Remembering the “Why?”

Found in a classroom this year!

Teaching has never been an easy job. Everyone knows that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated for the amount of important work they do, day in and day out. Since the COVID pandemic began impacting schools in Spring 2020, teaching has arguably been more difficult than ever.

In my work with teachers, I am seeing dedicated, hardworking professionals struggling more than ever before. They are physically tired and emotionally drained. Some are dealing with health concerns and others with increased anxiety about personal safety and well being while at school. There is no shortage of challenges for teachers in the COVID era.

When faced with all of these difficulties, it is understandable for teachers to question their commitment to the profession. One exercise that I have found to be helpful in these moments is to reflect on your personal reasons for teaching, or your “why?” statement.

Try this: think for a few minutes and write down a one sentence answer to this question: Why did you become a teacher?

Once you have your answer, ask yourself, Why is that important to you?

Then, do it again with that answer. And again.

After the fourth or fifth round of asking yourself Why?, you should have distilled it down to a pithy statement that encompasses your personal mission for teaching. Write this on a post it and stick it somewhere you will see it often. The more you remind yourself of your Why?, the easier it will be to remain positive in the face of challenges. And this is important because we need YOU!

Returning with Resilience

When the Governor of my home state closed schools for three weeks back in the middle of March, I remember thinking that seemed like such a long time! I could not have imagined that we would stay home the rest of the school year, nor that many schools would not be reopening for face-to-face instruction this Fall. As hard as it has been as a parent and for my children, I know it has been just as difficult for teachers.

For those teachers returning to school this month, whether in physical buildings or virtual classrooms, a lot will be different than in the past. The excitement of a new school year is dampened by the anxiety of having to adhere to safety protocols or the challenge to engage students online. Either way, teachers will have to be more resilient than ever.

How can teachers return to this uncertain school year with resilience? How can they build resilience in themselves and in their students? It may come down to taking stock of where we are and learning to focus on what is within our control.

Teachers (and students) have experienced a lot of stress and anxiety over the past several months. It’s important to acknowledge those feelings and recognize ways that you have coped with negative emotions successfully in the past. Give yourself a pat on the back for all that you have managed to deal with and practice cultivating gratitude for bright spots amidst the darkness. While this time has been tough, I am thankful that my family has remained healthy and safe and that we have found small ways to appreciate extended time together at home, for example.

Next, it can be super helpful to make a list of current worries or concerns. I find that getting this list down on paper helps take it out of the constant loop in my brain so that I can stop fixating on those things I am worried about. Then I go through my list and draw a small cross next to all of the things I am worried about that I cannot actually control. This becomes my prayer list. To summarize Phillipians 4:6-7, “Pray about everything, Worry about nothing.”

The remaining items on my list of worries are the things that I can control, at least somewhat. I visualize these as knobs on an imaginary control panel, and I try to think of concrete steps I can take to resolve these concerns. Taking action beats worrying, every time.

Taking positive actions also means practicing self-care. Of course, no amount of exercise, sleep, meditation, or proper nutrition will fix a pandemic or make up for the very real trauma experienced as a result of COVID-19, systemic racism, or lack of resources and support in challenging teaching and learning environments. But being resilient means that we continue to take small actions that we can control in order to remain optimistic about larger things we may not be able to control.

Whatever this beginning of the school year may look like for you, I encourage you to control what you can and pray about what you cannot as you practice resilience in the face of challenges. In the words of my favorite poster I used to have hanging in my classroom, “Do your best, and let God do the rest.”

Key Instructional Practices

When my little sister was a competitive gymnast as a child, I vividly remember her struggling to get her kip on the uneven bars. The kip is a foundational move in which a gymnast glides forward and up, raising to perch above the bar. This then enables her to flow into various other moves, including a transition to the high bar.

The image of the kip gymnastics move is what I now use to talk to teachers about Key Instructional Practices- KIPs that raise teaching to a higher bar. KIPs can be thought of as foundational strategies that can be built on to result in high-quality teaching and learning. They can also be considered Tier 1 supports for the whole class in a multi-tiered system of support framework.

I believe that there are some KIPs that are universally applicable for teachers, such as intentional lesson planning and the use of formative assessment strategies. Planning solid objectives for lessons raises the bar for student learning to a much higher level then aimless instruction. Likewise, checking for student understanding frequently through formative assessments ensures that students actually meet the learning objectives!

Other KIPs I often talk about include the use of explicit instruction (I do, We do, You do format, or Model, Coach, Fade approach), opportunities for frequent retrieval practice, and meaningful or authentic summative assessments. Finally, developing a culture of learning and fostering a growth mindset in both students and faculty could be considered a KIP that raises the bar for learning.

