Still More Lessons Learned from Kayaking

We’ve just returned from our 14th major kayaking trip, and I was struck by the harmony of our group. In fact, the three best groups we’ve enjoyed paddling with all were on trips with one outfitter – clearly he [and his partner for Italian trips] know something about group dynamics. Effective facilitation of classroom communities seems critical to learning, so I asked them their secrets.

Our American outfitter articulated specific strategies he used. “I’m always scanning the group, even as I’m listening to one person in particular, checking in on where they are and how they’re feeling,” he began. “When I’m talking with someone who’s sitting down, I sit down and mirror their body language… sometimes guides stand over people and intimidate them without realizing it.” When pushed, he acknowledged that they always had the details well-covered, which makes clients feel secure. They sought natural times for bonding over food and drink, avoiding contrived icebreakers. And they worked on being flexible to meet a variety of needs, like the time they provided a van for four of us who needed to avoid the extremely steep mountain hike to a church.

His Italian counterpart suggested that it just happened naturally, but another client and I agree: when he sees someone who seems aside from the group, he naturally draws them in. “Come, sit,” he’ll say with his welcoming smile and arm out. Gregarious by nature, he intuitively pulls people into the conversation. An excellent paddling coach, he identifies where people are in their skills and finds teachable moments to help them improve. And he acknowledges that improvement with genuine praise.

Both men make sure we have excellent equipment, delicious food and drink, and natural chances to bond. They plan for every contingency – not just a plan B but a C and a D and so on. When the weather turned hostile on our second-to-last day, they identified a group who wanted to go up the mountain in ski-type gondolas and a different group of hard-core paddlers – we all got our first choice. When the rains came the final day, they arranged a visit to a castle with a fascinating doll and toy museum and a spectacular view. We’re so impressed with the way they run their trips that we go to them for all of our international kayaking now.

What makes these guides so successful is the same set of skills that matter for classroom teachers. Highly effective teachers:

  • Create genuine opportunities for building classroom communities
  • Constantly scan learners for informal feedback and signals
  • Offer flexibility based on ongoing assessment of both individual and group progress
  • Look for ways to meet varying levels of skill and help different learners grow
  • Find teachable moments and capitalize on them
  • Create fun opportunities for people to share
  • Draw learners in and help everyone be part of the group
  • Have back-up plans for unexpected events
  • Celebrate learners’ successes

This last trip offered not only a great communal kayaking experience, but also an epiphany about the universal parallels of good coaching, regardless of the setting. If my student teachers and the young teachers I mentored could have observed these two men at work, they might have made giant


Coaching Confidence and Enabling Success

Great River Rumble! July ’17

I was an awkward child: born with a pseudo-club foot [my left leg was shorter than my right and my left foot turned outward], I lacked balance and agility. My pediatrician recommended years of modern dance as physical therapy, combined with special custom inserts in my shoes called Cookies [like today’s Orthotics] as a better alternative to the disfiguring and often unsuccessful surgery then used as treatment. So I was lucky. Fearful on land, I was fearless in water, and swimming became my refuge. But I never saw myself as athletic.

My parents loved me, but their efforts to support me were sometimes misguided. They nicknamed me “Cookie” after my inserts, reinforcing my sense of inadequacy. When others were learning to ride a bike, they borrowed one that was far too large, dooming my cautious efforts. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 27 years old, but 17 years later I rode 500 miles across Iowa on RAGBRAI [Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa] with my husband and 10,000 other riders. Later that year I did the bicycling part of a biathlon and a friend did the running, and we won our age group!

What made the difference? A teacher/coach who believed in me and created small incremental steps that paved the path to success… My husband grew up riding bikes and considered bicycling with our toddler boys on kids’ seats an obvious family activity. He refused to allow my conviction that I couldn’t ride a bike to interfere. He borrowed my friend Gloria’s bike, got her to watch the boys, and took me to a deserted parking lot. Cajoling and encouraging me, he persuaded me to try pedaling while he held on, only letting go when I wasn’t looking. He was, of course, right: I could ride a bike. We bought a bike for me and seats for our sons, pedaling all over the neighborhood.

