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The Beauty of Refocusing

“Aren’t you retired?” my former student asked as we stopped to chat in the grocery store.  In my mind, I translated his question.  “You look really old – why are you STILL working?”   LOL

O.k., maybe that wasn’t exactly what he was thinking.  But I lifted my chin and answered the question.  “No, I haven’t retired.  I’ve refocused.”  .  He mulled that over in his mind, told me he liked it, and we exchanged updates on our lives.

Retirement means different things to different people.  For many, it’s a chance to do something new.  For others, it’s an excuse to do nothing.

How old is too old?  I struggle with this concept, because age discrimination does exist in our society.  When people ask how old I am, I tell them I’ll divulge that information when I am no longer working.  I’ve seen it happen that once people know how old you are, they treat you differently, and I don’t think I’m ready for that.

Are there advantages to being old?  Absolutely!  Senior discounts, people asking if they can help you lift the kitty litter into your cart, and the occasional young person who opens the door with a smile to let me go before him.  But with age also comes a kind of wisdom that can only be taught by life and its experiences.  We are all in the process of gaining this.  As the road behind us becomes longer, it gets easier to look back and see how each experience has taught us something new, and how they have all combined to give us a particular perspective on life that is uniquely our own.

So…..why have I decided to refocus rather than retire?

For me, the question is: at what age are we to no longer try to make a difference?  A wise book tells us, “….they will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.”  (Psalm 92)   And in that book I don’t see the word “retirement”.  I see the concept of still bearing fruit, which might be as simple as getting together with friends and sharing a coffee and  encouragement.  It might be continuing to work in a field that you have loved and are now at the place where you can help to mentor others.  It might be sitting in your chair and praying for others.  Maybe you can sew, knit, crochet, or have another craft that you work on all year to put in a child’s Christmas box.  I have a friend whose mission is to adopt senior cocker spaniels, giving them a good home for their own “retirement years”.   Another friend tends plants in a public place to provide beauty for those who come to visit.

All of these people, to me, have refocused.  They have found something worthwhile to do that fits with their current life season and are engaging in the pursuit of that activity.   Their lives have purpose and meaning, which is what we all crave.   Use whatever talent God has given until you can do it no longer.  Retirement is for heaven.

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The Art of Teaching

Teaching is an art form. Educators spend their lives honing their craft and perfecting their approaches until it becomes so automatic and intuitive that they are surprised when someone asks, “How do you do that?” The teacher blinks in surprise. Doesn’t everyone know? Doesn’t everyone do it this way? To watch a skilled teacher is truly to observe a master.

There are four stages leading to that level of proficiency:

  • Unconscious incompetence: This is the new teacher coming out of credentialing classes with lots of ideas, stars in his/her eyes, and pinterest at the ready! Blissfully unaware of all the challenges ahead, s/he pictures the classroom full of smiling attentive students who grasp each concept in a timely fashion, allowing the class to move through the expected standards with time to spare. With her class before her, s/he may not be aware of boredom, notes being passed, students checking out, or the unacceptable noise level. Student behaviors fall to the wayside as s/he concentrates on getting through the lesson and delivering the content that was planned.
  • Conscious incompetence: Reality check. Now the teacher is beginning to realize all s/he doesn’t know and a bit of stress sets in. “There’s so much I don’t know. How am I ever going to be able to teach like Miss Smith?” The search for more resources and professional development begin. Veteran teachers can play such an important role in this time period by sharing tips, encouraging, and modeling successful strategies. Hopefully, administrators are pairing new teachers with a veteran in the building
  • Conscious competence: As teachers gather new ideas and strategies and consciously implement them, their skills grow. They find those particularly suited for different subject areas and prepare the necessary charts, graphs, and tables that they’ll be able to use year after year. They consciously practice the procedures, routines, and strategies that will help increase student engagement, noticing those that students particularly like. Their “withitness”, a term meaning those all important “eyes in the back of the head” increases and they become aware of all that’s going on in the room while teaching.
  • Unconscious competence: While teaching is always a challenge and there is always more to learn, teachers will finally reach the stage where it becomes second nature. Though the students change yearly, there are always strategies they love, techniques to keep their attention, procedures and routines that need to be in place. And at this stage, you know what those are! This teacher makes it “look easy”, although everyone knows it’s not.

Why is this important to realize?

For the administrator, it helps to know what type of professional development might be most beneficial. Teachers at the fourth level could be used as leaders to help advance newer teachers to the next level, and thus be groomed for leadership positions.

For the teacher, it is important to realize that the journey to becoming a skilled teacher is just that – a journey. Often the new teacher compares him/herself to the best teacher in the building and can’t understand why her classroom doesn’t look the same! It’s a process during which the teacher is making a thousand decisions as to what s/he wants the future to look like, from management style to the culture of the classroom to keeping up with new strategies. During these formative years, it’s vital for the teacher to have realistic expectations while continuing to move forward.

Just a sidenote – I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon with the advent of Covid 19 and online learning. Those teachers who were very skilled and in the unconscious competence category have all of a sudden moved backwards into # 2. It’s a very unsettling feeling for them to have to wrestle with the mode of delivery for the subject they know so well. Veteran teachers are struggling to learn new areas of expertise and keep up with those who are much less skilled in teaching, but more knowledgeable in the world of technology. This presents an opportunity for true “cooperative learning” with each one teaching in his/her area of strength.

Posted in Teaching Strategies, Uncategorized

A quick numbers game for K-6th graders: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division

Teachers, I’ve got a fun number drill for your students. It’s practical and easy to prepare. You’re going to love it!