Schools or individual teachers could benefit from reflecting on what strategies they value most as Key Instructional Practices to elevate learning in their classrooms. Then, choose one or two KIPs to focus on over the course of a semester or year and see how much teaching and learning can improve. Just like my sister getting herself to swing from the high bar, teachers are capable of great things with intentional effort!

“I LOVE my students!”

Every summer, one of the great joys of my job is seeing my students from last year return to campus for the second summer of their Master of Education program after having experienced their first year of teaching. I run into them at the dining hall or walking across campus and get to ask about how their year went.

These teachers are passionate…and they are tired. They have faced a lot of challenges in their first year teaching. They are humbled and reflective. They are eager to tell me about strategies that worked well and about those that definitely did not. They talk about their classroom management plans and about their curriculum, the professional development they attended, and about the novel studies and science projects that they enjoyed. But most of all, they tell me about how they love their students. Every single one of them uses the word “love” as they describe how they feel about their class.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude towards these teachers, and all teachers, who are out there doing the hard work and loving their students despite the challenges of this profession. I am certain that their students know they are loved, and in my view, that is the most important gift a teacher can give them.

Teachers, thank you for loving your students. I see your enthusiasm, and the twinkle in your eye as you describe how you show up day after day, put on a smile, and show your students that they are worthy of love. You are making a difference. You are changing students’ lives, just as they are changing your heart.

Teacher Formation Podcast, Episode 3: Grit

In this episode, Erin Wibbens and I discuss the article What Shall we do about Grit? by Marcus Créde. We unpack the construct of grit and how it is similar to other ideas like persistence and resilience. We explore problems with measuring grit, interventions to improve grit, and why we feel that other constructs have more promise.
The article can be found here:…13189X18801322

Find our future Podcast episodes on iTunes from now on!


Who really wins?

When I think back on my education, there are a lot of things that I think I did wrong. This might come as a surprise to my family and friends who have always considered me to be a good student. There is no doubt I was a high achiever, and my academic success has certainly served me well in my life. My regret, though, has to do with my mindset.

What I remember most from my early school years is an intense focus on academic performance. I was always competing with other students and with myself. I remember feeling humiliated when my third grade teacher called out errors I made on a writing assignment, and I remember the pride at having my name on the top of the reading chart on the wall for the whole year in fourth grade. I was insanely jealous of a fifth grade classmate who was recognized for having the highest percentage in math class and vowed that it would be me the next quarter. From these and many other memories, I am sure I had a fixed mindset and wanted nothing more than to prove to everyone how smart I was.

As I progressed into higher grade levels, I got very good at what researchers like Denise Clark Pope call “doing school.” I excelled inside and outside of the classroom and checked all the boxes to get into college. It wasn’t until halfway through my undergrad years that I began to question my approach. I realized that I wasn’t as passionate as many of my classmates about what I was actually learning. Instead, I was coasting by in my courses, doing the minimum required to get the A and keep up the image of success.

What I really wish is that someone would have stopped me along the way and told me the truth: that school is not a game or a competition to win. I wish I would have learned to love learning for the sake of learning and not for some external award or recognition. Maybe then I would actually remember what I learned instead of forgetting it immediately after the test. Maybe I would have studied things that interested me more than just choosing assignments and classes that I knew I could ace. I can only imagine how much of a difference this could have made in my life.

Unfortunately, schools continue to be places where we encourage competition and academic performance. Too often, achievement is prized above learning and growth, and practices like honor rolls and class rankings perpetuate the idea that school is something that can be won. My current research on how students experience academic competition in high schools reveals that competitive classroom environments contribute to student stress and anxiety while fostering a performance goal orientation towards learning, especially in high achieving students. I believe teachers can mitigate the negative consequences of schooling by limiting competition in their classrooms and explicitly teaching about mindsets and the purpose of schooling.

It’s not about winning or losing. We all can win if we learn to love learning.

Teacher Formation Podcast, Episode 2: Homework


Homework might be one of the more contentious issues in education. How much homework should students have? Should homework be graded? For completion or accuracy? In this episode, we share our thoughts on these and other questions as we discuss a chapter on the role and use of homework in school from Tom Schimmer’s book Grading from the Outside In.
The book can be found here:…p_U_DPtBCbT3BB9GS

Podcast! Teacher Formation, Episode 1: Leveling Readers

Teacher Formation, Episode 1



Dr. Erin Wibbens and I discuss this educational research article:

“What If ‘Just Right’ Is Just Wrong? The Unintended Consequences of Leveling Readers” by James Hoffman in The Reading Teacher, November/December 2017 (Vol. 71, #3, p. 265-273),;