His confidence in me led to be more adventurous, to have more faith in myself. We took our sons to a dude ranch in Colorado in 1981, 19 years after I’d given up riding because of a bad accident. I rode again and regained my comfort on a horse. I got my family into whitewater rafting on that trip, and four years later we paddled a raft through big rapids, including Crystal and Lava, in the Grand Canyon. I was the only member of my family to tube a big rapid in the Canyon, too. And I joined a women’s soccer league in the early 80s. Always afraid of heights, I nevertheless parasailed in Nice in 1986. We raced a canoe for ten years, and I paddled an inflatable kayak through big rapids on the Salmon River in 1991. We’ve been kayaking since 1995 and now travel internationally to kayak. I’ve ziplined in Mexico and kayak-sailed in Belize.

Why share all this information here? None of those endeavors would have occurred without the support and coaching of my intrepid husband. He taught me to believe in myself and my ability to tackle athletic endeavors. And the adventures continue. We just returned from the Great River Rumble, a 95-mile kayaking trip on the Root and Mississippi Rivers with over 200 other paddlers. This was the first long trip I’d done in a single. Although I’d been the one to suggest this trip, nerves stole my sleep for weeks before left. I feared its rigor and challenges. We did meet challenges: very technical paddling the first day, two days of searing heat, a monsoon, and a tail wind with gusts up to 24 miles per hour that flipped some boats. But I did it. And I enjoyed it. And I felt proud of myself for this accomplishment.

My husband/coach/biggest supporter made that possible. He encouraged me every time I chose to take a risk, supported me when I needed help, and celebrated every success.

Isn’t that what a good teacher does? Teachers help students succeed by breaking seemingly insurmountable tasks down into baby steps. They support students so they can succeed and move to the next step. And when students encounter a temporary setback or failure, they remind them of their past successes to enable future success. I often told students, “There’s nothing here that you can’t do,” so often that they sometimes finished the sentence for me. But I always meant it, because I was confident that I wasn’t asking more of them than they could manage. I would ask more and more, but only in incremental steps.

I had teachers like that in my own schooling. They taught me that the limits I felt were usually self-imposed. They helped me break those “limits” by breaking down the challenges I was facing into doable segments. Every learner deserves that kind of challenge and that kind of support. I am so grateful to have had such challenges and support in both my academic and my personal lives!



What’s Behind the Mask?

Last week as I was leaving the gym, a disembodied voice called out “Mrs. Ljung!” I turned to see a student whom I’d taught decades ago. We’d had a pleasant chat several years ago, so I knew she lived nearby. I leaned over her car window to catch up. After several predictable pleasantries, she announced, “I’ve been sober for 22 years now.”

Taken aback, clueless about her drinking in the past, I congratulated her for such a significant accomplishment. She accepted my praise graciously, but that didn’t feel like enough.

“I don’t think I knew,” I admitted.

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she replied.

“I should have, though. I’m so sorry I let you down…”

This lovely young woman assured me that she’d been very good at masking, that others far closer to her than a some-time English teacher hadn’t known either. I found little comfort in that. I’d become a teacher to make a difference in the lives of my students. I knew my district had provided training in spotting alcohol and substance abuse, and I’d suspected other students. Why not her?

We continued to talk for a while longer before we parted ways. For days, though, I continued to think about her and my lack of awareness, my failure to intervene. Then she messaged me telling me it had been a good encounter and writing:

“I also want you to know how much it meant to me for you to apologize for not knowing I was struggling & using in high school. Although I do not feel that you let me down in any way, nor that you should have known, I appreciate that you care. There were many many adults closer to the situation who should have picked up on the signs. However, you are the only one, outside of my parents, who has ever said anything like that. It really touched my heart, and I appreciate it.”

I appreciate her perspective and accept her gratitude, but I’m still struggling with my failure to pick up on the clues. How can teachers know, especially with students who are always under the influence, whom they don’t know any other way? And what avenues are open for teachers who have suspicions but don’t want to wreak havoc in a student’s life if they’re wrong. I don’t have the answers yet.

A Google search failed to comfort me. Data suggest the problem is widespread. Tarlov and others wrote, “During a 30-day period in 1985, 65 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol, 30 percent used marijuana, 15 percent snorted cocaine” (1986). According to Towers, “Teachers exert a significant influence on students’ attitudes, knowledge, and opinions. They can complement a school’s drug abuse program by incorporating drug abuse prevention strategies into their subject at any grade level (1987).

