Which Way Do You Drift?

It’s hard to get it right in the tension between support and challenge. Give students too much support, and they fail to learn. Give them too much challenge, and they quit trying. With too little challenge, they’re bored. And with too little support, they’re frustrated. No wonder this is hard.

Learning for most people happens most naturally with high support and high challenge. Like a coach, high-challenge, high-support teachers look for potential and call it out. They push students to aim higher and further, to take risks, to learn from failure, to give effort. But, also like a coach, they provide tools and strategies and emotional support. Because they pour into students, they can ask much of them.

Most of us, though, have trouble staying in the coaching quadrant. Instead, we slip naturally and often into the roles of friend, boss, or bystander. New teachers, I’ve noticed, often come in with a soft start, as a sympathetic friend, and move quickly into a hard year. Or they come in as an authority-conscious boss and create a wall too high for students to climb. And disillusioned teachers stand back from students, churning out the class periods and the terms and the years, adding up the pay checks and counting down toward retirement. Not investing and not urging.

On our good days, we’re coaches. On our bad days, we slip into one of the other quadrants. For me it was usually into the friendship mode. Each time I moved into a new job or a new year, I’d tell myself to hold firm with students, especially at the beginning. But, despite my self-lectures, I often started out too lax, giving students too much leeway and then having to pull back the reins. On days I came to class with a headache or a family worry or a bad night of sleep, I had to make a conscious effort to be a coach, not a friend.

Under stress, you might err as I do toward a too-soft friendship role. Or perhaps you are more of a bystander or a boss. What is your natural drift? Knowing it can benefit you and your students.

A Favorite Teacher . . . Or Not

“You’re my favorite teacher.”

These are the words we like to hear as a student leaves class, or in the aisle of the grocery store on a Friday evening, or in a good-bye note at the end of the year.

But what exactly does this mean? Why was I the favorite teacher for John, but not for Kelli, who claimed Ms. Wilson as hers?

I gradually came to see that students often use those words to describe a connection they feel with a teacher, even though they might not be able to articulate why. Here’s what they could mean:

  • Your teaching style fits my learning style. Kelli, who had a practical, hands-on approach to learning and was a part-to-whole learner, liked how Ms. Wilson came right out and told it like it was, how you made flashcards for a test and then memorized them with a study buddy, how you built a model of DNA. In Ms. Wilson’s class you knew exactly what to do and how to do it. In fact, Ms. Wilson’s class was full of doing. Ms. Wilson, Kelli thought, would be anyone’s favorite teacher.

Except for John, who liked my class better. He liked discussions about ideas and big questions. He didn’t want to be told why George Orwell wrote Fahrenheit 451. He wanted to figure out why. John was a whole-to-part learner.

  • You’re filling a gap for me. No one on our teaching team could do anything with Alex Nott, except Mr. Grant. And this was because Mr. Grant had what Alex wanted—the wooden cars that Mr. Grant made to bribe kids into being good. Alex had to be good a long time to earn a car. And when he finally earned a car, he decided he wanted to make them. So after school, Mr. Grant helped him build cars. Alex had an over-worked mom and a dad in prison, and this time with Mr. Grant after school filled a gap for Alex. No wonder that Mr. Grant was Alex’s favorite teacher.
  • Your personality matches mine. I’d watch Alexa writing an essay at her desk. She’d sit there, biting her lower lip and with a thin line of worry on her forehead. Her freshly sharpened pencils would be lined up and her papers in a neat stack. She’d write, then erase, and write again. And then, her forehead would clear, and, I could tell, she thought she got it right. I knew how Alexa felt because that was how I had done school. Alexa and I had a natural affinity. And I was, I knew, her favorite teacher.

I learned early-on that I couldn’t be everyone’s favorite teacher, that I’d wear out trying. Still my students taught me how to reach toward kids who didn’t like me—to try to match my teaching style to their learning styles or to fill a gap or to appreciate a personality. This didn’t often turn me into their favorite teacher, but it gave them a greater sense of well-being in my classroom so they could learn more easily from me.

The Gift of a Wound

School hurts. It’s a place where students get wounded. Look back into your own schooling, for example. You may remember rushed teachers who made throw-away comments or bullies who passed their pain to you. Perhaps you were maligned for not having the right accent, the right shoes, the right hair. Or, you were ostracized for living on the wrong side of town or because the work was too hard for you . . .  or too easy, or for your ethnicity.

My wounding came from being different—a country girl moved to the city with braids instead of a beehive hairdo, with skirts mid-calf instead of mid-thigh mini length. I knew how to sing shaped notes but had never heard of the Rolling Stones. And I could trace my ancestors back to the old country but had never seen the Addams Family.

It took me a while to see the hidden gift of these wounds, to realize that the looks, the laughs, the assumptions that I wouldn’t fit at a party could be turned to a benefit. I didn’t see that being different was developing resilience in me and courage and creativity. And not until I became a teacher did I understand that I could turn what had hurt me into a haven for my students.

One day on hall duty at the middle school where I taught, for example, I watched the stream of students flow by. There in the hall, I could see a girl wearing a hijab, a boy with a prosthetic leg, a special education student newly included in my classroom, a girl with a missing arm, a student who towered over her classmates and one stretching to appear as tall as he could. I could see a student whose father had murdered his classmate’s dad.

These students, I realized, had my heart. All through my decades of teaching, I had reached for the students on the edges. The wounds of my differentness had caused me pain, but they had also deepened my understanding and compassion and were now helping me teach.

How to Find a Hiding Student

I hid in a bathroom stall once. I was in junior high and afraid of a bully. And plenty of my students have told me similar stories. Some days a bathroom stall is better than a lunchroom. But students also hide in classrooms, in plain sight. They shrink down into hoodies and curtain their eyes with hair. Some students shutter faces with blank expressions, and some turn into clowns, obscuring sadness behind happy masks.

