Thursday, August 4, 2016

Five Things I Learned That Make Me a Better Teacher...Thanks, Mom.

I've been away from blogging for awhile, but I had a very good reason. My mom passed away at the end of May. She was my best friend, my rock, the confidante I turned to whenever I needed to talk. I miss her every moment of every day.

Since this is my first blog post since her passing, it feels appropriate to dedicate it to her. I hope you'll also see how much I learned from her and how I feel it helps me in my teaching career.

A sense of fun and adventure

My mom had a wonderful sense of humor and knew how to make ordinary activities fun. We had family game nights with Scrabble, Boggle, Yahtzee, or card games. We would play with troll dolls and mom would make them "talk" with funny voices. 

She even made riding in the car fun. We would drive around town and she would exclaim, "Oh, no. We're lost!" We'd have conversations about where we might be, where we would end up, and how we would ever find our way home. We'd see a little park and pull over to play. We'd look for street signs that might be familiar. We'd try to figure out what direction we were going and which way we needed to go next. "Turn right!" we'd say and my mom would turn right. My brother, sister, and I never knew for sure whether we were really lost or not, but we grew to love the anxious excitement of trying to find our way. Unknown adventures awaited those who were lost. 

Teaching and learning are a little bit like that. You step away from the familiar, explore and discover different paths to knowledge, and find excitement in discovery. Teachers are guides along these unknown paths, but sometimes we're learning our way along with our students. Sometimes we need to let our students tell us where to go and then follow their lead. Unknown adventures await those who are excited about learning.

In my classroom, I try to make learning fun. I read aloud using lots of expression and character voices. (My mom used to do that, too.) I find or create math games to teach concepts and fluency. I get kids up and moving several times during the day. (Go Noodle is the best!) When kids are having fun, they don't even realize they are learning!

The importance of kindness

Mom was endlessly kind. She'd smile and strike up conversations with strangers in the grocery store. She loved animals and I don't ever remember a time when we did not have a stray dog (and occasionally, a cat) that we had adopted. We never had much, but that didn't stop her from offering what she could to others. Whether it was offering a place to stay, a meal to eat, or a dollar for gas, she never hesitated to give help when needed. She encouraged me to work toward my goals. She empathized when someone was sick or going through a hard time. She lived her life by the golden rule. Through her example, I've tried to do the same.

Because of my mom, I know the value of showing kindness. I've also discovered that, in the classroom, it needs to be modeled by word and action. It needs to be explicitly taught. In my classroom, I teach kindness every day. From the first week of school when we create our class promise to our 100 Acts of Kindness challenge to the last day of school when we have a kindness celebration, I teach students that kindness matters. 

The gift of patience

Patience is a virtue. It's an axiom that I learned at my mother's knee. Whenever we were waiting in line, she would remind me to be patient. She didn't show anger at having to wait. We'd complain about waiting in line at Disney World or at the Dade County Youth Fair. She would remind us that the reward at the end would be worth the wait. She was a single mom with three energetic children. I'm sure we taxed her patience often, but that rarely showed. She knew how to deliver "the look" and we would get a talking to if we needed it. When she did lose it, you knew you had messed up!

Patience is a necessity in a primary classroom. Students constantly find new ways to try to push my buttons. It can be difficult to maintain calm. For me, this has been challenging at times. I often try to channel my mom's patience on the worst days. She was in my mind as I was writing my poem, Hold On To Your Patience

The value of hard work

My mom was a single mother with three kids. Child support checks rarely arrived on time and sometimes didn't arrive at all. Mom never finished high school, but she always worked hard to provide for her family. She was a waitress for most of my childhood. We moved often and paying the bills was tough. Some years, she worked three jobs to try and make ends meet. My mom followed my grandfather's belief that you didn't take government handouts, so we never had the extra help of food stamps or welfare no matter how desperate things got.  My mom just worked. And things eventually got better. My siblings and I got jobs as soon as we were old enough. Later, my mom got into training and restaurant management. Her example throughout my childhood taught me the value of working hard for what you want.

Mom with my niece just before leaving for work in 1987

My mom was a model for growth-mindset long before it was an educational catchphrase. 
I carry that belief with me today. I work many hours to prepare lessons and meet the expectations of my job. I pursue professional development opportunities in a quest to improve my craft. I try to be open to new ideas and to try a variety of approaches in order to help my students. I never stop learning.

In my classroom today, I try to instill that work ethic in my students. Learning anything new is never easy. We have to work hard and do our best. If we mess up, we learn from our mistakes and get back to work. We improve and learn through effort. 

An attitude of optimism

Mom was an expert at looking on the bright side. No matter how dark things got, she would find the silver lining in the clouds. She knew (and because of her, we did, too) that things could and would always get better. Bad times were temporary. Good times were just ahead.

Sometimes, it's hard to be a teacher. It's hard to go in day after day and battle the same battles. Kids curse us, they throw things, their parents bad-mouth us, administrators want us to prove we are doing a good job. Some days you just want to say, "Enough!"

I love teaching, but I have my bad days. Sometimes, I wonder why I do what I do. Because I have my mom's optimism, I always come back to the belief that today will be a better day, that today is the day I will make that breakthrough, and that I am making a difference. I'm able to take the long view. One bad day does not equal a bad career choice. With an optimistic attitude, I am able to stay focused on the reason I do this job: for the kids. 

Our matriarch with family on her last birthday in September

In a way, Mom began preparing me to be a teacher when I was very young. She would have been a great teacher herself. She taught me so many values that make me a good person and a better teacher. I wish she were still with me. 

I guess, in a way, she is. And always will be. 

Until next time,


  1. Theresa your mom sounds like an amazing woman, I am so sorry for your loss. I think you are right, she will always be with you and within you. Thank you for sharing her love and wisdom with the world!

  2. A very sweet post - thank you for sharing these wonderful stories and lessons.

    1. Thank you. Writing this brought back some really good memories.

  3. Your mom sounds awesome! I'm so sorry for your loss.
    Sue Mescall