Newer sources assert new approaches. The John Howard Society of Alberta blog suggests that teachers “can also help develop and nurture the idea of school as a community. This creates a sense of belonging, attachment and protection for students, which counteracts tendencies towards abuse of drugs and other substances.” They recommend these strategies:

  • Set clear classroom boundaries with clear rules and consequences
  • Encourage a constructive use of time
  • Foster an environment that encourages a commitment to learning
  • Encourage reading for pleasure
  • Praise student’s achievements and accomplishments
  • Acknowledge successes and abilities
  • Model a sense of optimism and a positive view of learning
  • Keep the channels of communication open
  • Be a good listener
  • Keep an open mind
  • Ask students for opinions
  • Encourage participation in extra curricular activities[1]

The “We Are Teachers” website urges educators to talk to students early and often, to teach them about “about brain science and development. Discuss ways that teens can get that dopamine release naturally—through exercise, spending time with friends, and doing things they love.” It identifies a set of warning signs:

  1. Decreased motivation
  2. Sudden shifts in mood
  3. Sleepiness in class or appearing tuned out
  4. Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, unexplained weight loss or gain, deterioration of physical appearance or grooming
  5. Change in friend groups
  6. Paranoia or depression
  7. Uncharacteristic display of money or possessions (or the opposite—students looking to sell belongings, for example)
  8. Chronic absenteeism
  9. Abrupt drop-off in academic performance

The site urges teachers who suspect something to talk with students and/or their counselors, or to describe the behaviors that concern them to the student’s family “without speculation or accusation.”[2]

All good suggestions…  but you have to spot the issue in the first place. I didn’t. I wish I had. If I were still in the classroom, I hope I’d be more aware and more astute, more likely to recognize even those students best at masking. I hope today’s teachers do a better job than I did!




The young lady’s response to this blog before publication:

“I am honored that you quoted me.

I hope that you are at peace with the fact that there was no way for you to know about my drinking/using in high school. There were layers and layers of things going on with me, and that was my way to medicate.

I hope your blog encourages other teachers. It has to be such a delicate balance for teachers to intervene. I have many thoughts on the suggestions and signs that are listed by the sources you quoted. They may not help all kids, but preventing/helping one is more than none.”

Bladder by the Bell


In the late 1980s my Illinois Writing Project training changed my approach to teaching writing forever. A writing workshop approach with portfolio grading displaced my traditional rote lessons, and I wrote and shared alongside my students.

Midway through the 1989-1990 school year, my frustration over a life led by bells produced the following poem.



Once again my writing revealed truth I had ignored. I hated the rigid structure of school and its command of my life. One semester my lunch period might start at 10:30 am, a plausible enough fit with a 5:30 am breakfast. Another semester, though, might make me sit until after 1 pm, forcing me to sneak a snack in during passing time. And come the end of school in late June, I often forgot to take bathroom breaks until urgency commanded them, so accustomed was I to my dependence on bells.


I see the humor in all this; I even saw it then. But one of the great joys of retirement is liberation from this tyranny. The first few years I refused even to wear a watch. Our system of scheduling learning in the public schools serves the masters of efficiency and uniformity, but it can be “cruel and unusual punishment” for those forced to partake in it.

Publishing: Disappointment and Redemption

In 1991 a publisher’s rep approached me about writing a book. Dreams of seeing my work in print danced before my eyes. I barely invested in negotiating a deal, so eager was I to write. Soon the process of writing consumed my Sundays. For the better part of a year I did all my grading and lesson planning at night and on Saturdays. Without fail I’d rise in time to be at my Macintosh Classic, a mug of coffee by my side. From 8 am to 8 pm, with time out for lunch and dinner, I labored over my draft. I had to snail mail sections to my editor and discuss revisions with her on labored, expensive long-distance phone calls. Already away at college, my sons didn’t suffer my regular Sunday abandonment. My sweet husband remained unfailingly patient.

