March 4, 2015

The Mask

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend #edcampMadWi in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  They have a beautiful school there and this #edcamp draws an amazing crowd of educators.  I was at the first edcamp and haven't missed one yet.  It has become a yearly reunion and I love connecting with these amazing educators that share such awesome ideas, but I also look forward to meeting some new friends as well.

I decided not to propose any sessions this time and instead just decided to attend sessions that sparked my interest or would bring some new learning my way. What I had not prepared for was learning from students. The second session of the day that caught my eye was titled. Coping/Surviving Public Education. The session was filled with passionate educators that started sharing their methods for dealing with the stresses, and of course the conversation turned toward the political situation in Wisconsin and how it has affected teachers over the past four years.

But that wasn't what really drew me in and made me reflect. It was when I was encouraging the group to make sure we are putting out a positive image to the public, and even more so, to let our students share their story about school and the experiences they are having there.  I told them it was important that we let students share their voice, because they would be honest.  A student won't use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to say they are loving school and all they are doing and learning......if they don't.  We needed to unleash student voice.

And then..........they did.  

Two ladies from a nearby high school had joined this session and apparently I said the magic words to get them going. That or maybe I just finally took a breath and they took their chance to share.  What followed was an eye-opener for me............and a heart-wrencher.

The two young ladies began by sharing how important it was to them and their friends that teachers get to know them. Not their test scores, or their assessment data or even their grades.  To really know them and how they feel.  What they are interested in, what they are passionate about, what they do on the weekends, and what they want to become?  They want us to know how they like to learn, but also where they like to hang out, what their favorite movies are, what their favorite music is, and who they would love to meet someday. They wanted their teachers to really know them. 

But then they shared a twist I didn't see coming.  They said, "but what is just as important, is that we want to know you." They wanted to get to know their teachers.  They wanted to know what you liked to do on the weekends, where you like to hangout, what hobbies you have, and how you handle your bad days.  Their list of real life questions for teachers was endless, and that they look to us for those answers everyday.

So.......touching, right? I mean, it was great that they saw their teachers that way and that they wanted that relationship with their teachers.  Personal Learning, not personalized learning. Well, that would be a great wrap to their story.  We could walk out feeling uplifted. Encouraged even.

Then one of the girls shared the thought that changed my perspective forever. She said, "It is sad, that many of you don't even realize that 100% of your students, are sitting in front of you with a mask on."  She paused......and I could see she had more to share.  She slowly slapped my face with the statement that opened my eyes wide, "100% of the students in your classes are stressed, depressed, scared, anxious, sleep-deprived, or suicidal.  We are there, sitting in front of you, with the mask we learn to put on each day to get through this thing we call school so we get through this thing called life, and we aren't even learning how to deal with it, because we are worried about passing tests, and getting into our next good school."

I was floored.  

Holding back tears as I shook my head in agreement, I literally couldn't speak because I knew I would choke on the words I couldn't find.  One of them told us how the students that were high achievers were under great stress to always get top grades, to get into Honors and AP classes so they could go on to get into top colleges or universities.  They both shared how the students that struggled in school always felt ashamed, blamed and unwanted.  They wanted to escape school because they struggle each day and so often they feel like their best option was to act out so they would be asked to leave the classroom or even be sent home.

But then they shared a scenario that I know exists.  The one that happens all to easily to even the teacher with the best intentions. The Wallflower.  That girl with brown hair, who sits in the middle of the room.  The student that always has C's and now and then a B.  The one that doesn't need help, but also isn't rising to the top to be noticed and pushed. The student that blends right into the wall, and is never really anyone.

What have we done to our students?  
What have we turned school into?
When did we lose touch with the fact that we are touching lives everyday?

Have we become talking heads at the front of the class? Spitting out knowledge and content only so that we can assess the student and ensure we taught the standards we have been told are crucial for success in a career or college. Did we forget we are teaching kids?

The two young ladies expressed with great passion, how important it was to them and their friends, that we begin to recognize them as people.  People that are growing up and going out into the world, and soon to be leading and managing that world, and possibly even being the decision makers, law writers, and political leaders for our country........ And we want them to make sure they can cover the standards, do a performance task, write an incredible essay, complete the packet of worksheets, study for the AP test, and get an amazing score on their ACT? ...........when what they also want to know is......

How do I decide whether or not I should get in the car?
How can you tell if He or She will be a good boyfriend or girlfriend?
When should I just end the relationship?
When can you tell if trust has been broken?
How do you find the time to do it all?
Why is family more important?

They want the answers to life, and they don't want them from a book, or a blog, or a video.  They want them from us.  Their teachers.  The people they look up to and trust everyday. Sure, they want to learn, be smart, be successful and be productive citizens. But they also know there is so much more to life.

Don't ever be fooled by the mask our students wear everyday.  And don't be fooled into thinking, "Oh C'mon....My students don't wear masks."  We all know the folks that have worn masks in front of us. Not showing us their pain. Smiling, making us laugh, showing off their talents.  All the while.....suffering in silence......wanting to make us proud. 

Never knowing that maybe we already were. Share your pride in your students. Don't be afraid to let them see your huge heart.  You're a teacher after all.  You Are AWESOME!

Who says "Morning Meeting" and "Sharing Time" has to end in elementary school?  Maybe the most powerful thing we do as we teach everyday, is to smile and say, "How was your weekend?"  Listen......and then say, "Let me tell you what I did."

I'll never forget the talk I had with those two young ladies and the experiences they shared with me that day.



  1. This was a fabulous post, thank you. How do we hear the wallflowers voice?

    1. Thanks Tommy! We reach the Wallflower the same way we reach the rest. We engage with them. When we become a person to the students, they will begin to be open and honest with us. The key is that we don't become the talking head at the front of the room, racing through content so we can check all the standards on the list.

  2. Hi, Tom. I appreciate you sharing the voice of those two young women with us - to hear, to reflect on, to have the chance take a look within as educators. Hearing from their perspective the stress they and their classmates are experiencing in the current school environment is eye-opening and saddening, but so good to hear.

    Being known by students and knowing them, sharing our story with them and life's struggles and lessons is as you say, some of the most important work we can do. My wife is an incredible storyteller with her 3rd grade class and is known well by her students. She comes home telling the stories she and her students have exchanged - some sad, but most are with humor and care. I love how Stephen Covey years ago put it out there that making deposits relationally is important. I have always worked to build/strengthen my relationships in whatever setting I've worked, and I believe it has made a difference in others and in me.

    I see that you're an administrator and I"m curious how this knowledge will impact culture-building on your own campus? How will you pass on this passionate call? Thanks again for sharing so authentically. Even if you don't think it's your best certainly is an important one, Tom.

    1. Thanks Glenn. I actually talked about my Edcamp experience with my Building Leadership Team on Monday. I just reminded them that sometimes we are not the only ones under stress, and that what kids truly want, even when they are quiet, or acting like they hate you.....what they want is a connection with you. They want to know you care. Not about their homework, not about their learning, but about them. How will this knowledge impact my building? I don't know how it will impact my teachers. I am not sure if any of them even read my blog. But I know that I can model the way. I can sit there with my students and eat lunch with them. I can go into classrooms and talk with them. And I will continue to let them know I care for each and every one of them.

  3. Wow! Talk about gut-wrenching. How many times was I ignorant of what was behind the mask? Powerful post, Tom.

  4. Michelle GranahanMarch 4, 2015 at 11:29 PM

    Your students and their parents do know how much you care. Trust me - our boys feel it, as parents we see it and we are all grateful!

  5. Thank you for sharing. I'm so glad I read this post on a Monday to set my thoughts in the right direction this week. Thank you Tom!