Motivational moments: TCTA members share their stories of classroom success and the strategies they swear by

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2013

Growing from mistakes

At the beginning of school last year, I decorated my bulletin board with the theme “GROW – building from the bottom – work + organization + responsibility = greatness” and prepared a plant for each class to pot and nurture. Students placed soil in the pot one spoonful at a time and planted the plant as I explained the importance of work, organization and responsibility. Adding water, I reminded them this plant was their responsibility. They would determine whether it became a great plant or withered and died. The analogy was to teach them to become great in debate.

A few weeks later, one of the plants began to look awful. I commented on it in class one day. After class, a student told me a student had poisoned it. I was shocked! I explained to my class how hurt I was that someone would try to kill something so beautiful.

The student who was responsible came forward, apologized and bought a new plant. I took the dying plant, washed it, put it in a new pot and took it home. But that isn’t the end of the story.

This spring, the student graduated. My “plant killer” has grown into a good man who plans to join the military. And at our graduation party, I was able to show a plant that looked like it was a lost cause, yet is now healthy.

Mistakes can make life seem hopeless. But sometimes someone takes the time to clean us up and show us a little care, and we can see change. That is the joy of being a teacher.

Janice Caldwell
Honors speech and debate teacher, UIL coordinator, Lindale High School, Lindale ISD

Grounds for giving back

“Don’t lower the expectations bar, as students will lower their standards,” is something I’ve always said. Having worked with students with special abilities for many years, I apply this strategy with students of ALL abilities … and the results are there!

Gathering Grounds is a special employment training class and business that I teach at Brenham High School. The students are expected to make and serve locally roasted Independence Coffee and other beverages to faculty members. They also keep records, restock materials, and are expected to maintain a professional atmosphere.

Started with a grant four years ago, the class was self-sufficient at the end of the first year. They haven’t stopped there, either! They added landscaping to the school, and with the help of other students and staff, donated materials and money to firefighters and school staff who have experienced challenging times. They have also provided holiday meals to a family in need.

These students have donated over $1,500 in coffee to staff members for various reasons. Their favorite reason is “just because.” They have learned that good deeds to others eventually come back, and they’ve received craft items from several staff members to help with projects.

Currently the class has added a machine to make buttons, magnets and key chains. They’ve also started designing personalized notepads. As word gets out, community members have started placing orders.

Plans for the future include making keyhole gardens and getting an awards maker. The class appreciates all monetary donations to help fund these projects.

Mary Ann Miron
Vocational adjustment coordinator, Brenham High School, Brenham ISD

Holding hands ... and hearts

In the hectic day-to-day push to educate our students, we sometimes forget the impact we have on the lives we touch every day. I was reminded of this firsthand as I held one of my sixth-grade students after he suffered a broken femur in four places from a freak accident on the playground.

While waiting for emergency personnel to arrive, the student cried for me not to leave him. He squeezed hard on my arms when the pain became unbearable. I felt that he was squeezing on my heart at the same time.

EMS arrived and placed him on the stretcher. With tears in his eyes he yelled, “Where is Ms. McCaskill?” My heart burst and I went to hold his hand as once again he begged me not to leave him alone.

As educators we all know that many times our students see us as moms, psychologists, nurses, and so many other role models. Seeing such raw emotion during this accident inspired me to become more diligent in remembering the influence I have on the lives of those I teach.

Denise McCaskill
Sixth-grade teacher, ELAR and social studies, Wild Peach Elementary, Columbia-Brazoria ISD

There's no stopping some lessons

I teach in a disciplinary alternative educational program. In other words, I work with students who have made poor choices and were sent to our program.

It is always a major challenge to teach students who oftentimes believe they already have all the answers. So, I have to be very creative when it comes to teaching life skills.

One lesson actually uses a stop sign as a background prop. The whole idea is to get students to subconsciously connect this lesson to a potential bad choice every time they see a stop sign.

The lesson is very simple: Students need to stop doing things that will negatively affect their lives such as blaming others for their mistakes, procrastinating, neglecting self-control or jeopardizing their freedom, or simply taking their education for granted.

I had given this lesson twice this school year, and I was not sure if it was making an impact until a former student stopped by after school and shared his personal experience with me. He said he was driving to school that morning and it was such a nice day that he was thinking about skipping school, but when he stopped at a stop sign, he suddenly remembered my stop sign lesson about making bad choices so he went ahead and came to school. He said the lesson stopped him from making a bad choice!

Michael Meza
DAEP teacher, Lubbock-Cooper ISD

Seeing through a child’s eyes

As educators, we sometimes forget to look at school “through the eyes of a child,” thus neglecting to see just how important school is to that child. One very chilly, dreary winter day, I was reminded of this point.

As I sat at a round table with three students who were receiving reading interventions (kids who I mistakenly believed could not care less about attendance), I gazed out the classroom window. The trees were bent by the bitterly cold north winds, the skies had darkened with the approaching winter storm, and a dull whistle could be heard as a small breeze pushed through a crack in the window’s seal.

Knowing kids — or at least thinking I did — I made the brave statement, “Boy, it looks cold outside! This would have been a perfect day to stay home and curl up in a blanket!”

Waiting for “Yeah!” or “Me too!” or even “Can we? (go home),” I was taken aback when one of the tiny second graders, eyes wide open, began slowly shaking his head. “Noooo, I’m glad we have school. It’s warm here.”

I have since always tried to remember this statement. Hopefully, we teachers can make every day “warm” for those kids who need us most.

Tammy Barnett
Fifth-grade teacher, Goliad Intermediate School, Goliad ISD

The rewards of positive programs

I have used two great programs as part of our school Positive Behavior Support. One of them is Class Dojo. It allows you to keep track of behavior in the classroom. You can also use it to communicate to parents about their child’s behavior. There is even a smartphone app for Class Dojo so you can track behavior without being tied down to the computer.

The other program is Learning Earnings. This is a free program funded by grants through which students can earn bucks to buy rewards.

Both of these programs have drastically cut discipline issues in my classroom. Students get immediate feedback and earn money to buy rewards they want!

Amy Woodard
Sixth-grade teacher, English language arts, Horace Mann Junior High, Goose Creek ISD

Making “super progress”

Our new Preschool Speech Program for Language class finished the school year with fabulous results! The two-hour class sessions are designed to provide intensive language instruction for 3-to-5-year-old students with language delays.

The class uses thematic units, learning centers and children’s literature to teach functional language skills embedded in hands-on experiences. From the farm theme to the ocean theme, the children have built language, cognitive and social skills while having fun and applying their knowledge in the home environment.

Students entered the program using one- or two-word phrases to communicate. Now students use an average of six to 10 words per sentence to engage in conversations with teachers and peers.

The super progress was summed up when an older sibling said she didn’t know her sister could talk so much and she can now understand her.

Jana McWain
Special education teacher, Jones Elementary, Tyler ISD