My textbook for high school writing classes focused on the relatively new use of computers to teach writing, incorporating unfamiliar skills where they fit in the writing process. Using floppy disks, saving work, understanding simple features such as word wrap – skills we take for granted now [some of them outdated] challenged the computer novice then. Each chapter taught specific computer skills and then required their use for specific writing tasks. Cutting and pasting, for example, starts the chapter on revising. I included the components of a comprehensive writing program, including essays, journal entries, letters, creative writing, grammar, and sentence variety.

One day my editor said, “We really have our work cut out for us, don’t we?” Incensed, I missed her point – that we would struggle to meet the company’s deadline. I thought she was putting down my writing. She was, of course, correct about the pressure of the deadline, but I was too busy ranting about her attitude to register her point until much later in the call. I still managed to finish a piece that made me proud, and I kept my grumbling to myself when called upon to develop a floppy disk of accompanying exercises.

When the book came out, its cover a true work of art in my eyes, I floated for weeks.

And I didn’t learn. When Microsoft Works came out, the company tasked me with creating a second version tailored to that program. My euphoria began to evaporate when my meager royalty checks failed to cover my investment in software, paper, ink, and postage. Unfortunately publishers who targeted high school English departments failed to see the market opportunity, so I’d gone with a secondary school business publisher. Despite their best efforts, English departments remained unaware, and boxes of both books sat on the shelves of warehouses. They turned down my suggestion that they donate the books to schools in underprivileged communities, taking a tax write-off and sending me no royalty for donations. When a bigger publisher bought mine and a few more unfruitful years went by, the warehouse books were destroyed.

Heartbroken, I pondered why I’d sacrificed so much for so little return. Sure, I’d hoped for some royalties to help cover college costs. Mostly, though, I’d reveled in seeing my work in book form, a significant step up from all the professional writing I’d done in journals. Was it enough?

In time I realized that the process of writing these books forced me to clarify my own beliefs about the teaching of writing. Finally I had my own overview of what worked and what mattered. As computers offered more and more innovations, I embraced them and added what I was learning to that framework. I had gained more than vanity here.

And now I’m at it again. For years I’ve wanted to write my teaching memoir, to tell the stories I’ve told to trapped guests at dinner parties! My title would be My Mother Professor Never Told Me There’d Be Days Like This. I began again. Initially I tried a chronological approach. No detail was too small to entrap my readers. Fortunately my writing group pushed me to clarify my purpose and audience. Did I just want to leave a complete – too complete – record for family who would probably never plow through it? Or was there a point to these stories, a bigger reason to share them?

Indeed, I realized that my favorite stories had one factor in common: as the teacher I had often been the one to learn an important lesson from a student, or a group of students, or a colleague, or a parent. My lessons learned became my focus. That alone would make this endeavor worth the time and effort. To my surprise, however, I gained another bonus. Reaching out to former students and colleagues has renewed relationships.

I’m growing old, and I no longer have the patience to fight to get a publisher again. I’m not willing to risk the time wasted or that the chance of another poor fit. But I am blessed with this brave new world of self-publishing. When I finish my manuscript, that’s my path. I already have a title and a vision for the cover. At that point I hope that at least some of those former students and colleagues read some of it. I plan to give it to my children and grandchildren and to voice my wish that they read at least some of it.

But none of that matters as much as I used to believe. For the real reason for me to write this book is to know myself, to understand the decades I spent in the classroom and how they changed me, and to celebrate those decades with a kind of closure that’s meaningful to me. So now that’s why I’m writing this book. I can’t wait to finish, to see it in print, to get some feedback from those readers listed above. But the more I write, the more I think of that I want to include, so publication keeps moving further and further forward! That’s okay with me – right now it’s the process that counts most.

The Bogeyman of Boredom


Boredom baffles me. My mind churns full throttle with ideas and plans, avoiding the idle stage even at bedtime, when it would serve me well. When I’m stuck at a train crossing because the railroad once again is violating the time limit for freights, I start designing the next garment or glass sculpture in my head. When time creeps too slowly as I sit in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room, I find myself people-watching, developing verbal sketches of those around me. On line at the grocery store, I work through my next piece of writing in my head. I can’t imagine being bored.


