards. They react well to competition and the opportunity to best others. They often make good grades but won’t engage deeply with a subject unless there is a clear reward for doing so. They are sometimes called “bulimic learners,” learning as much as they need to do well on a test or exam and then promptly forgetting the material once the assessment is over.
    • How to handle them: Handle strategic learners by avoiding appeals to competition. Appeal to their intrinsic interest in the subject at hand. Design your assignments (tests, papers, projects, etc.) so that deep engagement with the subject is necessary for success on the assignments. Do so by requiring students to apply, synthesize, or evaluate material instead of merely comprehending or memorizing material.
  • Surface Learners: are often motivated by a desire to avoid failure. They typically avoid deep learning because it they see it as inherently risky behavior. They will often do what it takes to pass an exam or course, but they won’t choose to go beyond the minimum required for fear of failure.
    • How to handle them: Handle surface learners by helping them gain confidence in their abilities to learn and perform. “Scaffold” course material and assignments by designing a series of activities or assignments that build on each other over time in complexity and challenge. Encourage these learners often and help them reflect on what they've learned and what they've accomplished.
Source: Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 40-41.

The students that often come out of the woodwork  to somehow "pull it out" in the end or who show up in tears with every excuse under the sun as to why they weren't able to do the work are most often surface learners.

Of the 75 students I taught this term, eight (8) of them fell into this category. As I look at how I structured my courses I see that there are a couple of areas where I can do a better job scaffolding the assignments. As I look toward the next semester, I am engaged in deep learning to examine motivation theory and its impact on my learners.

I can control both the text and the context in which my students learn, but I can't control the "self" of each of them and how they choose to engage in the material. So my advice to all educators is to control that which you can control, and know you gave them your very best.

The rest, is up to them.