Hiding seems safe to these students, but it’s hard to learn in the shadows. And, besides, I’ve found that students who hide usually want to be found. This takes some skill, though. A direct approach often causes further retreat. I didn’t find every student who hid in my classes, but I did discover some strategies that worked some of the time.

  • Notice them. In the clamor of the classroom, it’s easy to forget these students. But if you keep them in view, you’ll be able to see some patterns. When does the curtain lift? And when is it drawn back in place? Brains, even those of hiding students, yearn toward learning. When you know what catches attention, you’ve found a key you may be able to turn again.
  • Ask for their help—an errand to the office, alphabetizing files, advice on which short story to use in class, building a slide show, any task they might find meaningful. But keep the projects low profile. This steers the focus away from students not onto them.
  • Push in . . . but slowly. I felt a twin temptation with these students—to either keep a distance or to shove right in. It takes more courage and more patience to advance bit by bit. One week pull up a stool by a hiding student’s desk during a video clip. Say nothing. Do nothing. Just sit there. The next week, pat a shoulder as you walk by. Later drop a note on a desk, call a parent with a compliment, or read an excerpt from an essay. “I’m not going to tell you who wrote this,” tell the class, “but this is a good example of what all of you could have included in your papers.”

Finding a fading student is daunting. It’s hard emotional work. But when you finally see a spark in the eye or a tilt of the head, when you see a student come out of the shadows to smile at a classmate, you’ll be glad you invested. If you seek, I’ve found, you can often find.

Avoid the Summer Slide

Teachers worry about the summer slide. Students often lose academic muscle in June and July and then need August and September to tone up again. This is why many middle and high school teachers assign summer work, which most students let slide all summer until the week before school starts again.

Perhaps a more effective summer-time approach to academics is to grow readers. Kids who read have advantages. Reading develops imagination and logical thinking. It improves writing, increases knowledge, enlarges understanding, and develops empathy.

Some kids need no help in becoming passionate readers who wonder and question and predict as they read and who make inferences and life connections that go beyond the page. But some kids need help. How can you coach parents to help reluctant readers move into greater engagement with reading? Here are some tips to pass on to parents:

Reading Continuum

  1. Schedule an eye exam. If a kid is resistant to reading it might be because words look fuzzy or letters jump around on the page or lines of text weave. Kids grow and change quickly, and so can their eyes.
  2. Build a reading community. Read what your kids read and then ask them questions—not in the form of a comprehension quiz, but as a real inquiry: I was trying to figure out what I would have said if I had been in that situation. What would you have said?
  3. Capitalize on impoverished environments. In bathrooms and bedrooms and vans and waiting rooms, subtract digital devices and add books. Tell a kid at bedtime: It’s time for your lights to be out, but I suppose if you want, you could read for twenty minutes.
  4. Ritualize reading time. Some schools use a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) program. At DEAR time, students and all staff, stop right in the middle of the school day and read at the same time. Try this at home. I grew up with reading suppers. Every few weeks my mom would announce one, and we’d all show up at the supper table with a book. Reading, we could tell, was a treat.
  5. Flex with the kid. Don’t insist on a list of classics or on books you would like to read. Follow the interests and learning styles of the reader—books with visuals, books about skateboards, fiction or nonfiction. Tantalize reluctant readers by reading the first few chapters aloud and then handing the book over. And remember that this is leisure reading, not school, so let kids abandon books they don’t like, skip boring parts, and peek at conclusions.

Following these tips can help kids avoid the summer slide and come back to school with minds full of ideas and a sense of themselves as readers.


I tried again. I sent a query letter to another publishing company. With the query I sent two sample chapters, a table of contents, and a vita.

The next day I found an email in my mailbox. Send the whole manuscript, the publisher said.

A few months later, though, their response was more complicated. They were open to publication—but only with successful revisions.

A memoir can have two narrative voices, I learned—the experiencing narrator and the remembering one. I had told my story as the experiencing narrator. I had written about my experiences in second grade at Yoder School and at Bendle High in the Flint public schools. What was missing, they said, was reflection from the older, remembering narrator.

Fifty years later, what were my thoughts on the horrified fascination I had felt reading Orwell’s book 1984 about Big Brother watching? Now that I had taught school for 30 years, how did I interpret that time when I showed up to class late because my car was stolen and a professor refused to let me take a quiz?

This proposed revision with double narrators daunted me. But I anchored myself at the dining room table and start writing, once again.

I resubmitted my manuscript. And some weeks later, I found another email from Cascadia Publishing House in my inbox. And this was the heading: Congratulations, YODER SCHOOL, formally accepted for publication.

(I hope you’ll consider buying a book in the early fall.)

If At First . . .

Just because I had completed a book didn’t mean I was finished writing. This is what I discovered when I searched the internet for how to get a book published. So I wrote a one-page synopsis of my book and a three-page synopsis. I wrote chapter summaries and completed an author’s guide and a cover letter. For the first time in decades, I created a resume.

Just before Christmas, I sent my book to a publisher. Then I waited.

January passed and Ground Hog’s Day. I sent valentines to my grandchildren.

Just before dinner one evening at the end of February, my email dinged.

And there it was—a message from the publishing company.

Thank you so much for thinking of us, the email began. And I knew this wouldn’t be good. And it wasn’t, although it was kind—fine eye for detail, vivid prose, breadth of experience, impressive.

But it was other words that tore through me: It is with regret that we have to decline your manuscript . . . In an ideal world, we would definitely publish it. However, the realities of the publishing world these days . . . Best wishes as you pursue other options in publishing.

I told my husband. Later, I sent an email to my kids. For a while, I thought I was going to die, I wrote. And then I added, But now I think I might live.

(more later)