One prominent banner in my classroom announced, “Boring is in the eye of the beholder.” My students loved to challenge that premise, and whenever I passed a classroom filled with teacher talk, compassion filled me. I remember all too well my high school American History teacher’s stultifying speech as he recounted endless lists of seemingly disconnected dates without apparent purpose. His soporific Southern drawl provided an effective cure for my insomnia, though sleeping through class did not endear me to the teacher or help my grade. Even in the most boring classes, though, I managed to occupy my mind with doodles and notes to friends. Sketched flowers wallpapered my notebooks, and I kept my mind engaged.


Of course, I preferred that my students busy their minds with the task at hand. When they complained that Shakespeare was irrelevant, I urged them to see Romeo and Juliet as two kids so “hot to trot” that they’d sneak around behind their parents’ backs. When Dickens felt too dated, I challenged them to remember times when they felt powerless and manipulated like poor young Pip in Great Expectations. And when I had the opportunity to bring in more current literature, like Fahreheit 451, my co-teacher and I got their library books “banned” so they’d connect to the experience.


I wanted to believe that the inherent stimulation of my classroom banished boredom, but my students, too often truth-tellers, demolished that fantasy. In the Spring of 1991 I ran a poetry writing workshop in my sophomore remedial English class. We drew literal interpretations of figures of speech – imagine the visual for you’re “driving me up a wall.” We all wrote our own poems using a series of prompts. Surely this was more fun than reading the classics?


Foolishly, I said as much. One of the girls looked at me in disdain. “Mrs. Ljung, you know you ain’t fooling no one.”


Wisely I chose not to correct her grammar and syntax. Instead I challenged her to write a poem about boredom. Her classmates clamored to help, and our first collaborative poem was born. Their ownership did more to banish boredom than I’d ever accomplished. They worked and reworked the piece until they finally agreed on a final product.



I urged them to submit it to our Fine Arts magazine, where it was published, and to “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing.


“Oh, no, no way I’m gonna get up there in front of all those people,” exclaimed my original complainant.


“She’s right – that’s crazy,” another chimed in.


“What are ya’ thinking anyway, Mrs. Ljung?” queried a third.


I’d learn a bit about reverse psychology from my own mother, who’d used it to get me to take over cooking for our household when she’d questioned my ability to do so.


I smiled. “Okay, if you want someone else to read your work, you know we can arrange that. If you don’t think you can do it justice, I’ll just assign it to some theater students. Of course, they won’t feel it the way you do, but if you aren’t ready…”


Their subsequent huddle proved successful when a spokesperson told me they weren’t giving it away to “just anybody.”


Once the poem juried in to the performance, we allocated pieces of it to solo voices and made other lines choral. We practiced every day. On the day of the performance, their journey to the stage resembled a death march. As they read, though, they stood taller and spoke louder, all of us discovering just how much more potential they had than they or I had known.


The next day disappeared to a debriefing full of justifiable pride. Boredom didn’t disappear in that class, but their sense of ownership and ability to articulate their boredom did steal its power.


Dorothy Parker wrote, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Effective teachers need to nurture curiosity, allowing students to replace boredom with meaningful exploration. The focus of schools on finding the right answers curtails that sense of possibility and turns classroom work into acts of duty. Creating opportunities for students to own their learning helps to banish boredom. Finding that poem from twenty-six years ago reminds me of that lesson.

Shakespearean Hip-hop

The night before last we saw the Chicago production of the musical Hamilton. At the appointed hour, when the first round of tickets went on sale, my husband and I sat side by side, furiously working our keyboards. I felt triumphant when I scored a pair of tickets – decent seats – only to have them disappear while I was trying to pay.

Furious, I swore off Hamilton forever. My resolve faltered, however, when another block of tickets opened up months later. This time Ticketmaster eagerly took my money, and we spent the six-month interval between purchase and event doing our homework. I’d struggled to follow Miranda’s previous show, In the Heights, and vowed to do better this time. We listened to the CDs on all of our longer car trips, sometimes following along with Miranda’s book, Hamilton: the Revolution, which clarified which characters were singing. Not only does Miranda provide the complete libretto, but the side notes and articles enlighten the reader further. And I read some of the Chernow biography, though I have yet to finish it. So I thought I was ready…

Nothing could have prepared me for this particular performance, especially at this particular time in our nation. The sweeping nature of this show, the evocative use of staging, the sense of both timelessness and immediate relevance, the energy and caliber of the cast, the interaction between the cast and audience – all this made for a memorable evening.

