The One Mistake to Avoid this School Year

Your best teacher is your last mistake

With the first day of school just around the corner, the end-of-summer-overwhelm is here. In front of you lies a plethora of planning and preparing, sharpening and stacking, cleaning and copying. All tasks that need to, and will (yes will), get done before students arrive.

Yet, in addition to the tasks, there is something just as important to be thinking about. It’s something that the best teachers do. You know it when you see it, but it can be hard to plan for. Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you about my mistake. I sure don’t want you to repeat it!

The Mistake

A couple of years in to teaching, I thought I was doing OK. Lesson plans, grading system, behavior management – check, check, and check. That’s when a school counselor pulled me aside. I hadn’t gone to her; awkwardly, she had the need to come to me.

One of my students wanted to get out of my class. It wasn’t the subject-area, or the difficulty, or the other kids in the class; it was meShe acts like a robot, he said, she never shows any feelings.

I was immediately defensive and bewildered. Here I was, trying so hard to get it all “done” and get it all “right”, and now I had to share myself too! When I calmed down though, I started thinking about the successful teachers at my school. You know, the ones that everyone, from students to families to administration, loves.

The Solution

What were they doing that I wasn’t? How were we so different? What I discovered was that my student was right! These highly effective teachers didn’t stop at lesson plans and behavior management. They also shared their themselves and their humanness. In return, the students responded in ways that I wasn’t experiencing.

Three Examples

Share a Skill

One of my most admired middle school colleagues shares herself through her knowledge of origami. During down time in math class, she talks about the connection between math and the art of paper folding. From there, she teaches her students how to make paper cranes, which are then delivered around campus on special occasions. One fortunate day, I was visited with the gift of a colorful, hand-crafted bird. Along with the delivery came pride-filled, and motivated, students. It was evident that, because their teacher had shared her humanness, these children had come to see themselves as mathematicians, artists, and givers.

Share a Story

An elementary teacher (who I secretly wish I could be!) shares herself in a different way. She told me the story of a student who was recently challenged by state testing. Sitting at the computer, hands still, tears welled up in his eyes. Instead of just telling him to keep going she told him a story, about herself. Recounting her own childhood test-anxiety, this teacher shared how stomach-achy and nerve-racking testing days had been for her; but that she had survived. Then, out to recess he went. You know what happened? The student came back in, sat right down, and typed his essay. This teacher’s willingness to share her humanness inspired perseverance in her young student, in a way that just telling him to try harder never could have.

Share a Passion

There’s a special education teacher that I look up to. Students who go through his classroom face numerous challenges, at school and at home. Now this teacher is an avid cyclist. He gets places faster by bike than I do by car. It’s one of his loves. A few years ago, he had some students that needed movement, and a lot of it. Instead of telling them to settle down, or making them sit at their desks doing tiny exercises, this teacher brought a stationary bike to the classroom. When his students needed a break they could cycle for a few minutes, and then rejoin the group. Through his passion he shared his humanness, and met the needs of his students on their terms.

Your Turn

As you spend these last few days getting ready, please remember not to get so caught up (like I did) in the doing that you forget about who you are as a being. As your primping your room, and priming your lessons, make sure to ponder how you will share your humanness on the first day, and throughout the year.

You never know who you might help by sharing a little bit of yourself! Have an idea about expressing your humanness in the classroom? Write it in the comments.





Give Yourself Permission – It’s All About YOU

Give yourself permission


I know you’re passionate about what you do. And I’m going to bet that sometimes you overdo it. If so, you’re in good company here!

Be Cognizant of the Propensity to Overdo It

When I’ve overdone it, my body tells me. I physically hit a wall, and I have to stop (You know the migraines I’m talking about, right?)

Because it’s July, I’m already thinking about the school year ahead. I bet you have those whispers too. Wondering what day you’ll start getting your room ready. Who will your kids be? How will you hook them on day one? But it’s also important to be thinking about yourself. What will you do to avoid hitting the wall, even in the busiest times, this year? If you don’t, you’ll be no good to anyone.

Give Yourself Permission

This topic has been on my mind a lot this summer. As I stretch myself to do new things, I’m cognizant of the propensity to overdo it. So I tried to think of advice I’d give to new teachers. Those who have yet to go through the full cycle of the year. The most important step I realized, is to give yourself permission. Permission to step away, re-group, and rejuvenate so you can come back fresh and full of joy for those you serve.

Listen Deeply

I hope you’ll take a moment to ponder this. To listen deeply to what it is you’d like to give yourself permission for. What will be your buoy in the coming year? Please share it in the comments. Who knows how many people you’ll touch by sharing your wisdom!

For concrete tips on how to create time for yourself see my guest post on TeacherPop, Teach for America’s blog, 9 Ways Over 9 Months to Create Time for Yourself as a New Teacher“.



A Slice of Certainty

Slice of Confidence

If you’ve found my blog you’ve likely noticed the tag line. I wrote it to resonate with you, the teacher reading this. But I also wrote it for myself. You see I wanted to remind us all that even when we don’t feel like we’re doing an amazing job, it’s likely we’re still doing great things. And we need to be certain of that fact.

When I first started teaching I lived in constant fear of being found out. I was terrified that someone was going to walk into my room and see that I really was a horrible teacher after-all. Who is this woman, they would say, and why in the world did we hire her?!

Too much uncertainty will deplete you.

It’s not that reality substantiated these fears. No, the opposite was true. My colleagues were complimentary. The principal wanted me to increase my time. My job was secure. I even received a couple of award nominations from students. Together these things seem like they would show a person she is successful. However, I just couldn’t be certain. And this uncertainty left me depleted and distracted.