For a pretty pdf file of the instructions, go here (it’s free).

What’s great is that these cards are a really quick assessment tool.

You can easily see: Who knows this information? Who is struggling? 

 All you need for this is a set of cards for each student, zero through nine.  For your younger students, you’ll prepare the cards. Use a marker and make the numbers large, so they take up the whole card. Or if you have older kids, they can make their own decks..

Ideas for younger students

  • Have the students line them up in order. And that’s important, that they can identify the numbers and be able to put them in order. 
  • You say “Everybody grab your four.” Pull it down. (Don’t bother to have them hold it up because you know how it is. They’re going to have it backwards and so forth. It just takes too much time. We want this to be a fast, easy game.) 
  • Call out the numbers and be sure they pull them down, then put them back in order. 
  • Create larger two-digit numbers: teens, 20s 30s 40s, all the way up to 98. (The only problem: We don’t want to be doing 55, 44, 33, doubles of any kind because we don’t have two of each number.)

For older grade levels

  • You ask them to put them in order backwards.
  • You can hold up a number of objects or a card with a certain pattern of the dots on it,. They pull down the card that shows how many you have.  Say “One more” or “One less”. for example “ I’m going to say 8, I want you to go down one more” so they’re going to pull down their nine or” one less”, go down to the seven. That’s a really important concept for them to be learning.
  • They can be working in pairs. So one is the teacher, one is the student, then they can switch roles.
  • You can create a Math Center and use these cards
  • Teach addition and subtraction. If you say “three plus four”, they pull down their seven. “Eight minutes six”, they pull down their two. 
  • Teach multiplication facts. You say “Nine times five”, they pull down their 45…
  • Teach division
  • You could also make cards with the four operations on them.  Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Then you say “ 6, 7, 42”. They’ll pull down their multiplication card to show that they know the relationship of these three numbers. 
    • It’s really important for kids to realize that addition and multiplication increase the number,  division subtraction, the answer is going to be smaller. 

Storing the cards

These cards can be put all together with each student’s name on a plastic baggie. you can keep them in a bucket or in each student’s pencil box.

I hope you see how easy these cards are to use. They’re something that you can pull out anytime.  If you’ve got 5- 10 minutes of extra time, pull them out, have fun!

Next steps

Let me know which grade level you’re teaching and how you end up using these cards. And if you’re interested in quick strategies that will engage your students, email me at to book an hour with me and I guarantee you’ll leave with 15 more strategies to make your life easier.

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How Can I Make Your Day Remarkable?

Recently I called my credit card company and was greeted with a cheery, “How can I make your day remarkable?”   It made me laugh, and I went on to tell her exactly how she could do that.

The phrase stayed with me.  I wrote it in big letters on my computer and taped it to the door of my office.  I shared the story with others.  I was genuinely struck by the thought…..

What if we really DID try to make other people’s time with us “remarkable”?

According to Webster: “worthy of notice; extraordinary”.  Wow!  Whose day do I want to make remarkable?  Students?  The principal?  The janitor?  The cafeteria workers?  In what way might I do that?  What does it look like?  Often a simple thank you for what they do will suffice.

Sometimes a person’s day can be brightened just by knowing that someone sees him/her.  Noticing something they’re doing, engaging in conversation with them, just taking a moment out of your day to brighten someone else’s.  What a noble goal.

In order to do this, we need to be intentional about it.  Determine each day to seek out at least one person – in a store, on your walk, at your work, even via email – to interact with and make their day “remarkable”.

Does it excite you to give it a try?

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Boredom – Whose Problem Is It?

“I’m bored. An all too familiar statement in classrooms (and homes) around the world.

What do students mean when they say this? It’s usually blurted out without a lot of thought behind it, because – let’s face it – it’s pretty popular to say. But a closer analysis tells us it could mean, “I already know this”, “I don’t see the purpose in learning this”, “I don’t understand the explanation”, “I don’t have any idea what this subject is all about”, “I don’t know what to do next”, or “I really feel like doing something other than this!”

There are two aspects of this statement to explore. The first is that often we find ourselves rushing to alleviate a student’s (or our child’s) boredom, as though it were our problem! What we forget to tell them is: It isn’t! Lest that sound harsh, let’s unpack that.

This is actually a great teaching moment to work on communication skills. Explore what they really mean by the statement and help them to say what they really mean. Then, together, you can work on a solution. If the problem is that they don’t know what to do with themselves, you can help them think of some options. Don’t forget to include some “work options”. “Oh, good, I was just thinking I hadn’t assigned enough homework.” In fact, using humor can be an effective redirection to start the conversation.

The second aspect of this actually might lead to self-reflection on our part. I recently heard an interesting statement by Tucker Max, an author and instructor for Scribe’s online writing course. “There is no such thing as a short attention span; there is only engaging material and non-engaging material. There are lower thresholds for boredom.” With all the demands on our time that the internet provides, people don’t tend to engage in activities that are not the most interesting to them . And for the younger crowd, that means watching entertaining, fast-paced videos at the touch of a button.

How do we compete with that? I don’t think we try. We always let our students know WHY we’re studying this concept, WHY this is important for us to learn. And then we make sure our material and the way we’re presenting it is absolutely the most engaging it can be.

“I’m bored,” is a non-statement in my classroom. “Please rephrase that in a more academic manner,” is what students hear upon its utterance. Always said with a smile…and complete faith in their ability to do so.