Saturday, July 30, 2016

Being Someone's Champion

It's no secret around here that my husband and I have struggled to build the family we dreamed of having. I've written about the times when teaching hurts, and I've defended my teaching skills to people who question my abilities because I wasn't a parent. This struggle led us to hear a call to become foster parents. What I didn't realize at that time was how much that would impact me as a teacher.

My husband and I made the very difficult decision to stop fertility treatments in October 2014 after three grueling years of heartbreak and disappointment. On the day we decided we had had enough, we called to register ourselves for classes to become foster parents. We began those classes in January 2015 and became licensed in May 2015. On June 10, 2015, we received a phone call to take in a 6 day old baby boy. 15 hours later, we were at the hospital holding that little boy in our arms. Little did we know that nine months later that little boy would officially be our son. We have opened our home to four child (ranging in age from 6 days old to 16 years old), including our son, in the last year. I now view the world through the perspective of foster care, and I am changed.

As a teacher, children are the center of my world. Throughout my formal training in education and my many years working in the education/child care field, I had heard many, many stories about less-than-ideal home lives. I knew there were parents "out there" that struggled to provide safe homes for their children. Hearing those stories and actually living as a component of those stories are two completely different things. I thought I knew what it meant to be someone's champion. I had absolutely no idea until now.

Being someone's champion means loving them even when they do everything they can to sabotage it.

It's holding their hand when they are scared, confused, and sobbing because their world makes absolutely no sense all the while knowing there is little you can actually do to help it make sense for them. You wipe your tears and hold that hand anyway, and you tell them you will figure it out together.

Being someone's champion is promising to love them unconditionally for the rest of their lives.

It's shouldering the unknowns. Trauma does all kinds of damage to people no matter how small those people might be. When you are someone's champion, you recognize the possibility of that damage and say, "We'll deal with that when we need to. Until then, and when that time comes, we'll love you with all we have."

Being someone's champion is going out of your way to create experiences they might never get without you.

It's hard, uncomfortable work. You do it anyway, because it matters.

Being someone's champion means knowing them - really, truly knowing them - and anticipating what they might need next.

It's letting go even when that's the hardest thing in the world to do. Sometimes you can't be their only champion. Sometimes they need more than one.

My heart has been ripped out, stomped on, and ground up in the last year. At the same time, it has been fuller and happier than I ever dreamed it could be. I am a different person. I am a different teacher. When I look at my students, I see my son. My son who was given a terrible hand and lost everything. He needed a champion, and I was so happy and ready to be just that for him. I'm happy and ready to do the same for my students.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer Reading Favorites

My love for reading runs pretty deep within me. Some of my fondest memories of my childhood were taking weekly trips to the library with my mom and brothers. When I was in middle school, I remember going to the library and then sitting in our minivan and reading while my mom got groceries. When we got home, I helped bring in the groceries and then holed myself up in my bedroom to continue reading. I would typically have my books read after just a couple of days, and the wait would begin for the next trip to the library. My summer revolved around that tradition. 

Now, I have a little one of my own, and I'm doing everything I can to instill a love of reading in him too. He's only 13 months old right now, but he's very familiar with books. We have books everywhere! They're in the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, his bedroom, and the car. We take books to church and to restaurants. He knows books, and I love to watch him interact with them. I've started weekly trips to the library with him this summer too. Sometimes we drive. Sometimes we walk. The walking trips are my favorite. It's a half hour trip there when we walk, which means he's itching to get out of the stroller by the time we get there. I gather the books we will check out, and then I give him a good chunk of time to run and explore. He plays with the giant Connect Four game in the Story Time room. He climbs on the big floor pillows. His favorite thing to do, though, is play with the stacking toys on the little tables. He throws them all over the place. He has so much fun while we are there! 

I can only hope this weekly experience does for him what it did for me. I hope it turns him into a reader. We've read some amazing books this summer. I have been late to the game for a lot of them, but I'm so glad I picked them up this summer! Here's a look at some of our favorites: (All pictures are courtesy of Goodreads.)