Now, I’m sure some of this is just my personality (yes, I can be a bit self-critical). But I also believe this is a commonality in our profession. I say this because I’ve seen it so many times. Some in tears, unsure of their abilities as they blamed themselves for a lesson gone wrong. Others questioning if the principal really thought they were doing a good job. Usually these comments came from the most respected teachers. People who I, and others, aspired to be like.

Your quest to improve doesn’t implicate lacking.

Of course taking responsibility, and being on a quest to constantly improve, is a good thing. It’s part of being a great teacher. If we think we have arrived, it’s a sure sign that we haven’t. But it’s a fine line between questioning one’s abilities and reaching for more. The former tends to get in our way, while the latter is a propelling force.

It wasn’t that long ago when I finally realized that advancing my practice does’t have to be based in uncertainty and self-criticism. Instead, I can be both confident in my current capacity and still endeavor to be better. When this finally settled inside of me, my teaching changed. I became lighter. People actually told me I looked younger. Having fun while learning became more of a goal. Taking risks to try new things felt invigorating. And all of this rubbed off on my students.

Savor your wins and build from there.

Too often, in school, learning how to do something means there was a time we weren’t good at it. While there may be truth to this, it’s time to switch the paradigm. I no longer believe it’s productive to concentrate on what might be missing, on the things we aren’t sure about. Instead we need to focus on our/our student’s strengths. Let’s savor our wins and build from there.

As I end my first year of being in a new position, I realize that I truly did let go of my fear of being found out. Although I had many moments of being nervous about doing well, and I constantly sought to improve, I didn’t doubt myself in the same way. Instead I moved through the year with a slice of certainty. And that slice had a sweet taste indeed!

Want to know more about teaching with certainty?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some ways you’ve been uncertain, or doubted yourself, as an educator? Does that get in your way? What have you done/realized to change your perspective?

Growth Mindset (or lack thereof) – Finding humor and human in a difficult situation

We have a special code at my house for “good job”. Step in the door with a high grade, a win, or any other action worthy of commendation, and you’ll receive the exclamation “Bad Addis!” (I’m sure you get the euphemism). But it didn’t start that way. When I first heard “Bad Addis” it really meant, “You’ve done a bad job Mrs. Addis”.

Beginner's Mind Pin

During my decade-plus as a special education teacher I had the fortune of working with teenagers, many of whom communicated in their own ways. Some used their words, some used their drawings, and some used their bodies. Throughout the year I would become attuned to their modes of expression. And along the way I would discover both who my students were, and who I was. I would also discover that mistakes aren’t the end, they are the beginning (@34:19).

The event that sparked our family saying involved an angry, frustrated student. I can’t even remember why, so it must have been something small in my mind. Obviously it was something big in his. As a student of few words, he shared his sentiments by turning his back to me. Then he walked to a corner where a study carrel joined the wall, and stayed there.

I was doing the best I could.

Imagining myself the consummate behaviorist I was not going to “pick up the rope”. Instead, I would ignore his actions. And that’s how I found myself in the middle of a power struggle. He with his back turned, and me acting as if this was a regular school day. The more I ignored, the more he tried to get my attention, the more I ignored. And so we went, with little resolution. In hindsight this does seem a bit absurd, but in the moment I was doing the best I could.

As things progressed neither of us was satisfied. I really wanted to get him back on track, right then. He really wanted me to react. I know this because with the passing moments his behavior heightened. It began with surreptitious glances in my direction, ramped up to verbal accusations of “Bad Addis”, and crescendoed with declarations of “F*ck Addis”. Honestly I don’t even remember how the situation ended. Rest assured though, we do still have a positive relationship.

I felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher.

Needless to say I ended that day deflated. Not only had I failed to teach my student, but I felt like all my training and expertise had left me twisting in the wind. I was confronted with my lacking and felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher. At the time, growth mindset hadn’t hit the scene. I had no idea that mistakes are part of learning. I didn’t know that all successful people make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. I didn’t have the words to say to myself, “I’m not good at this yet, but one day I will be better. Instead I settled with “Boy do I suck!”.

After school I dragged myself home, hoping for some no-holds-barred sympathy. I imagined group hugs, and pats on the back, and lots of “It’s OKs”. At the dinner table I asked my family, “Wanna hear what happened today?” “Sure” they replied, with that questioning inflection that means not really but I’m trying to be polite. Deep into the story, as soon as I machine-gunned the phrase “Bad Addis” they burst into laughter. Actually it was more like doubled-over, belly aching, guffaws. No sympathy, just unabashed merriment at my expense. It was then that I finally saw the humor of my day, and I realized the gift my student had given me.

In that moment of laughter I was proud of myself.

I discovered in that moment of laughter that I was proud of myself, and proud of my student. I knew then that we had both tried our best, albeit in clunky unproductive ways, to communicate our needs. Both of us human, and both of us wanting something positive from the other. Me wanting him to learn, and him wanting me to acknowledge his frustration. And I also realized that we were both “Bad Addis!” for giving it our all. Even if I wasn’t a hero that day, I had put in the effort. Tomorrow would be another chance to do better.

So the next time you don’t get it right put your hands on your hips, relish that power stance, and declare that you too are “Bad Addis!” Tomorrow will come and you will have another chance to pour your heart in, just as you did today. Only you will do so having learned a little in the process.

Want to know more about Growth Mindset or Behavior Management?

Growth Mindset

Behavior Management