That night we talked all through the hour-drive home, gratefully grappling with the concept that resistance and the fight against injustice are part of the American DNA. I found myself returning again and again to the great Shakespearean plays. Not only does Miranda directly reference Macbeth [without actually naming the play!], but his telling a historical tale of great import in verse mirrors Shakespeare’s histories. So does the staging, which suggests, leaving the audience to create the details. Like Shakespeare, he uses this tale to wrestle with many important issues for humanity: the struggle between right and wrong; battles for freedom from oppression; concerns about honor and loyalty; and the attributes of a good man, a good leader, and a good citizen.  And his pacing is Shakespearean, complete with well-placed episodes of comic relief in the wonderfully pompous personage of King George.

This connection is neither new nor original.

The American Shakespeare Center blog offers this:

It’s not just that Manuel is a linguistic genius. It’s that he’s a linguistic genius in many of the same ways that Shakespeare was, and the one I’m going to focus on in this post is the use of rhetoric to create character.

One of the reasons Shakespeare stands above his contemporaries is that he had such a great ear. His characters have individual voices. They don’t all speak in the same patterns, but rather, he defines each speaker by particular quirks and habits — just as we speak in everyday life. Miranda does the same thing.[i]

Oskar Eustis, The Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater where Hamilton was workshopped, says that Miranda, like Shakespeare, elevated the language of the people.

“In Shakespeare’s case he elevated it to iambic pentameter. In Lin-Manuels’ case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing.”[ii]

And Ross Williams of the New York Shakespeare Exchange says of Shakespeare’s history plays like Henry V, “Their histories became pop culture – after all, Shakespeare was the king of pop culture of the period – just like Alexander Hamilton’s story has for us.” [iii]

For most of my childhood we saw three Shakespeare plays each summer in Stratford, CT. I’ll never forget Katherine Hepburn as Portia, or the mischief of Puck, or the pain of King Lear. Hamilton takes me back to the power of theater for me then, and it reminds me of why I loved teaching literature. We can only begin to understand ourselves as we tell and hear our stories. Great story-tellers like Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda offer entertainment and enlightenment. I am so very grateful.




[iii] Ibid.

BBI and Teacher Hiring


In my work as a consultant, I’ve been learning about Behavior-Based Interviewing [BBI]. “Based on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance, this interview style uses specific questions based on candidates’ skills, background, and experience to determine if they can do the job” (Deems, 1994). Interviewers ask candidates to tell them about a time when they dealt with a particular situation, what actions they took, and what the results were.


I was never interviewed this way. For new teachers starting out, even with a supportive interviewer who’s good at offering prompts, it must be hard to generate specific stories of accomplishment. Once I’d had some classroom experience beyond my meager six weeks of student teaching, though, I think I would have done okay.


Because I moved several times for my husband’s career, I actually endured the interview process six different times! I got the first four jobs with a single interview, but the last two times involved multiple schools and weeks of nail-biting waiting. Most of those interviews began with the predictable “Tell me about yourself…” approach. Few invited me to show anything significant about myself as a teacher. Surely a BBI approach would have been more meaningful.


My last interview  led me to Glenbard West High School, where I spent most of my career. It was by far the most memorable. After I met with the department chair and the Assistant Principal for Curriculum, I was passed on to the Principal, Dr. Robert D. Elliott. His questions kept surprising me. At one point he asked me what I’d do if I had $500 [a princely sum in 1980] and a weekend in Chicago. I responded that I had young children, so some would go to a sitter and we probably couldn’t stay overnight, but then I listed theater and museums and the lakefront. He smiled as though my response had been informative. He quizzed me about my years in Madison, gently mocking me for being a hippie [which I barely sort of was…]. We seemed to connect until he asked, “Do you always have a lesson plan that you absolutely must follow?”


“No,” I replied, “because…”


Before I could finish, he stood up, slammed his hands on the desk in front of him, and scowled at me. “You had me till then,” he muttered.


“But… please may I explain? I always have a lesson plan to follow… it’s just that sometimes students need something different. Then I have to adjust and figure out what that is… but I get back to the plan and make it happen eventually…” My voice quaked.


“Ah,” he said quietly, sitting back down. We finished with a handshake, and three days later he offered me the job. I believed I’d found paradise.