Friday, July 8, 2016

Losing My Fire

I haven't posted in a while. My life changed significantly over the last year, which is a blog post for a different day. Many days were a battle, and blogging just wasn't high on my priority list. In many ways last year was the most positive and successful year of my life. At the same time it was one of the worst. Unfortunately, the part of my life that took the biggest hit this last year was my teacher life. I had a tough year in the classroom. It took me longer than usual to connect with my students, and I think I will always remember this year for that reason. Right from the beginning I could tell I had a class with more needs (academically and socially) than an average class. I caved under the pressure of meeting those needs. Looking back now there are so many things I would have done differently.

First of all, I have always been a teacher who focuses on relationships. I work hard to get to know my students so I can serve them in whatever way they need. This year, I plowed through the unfamiliar curriculum instead of taking the time on those relationships. I was new to my district this year and there was no carry-over on any of the curricula. Math was different. Reading was different. Writing was different. Even science and social studies were different. I was starting all over (or at least I thought I was). I over-emphasized the importance of getting through the stuff, and my relationships crumbled. Every day took all the fight I had just to get through. It wasn't until April that I felt like I actually knew my students and they were beginning to know me. In March, my husband and I adopted our son, and I shared that moment with my students. At the same time, my students were doing Star of the Week so they were sharing their lives as well. Those two moments changed everything. Suddenly, I felt confident in the classroom again - I felt like I belonged. I'm pretty sure they felt the same way. As I shared such a huge life-changing moment with them, they were able to open up about their interests, passions, and lives, and I could feel everyone relax. I wish I could go back in time and spend the first couple of weeks really getting to know my students. The year would have gone differently.

Secondly, my passion for teaching reading didn't shine through this year. I devoted my fifth year of teaching to teaching my students to love reading - to love books. As I told one of my team members this last year, I was on fire that year and that fire burned brightly. This year, I lost that. As I mentioned before, I was overwhelmed by the curriculum. I never strayed too far from it out of fear of my students missing out on something important. I attempted to come out of the gate strong. I started Daily 5 with my students on the first day of school. We discussed, at length, the urgency of spending time reading every day for the first couple of weeks of school. Then I fizzled. There was just too much other stuff to get through, so I dragged them all along with me as I worked to figure it out. We didn't celebrate books. We didn't share books. We didn't recommend books to each other. We just slogged our way through the day. Now, most of my students loved Daily 5 time anyway, which I'm grateful for. They would complain if we didn't do it. I know it could have been more meaningful for them, though. I could have set them up for long-lasting success. The curriculum can wait a bit.

Lastly, I had a terrible attitude. On top of starting this job in a new district, I was attempting to handle being a new foster mom. There's so much I can say about the foster care life, but that would be a post (or 20) all on its own. For now, I'll suffice it to say, it's hard. There were many days I was just seconds away from bursting into tears, so I did what I've always done - used my classroom, my students, and my school as an escape. During those school hours, I worked hard to forget I was a foster parent. I was mostly successful at this. There was a constant under currant though. The stress, the worry, and the fear of the unknown was always there whether I acknowledged it or not. It made me irritable, even against my greatest efforts to not let it do that. Turns out, there is only so much I can handle with grace. When I reach my limit, I can be a bit of a grouch. I've spent a good portion of my summer reflecting on this and praying for more strength, patience, and understanding next year. Foster care is still hard - having a year of experience under my belt doesn't change that. I do know more about how it all works, and, with enough prayer, maybe this year my threshold for stress, worry, and fear can be just a little bit higher.

In March, I sat in my principal's office just before his second observation of me with tears streaming down my face. I told him I felt like a disappointment. I felt like I had failed to be the teacher I promised I would be in my interview. He kindly smiled at me and assured me I hadn't disappointed anyone. When I look at the data from the year, my students made excellent growth. Most of them met the goals laid out for them in our various standards, and I feel they are ready for second grade. I find comfort in that knowledge. It was a rough year, but it wasn't fruitless. My goal now is to learn from last year, make some improvements, and be that much more better next year. I think I can do it!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

They Matter Too

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. Appreciation isn't something teachers feel all the time, so it's nice to have a week cut out to recognize all that we do. As I thanked a handful of my students for the beautiful flowers and yummy tea they brought me to show their appreciation, I found myself reflecting on the teachers I had growing up. It seems to me that most people can identify one or two teachers who really made a difference in their lives. For most people, there was that one teacher who cared more, pushed more, and worked harder to change their lives. I went through most of my formal education without one. (There was one who was close. He probably could have been "that teacher" if we had actually built a relationship. That's all below though. :) )

I realize that statement sounds weepy and mopey and sad. That's not at all my intention. Rather I want to raise awareness for students who are like me in the hopes that some teacher will recognize them and be "that one teacher" for them. 

First, let me tell you a little about me as a grade-school student. I was the quiet girl. I wasn't gifted, creative, funny, or witty. I also wasn't attention-seeking, angry, loud, or (for lack of a better term) low. I just existed. I did what I needed to do, although I didn't typically put too much extra effort into it. It didn't seem to matter if I put extra effort into it; no one would have noticed. I just got by. I had a few friends. I came to school everyday. I didn't need much, so I didn't get much. I never felt like my teachers really saw me. 

By the time I got to middle school, the results of being completely vanilla were taking their  toll. Because no one had recognized anything special in me, I didn't believe there was anything special about me. In seventh grade, I think my science teacher saw something. He chose me to be a part of the science club that got to dissect pigs. I was pretty excited about this. After all, my brother, who everyone knew was among the brightest in his class, didn't even do this. When the day finally came for the club to meet for the first time, I was so stinkin' nervous I didn't know what to do. I think I asked my science teacher to clarify exactly where I would be going and when about a million times. I struggled to accept the fact that I was actually going to be a part of that opportunity. Someone had seen something in me and I thought he was wrong. No way I was "good enough" to do this. 

That same science teacher recognized me again later in the year when we did a project on landscaping. After completing the project, he chose mine as an example to send to the University of Northern Iowa where a class was doing something similar. Once again, I was completely surprised. He chose my project? Does he know that it belonged to me? Is he sure he wants to send that one? If he had taken the time to really get to know me - to really build a relationship with me and show me he cared - he could have been "that teacher" for me.

I wish I could say that was a turning point for me - that suddenly I saw the "special" in me and took off. That's not what happened though.

It took me years to realize that I was capable of achieving good grades. As a freshman in high school, I just decided that I was going to get As. My brother was doing that, so I was going to too. It wasn't because I had been nurtured to believe I could do it; it was just because I decided to make it so. I laugh when I think of my ITED scores in high school. (After all, standardized tests are what make a student a student, right...) During my junior year, my school bribed us with a day off if we could do one of two things: score in the 90th percentile or raise our score by 10%. I did both. I didn't suddenly become a better test taker or have more knowledge than I did the years before. I simply didn't want to be left behind by my smart friends who would undoubtedly get the day off. Imagine what I could have done if someone had really taken the time to see my potential. 

I still struggle with confidence to this day. I constantly second-guess myself. When I fall, I fall hard. Luckily, in my adult life, I have crossed paths with an encouraging college professor and a fantastic principal. They have pushed me in ways I couldn't have pushed myself, and it has made a world of difference. I am better because of them. Would my life be different if I had had them in my life when I was in elementary school?

As I think about my current group of first graders, I know I have students just like me in my class. My hope is that in some way I have made the effort to help them feel seen. I hope I have given them a burst of confidence to get them through some rough spots. I hope they don't have to rely on themselves to get down the road ahead. I know I cannot expect perfection from myself, and I know I will make mistakes. Those kids - those quiet, problem-free kids - deserve to be seen though. They matter too. It's my job to make sure they know that.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's That Time of Year Again

I normally try to keep my blog posts upbeat, but this time of year has gotten under my skin. I hate this time of year. Many teachers I've talked with dread the beginning of the year. That time when students don't know the expectations and are the youngest they'll be all year can certainly be intimidating. It's the time we put in some of the hardest work of the whole year creating a classroom environment, establishing routines, and building strong relationships. It's a tough time of year, no doubt. For me, though, this time of year (March and April) is my least favorite.

I hate the uncertainty. This is about the time of year when budgets for the next year are discussed, which, of course, means decisions on possible job cuts. In my five years of teaching, I have never had the peace of knowing I would have a job the next year. When I was teaching preschool, I took to marketing like a crazy person to try to attract parents to my preschool every. stinking. spring. I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling I had when no one, seriously no one, came to registration night that first year. I was completely defeated. Last year, there was uncertainty as to whether there would be enough students for me to move up to first grade. It's exhausting, and, in the interest of being completely honest, had I known this was the way teaching would be I might have chosen a different career.