In hindsight, I wish he’d asked me more about what I’d done as a teacher, that he’d used a more BBI approach. I could have given him an example of assessing student needs and how I’d adjusted a particular lesson plan. Then he might have been as impressed as he was during his first formal evaluation visit when – sure enough – a student’s need disrupted my carefully designed plan and he watched me analyze and adjust it in real time. I’ve come to see BBI as an asset to both interviewer and candidate, a great way to pick the right fit.






This quote by Robert Browning adorned the wall of my classroom for many years. Recently I posted that I’d started this blog on Facebook. I asked former students and colleagues to send me stories and memories they were willing to share. One of my students wrote about Browning’s quote: “I used that quotation just the other day, thought of you, and smiled. It’s not often you wax poetic while at work, but I think our client appreciated it…” Another responded, “I still quote this, too!”


Why does this quotation have such staying power? The expectations that others have of us so often shape our own. I wasn’t an indifferent student in public school, but the subjects that did not come naturally to me often took second place to my social life. Two teachers challenged that attitude – both of them became role models for me in my own teaching.


In seventh grade science Nat Sloan required us to borrow a book from his collection, read it, and report on it to the class. I chose Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict. This book shattered my naïve sense that the culture in which I lived was the norm. She studied three different societies and the unique cultural traits in each, arguing that “recognition of cultural relativity will create an appreciation for ‘the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.'”[1]  Learning that the ID bracelets and letter jackets of our dating world held no more validity than rites from other cultures rocked my world. Reading such a demanding and empowering text taught me that I could do more, learn more. I didn’t learn until later that my own mother had studied under Ruth Benedict at Columbia. I did get to see Nat again at my 50th reunion, and he continues to inspire me.


Garnet Almes also demanded more of me, and she always got it. Stern and unrelenting, she expected our best in Algebra. She challenged my dependence on my natural talent for math, urging me to tackle harder work and to challenge myself. A force of nature, she, too, shaped my views about teaching. When she retired from my hometown’s public schools at 65, she moved to Virginia and taught several more years at a private school. Then she moved to Florida and met her husband, marrying late in life. We visited her there in the early 80s, and – along with Nat Sloan – she had been an honored guest at our wedding.


Goethe wrote, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.”  The banner in my classroom signaled my commitment to that philosophy. That students remember it and value it affirms its worth.


[1] from the new foreword by Louise Lamphere, past president of the American Anthrolopological Association



In 1988 I fell for a middle-aged, weather-beaten, loud, impassioned hero in a movie. In Stand and Deliver Edward James Olmos portrayed Jaime Escalante as the savior of students that I strove to be. Convinced that anyone with ganas, a Spanish term for drive and desire, could overcome barriers and learn, Escalante taught math at Garfield High to disadvantaged students with limited math backgrounds. The barrios of East Los Angeles provided an unlikely setting for success, but Escalante led these students to succeed on the demanding AP calculus test year after year. Their results seemed so impossible that Escalante and his students were accused of cheating, but they triumphed by passing the test a second time under strict supervision.


I, too, believe that all students can learn. The first time a student from one of my remedial English classes returned from a successful semester in college affirmed that philosophy. Escalante said, “Ask ‘How will they learn best?’ not ‘Can they learn?’ “


Teachers who have a passion for learning, who believe in their students, break down learning opportunities into manageable increments, provide support and encouragement, give honest feedback, and create opportunities for success after early failures. So often I’d look a student directly in the eye and say, “There’s nothing here that you can’t do.” And then I’d try to figure out what they needed that I could provide to help them succeed.


Too often we provide a one-size-fits all to a given class, no matter how diverse. Good teachers explore the methods that best work for their learners. Although I’m a very visual person, I learn best by doing, and I need a reason and a context. The American History lectures I endured in high school depended entirely on my auditory learning skills, my weakest modality, and I never found a reason to memorize the dates. In college I discovered political science classes that focused on the who and the why – suddenly the when became meaningful. Good teachers intuit their students’ strongest learning styles and teach to them. They provide context, the scaffolding needed for making meaning.


I had some teachers like that when I was a student. Like Jaime Escalante, they believed in me and made me believe in myself. Don’t all learners deserve that?