It's not just the uncertainty of this time though. I hate saying goodbye to good people when new jobs are taken or retirements are celebrated. Saying goodbye to the people who had supported me my first three years of teaching after accepting a job in my current district was difficult. They had been there for me during some challenging times, and they put in many extra hours to support my efforts to build a quality preschool. I hated telling them I was leaving. Last year, I was so grateful I missed the staff meeting (thank you late parents!) during which my principal announced he was leaving. I knew what he was going to say and I just didn't want to hear those words. Throughout the school year, I bond with the people around me. We are in this together, after all. It sucks when that bond is broken.

Then, of course, there are the kids. I hate the fact that in just a few weeks "my kids" will no longer be "my kids." We are our own little family. Certainly we have our issues from time to time, as every family does, but each person in my classroom has his/her own role and mostly we function well together. I cherish each and every one of them, and I don't want to break that up. We have a good thing going! They're ready for second grade, and I know they'll find a new role in their new classes. I just want to keep them forever with me.

Speaking of moving my kiddos up to second grade, I hate the insecurity of worrying whether or not I did a good job with this group. Are they going to do okay with a different teacher? Will their next teacher be frustrated that they never quite got the hang of the whole organization thing? (We still routinely have sweatshirts or coats or hats or mittens on the floor of our coatroom. I do the best I can to teach organizational skills. What if that's not enough?) Are my students going to get mixed in with the other kids and not fair as well academically? Will their new teachers understand when my wiggly guys wiggle from time to time? I have students who still occasionally forget to capitalize the first letter in their sentence. Is that okay? I have students who aren't super fast with their addition facts. Is that okay?

There's just so much.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to May. I look forward to celebrating the time my kids and I have had together and the hard work we have all done. Hopefully, by May, things will be more smooth. There will always be unknowns - that's just life in general - but we will be a few steps closer to figuring them out.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Our Future Will Be Great - Part III

Yikes! It's been a long time since I've posted, and I never finished my series on the incredible students I get to call mine this year. This is the final installment, and I'm so glad I took the time to pay tribute to each kiddo. I have a truly fantastic group this year, and they deserve every ounce of kindness and love I've poured into these posts.

Here we go - the final six!

14 - This guy is the spice in our classroom. He has quick comebacks and witty comments about nearly any situation. He is bubbly, happy, and knowledgeable about all kinds of things. I love this guy’s love of dancing. He asks me to put on the Cha Cha Slide every afternoon and dances like a crazy person. Recently, he has inspired a new version on this dance which is done entirely while laying on the floor on top of his backpack. It’s hilarious! This guy is a smile-maker!

15 - I struggle to come up with the words to fully describe my feelings about this one. He is another one of my inspirations. He won’t let me do the run-of-the-mill “school stuff;” he demands more from me and he calls me on it when I don’t deliver. I’m very grateful for this. Every teacher needs a student who asks more of them, and every student deserves a teacher who will listen. I’m more than happy to be that teacher for him. He has inspired all kinds of greatness this year, and I can’t wait to see who else he inspires as he gets older.

16 - This girl is brilliant! Even more important than that, though, she’s hardworking and driven. She’s also a reader. I’m not talking the regular ole’ first grade reader who will read when asked to. I’m talking the reader who devours books - who chooses to read at recess, in the line waiting to be dismissed, and probably any other place she has a book. Even though she is quiet, we have bonded many times over a great book, and I just know we will in the future too!

17 - Sweet and innocent are the best words I can think of to describe this active little guy. He makes me laugh on a regular basis by the things he says and his genuine child-ness. This guy is our resident super hero expert; he can give you the full rundown of Spider Man from beginning to end. He also has an incredibly caring nature, and I know he wouldn’t hurt a fly in any situation. He wants to be loved and to love right back. He’s just fantastic!

18 - I love to laugh with this one. Seriously. His laugh kills me. It’s the greatest. We have the same type of personality which allows us to get each other. He amazes me in many ways. He has a focus and attention to detail that I would never expect from a first grader. His dedication and inquisitive nature allow him to make the best out of everything. I absolutely admire the way he can make good choices even when those around him are not. He’s going to be an amazing asset to our future!

19 - This guy has the greatest combination of humor/silliness and kindness/compassion. He cares deeply about the people around him. Even though he is quiet, his friendships are strong and he is greatly liked by the people around him. I love the silly side of this guy too. His smile is the greatest, and he often cracks jokes when I least expect them. This guy has worked so hard this year, and he definitely deserves an award for that. He’s going places!

So there you have it! I'm going to have such a hard time saying goodbye to this group, and I can't believe I will be doing that in just two months. These kids have made me a better teacher, and, better yet, a better person. I'm thankful for each moment I've spent with them, and I hope they leave first grade knowing they are loved.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Our Future Will Be Great! - Part II

I'm finally sitting down to continue my series on the greatness in my classroom that I started here. I'm so excited to introduce you to the next seven kiddos in my class! They're a great group, and I am amazed each day by their talents and genuine sweetness!

7 - This little one has the sweetest face and can light up a room with her smile. She is quiet which makes the words she chooses to use that much more important to me. My favorite thing about her is her unprompted hugs and kind words. On a fairly regular basis, I’ll find myself busily doing something, and, without even realizing she is there, I’ll feel her small arms circle my waist or her warm head lean against my shoulder. In those moments, I’m reminded to slow down and simply enjoy her. Her quiet, “I love you, Mrs. Hansen,” fills me up!

8 - When I think of this young girl, one word pops into my head: soft. I know that that can sometimes be a bad thing. People who are weak are often referred to as soft. That’s not at all what I mean with this lovely. Her type of soft is the type that allows me to trust her with absolutely everything. She is happy and caring and has a genuine drive to better herself. She’s cute as a button and has passions I know nothing about, which intrigues me. School is not always easy for her, but she always puts her best foot forward. She takes my suggestions and puts them to good use, and I appreciate her so much for this.

9 - This lovely is another one of my quiet ones. She is a beautiful child - not just in physical appearance but also in character. She is one of my friends who keeps our classroom rolling smoothly. She’ll pick things up without being asked. She’s always ready to be a good friend, and she tries her hardest with everything. She is turning into a fantastic reader, and I can’t get enough of listening to her. I can’t wait to watch her grow up and see where she goes. I know she is capable of big things!

10 - It’s hard for me to talk about this lovely without tearing up a bit. She is another one who has been with me for two years, and my bond with her is very strong. Last year wasn't easy. We butted heads a lot. Luckily, both of us have changed quite a bit since those fairly ugly first days together. I've learned to recognize success everywhere, and she has grown up and matured before my eyes. What I absolutely love about this little girl is her ability to stay positive every day. She comes into the room each day with a smile on her face, and she leaves each day with a smile. She is a good one for random hugs too, but my favorite thing is when she’ll grab my hand when we’re walking down the hallway. I love that she’s not too old for that, and I’ll never grow tired of knowing she loves me as much as I love her!

11 - I cannot get enough of this beauty! I love her innocence. She is one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. She is sensitive too, which makes her a great friend. I appreciate her dedication to her work. She is engaged in nearly every activity we do, and I know I can count on her to produce high-quality work. What I love the most about her is that despite her intelligence and diligence, she still challenges and questions herself; she wants to do her best and she happily takes on the extra work needed to get there.

12 - This lovely has spunk! She is sassy (in a positive way) and she makes each day exciting. I love that she loves school. She gives our classroom the energy it needs to make it a great place for everyone. Her passion for reading is incredible. She often chooses to read during inside recess, and she’s always recommending books to me and her friends. Just the other day I sat down next to her to conference with her and she said, “Mrs. Hansen. This is a great book! You should read it!” I love that enthusiasm!

13 - This guy makes me laugh on a daily basis. What I love the most about him is that he gracefully makes mistakes. He is a fantastic role model to his peers for that reason. When he makes mistakes, he doesn’t get upset; he just asks for clarification and starts over again with a smile on his face. I hope this rubs off on all of my kiddos! This little guy has one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard too! I smile every time I hear it; it’s the perfect reminder of the good in this world!

I've got six more fantastic lovelies to introduce the world to! Stay tuned!