Preparation for the New School Year

Summer is almost over. The excitement and anticipation of a new school year is upon us. Many of us will head into school before the first day to spend time prepping our classrooms, bulletin boards, as well as meeting and planning with colleagues. But it’s also a great time for preparing our ‘self’ for the coming year by investing a little time in self-reflection before we’re inundated with students and the day to day responsibilities of the new year.

Just take a moment and a few conscious breaths to get out of the busy-ness of your mind, and when your heart opens ask yourself these questions: Continue reading

A Reminder for the New School Year

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As we prepare for a new school year it’s good to remind ourselves of the tremendous power that is imbued in us and our role as ‘teacher’. We should never take what we do for granted.

I’m reposting the concluding paragraph from the story “The Power of the Spider” which is included in my book, “A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery.” 

As educators we take so much of our power for granted. For the most part, our influence ripples through the world and over the generations silently, unnoticed. Our lessons are seeds. They are blown on breezes far and wide. They are carried by lively streams to rivers and oceans where currents move them to lands we may never see. Whether these seeds germinate in distant lands or close to home, whether they grow immediately or wait for decades, our gift is nestled in the hearts of our students.

Remember the power of the spider. From lips to lips, from heart to heart; the gifts we bestow, the lessons we teach, ripple through time and place.

Secret Conversations

images-8Our classrooms are full of secrets. We have ours and our students have theirs. In each of our hearts there are dreams, quiet yearnings, silent fears…and always there are whispered doubts. Great teachers cultivate hearts warm and strong enough to hear these secret conversations, both our students and our own.

Eduardo is pulled out of class by his teacher, Rebecca, because he’s disrupting the class. In the hallway he breaks down crying and says through his tears, “I hate people making fun of me! People are always making fun of me. They say I’m fat, and maybe I am but that doesn’t give them the right to tease me all the time!”

Rebecca hadn’t noticed the teasing and felt awful. Eduardo had hidden his suffering well, for he always seemed confident and fun loving. The fact that he trusted Rebecca enough to let her know what was really going on and how much pain he was in was startling to her.

If it weren’t for Eduardo’s breakdown in the hallway Rebecca might have gone on disciplining him without ever understanding what was underlying his behavior. Because Eduardo trusted her enough to confide in her, Rebecca discovered that he was sensitive about his weight and had become the target of bullies. No matter how brave a face he put on, school had become unbearable for him. Armed with this new information she was able to take steps to curtail the bullying and make her classroom a more safe environment for all her students.

When you take the time to actually listen, with humility to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” – Greg Mortensen

If we ignore the unspoken conversations that are taking place in our classrooms they will fester and stand as impediments to trust, relationships, and learning. As we work to build trust, and our relationship with the class grows, we’ll find more opportunities to bring these unspoken issues to the surface, for we know that they won’t go away on their own.


Students yearn to be heard and understood, even those that are too shy or disengaged to speak. Listening to what is being communicated by their words, their tone, even their silence, is an important element of understanding the “person”.

The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.  – Nichols and Stevens


Difficult Students Often Need Us the Most

imagesSometimes the students who need us the most are the hardest to love. They seem to be at war with themselves and do everything they can to push us away. Their behavior is clearly self-destructive. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions for breaking down the walls that some students build around themselves. Even so, it helps that to remember that there is something golden inside every student.

slaves-awakening-young-760x628Michelangelo is noted for having remarked that inside every block of stone dwells a beautiful statue and the sculptor need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. Our challenge – a difficult one – is to be centered, present, and compassionate enough to recognize the beautiful work of art that is waiting to be discovered in each and every one of our students. Are we centered, present, and compassionate enough to work with the excess material that hides it?

From my book, “A Path with Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery

**Above: Michelangelo’s  “The Prisoners” Courtesy of the Academia, Florence, Italy.


Summer Renewal: The Exit Interview

The school year is winding down. Many of us are saying good-bye to our students, to our colleagues, and to another year in the classroom. For some, the year was long and difficult, for others it may have gone by in a blur. No matter what kind of experience we had during the year this is a perfect time for a reflective practice. Why not take a few minutes before you leave for the summer and do a personal exit interview

Here are some sample questions you might like to ask yourself:
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest how would you rate your own performance for the year?

Purpose and Calling
Do you feel successful and proud, or just happy to have the year over?
Describe 3-5 of your most happy moments during the year.
What was it that made them stand out for you?
Did what you accomplished this year match your expectations?

Stress and Overwhelm
Describe 3-5 of the biggest challenges that you faced this year.
Describe how you responded to each of these challenges.
What kind of stress, if any, did these challenges create?
How did this stress manifest itself- professionally and/or personally?
Is the stress still with you?
Is there a more effective way to handle the stress and anxiety of these kinds of challenges?

Strengths and Gifts
Looking back on the school year, what would you say were your greatest personal characteristics and strengths?
If you were going to build on one these strengths for the next school year which would it be?
What practices can you create to help strengthen this area?

Areas for Growth
What were some of the personal characteristics/behaviors you think were holding you back from even greater levels of classroom effectiveness?
What practices can you create to help you address these characteristics?

Student Feedback
Think about your students for a moment.
Did they have anything to teach you this year?
If you think of them as a mirror, what did they reflect back to you about yourself and your teaching?
Was there a student that you particularly liked? What was it that drew you to them?
Was there a student that you particularly disliked? What was it about them that you disliked?
Is there anything about yourself that your feelings about these students reveal?
How would your students rate your performance on a scale of 1-10?
What would they list as your greatest personal strengths?
What would they say was the area in which you need to improve?

There’s no better time for professional (and personal) reflection then the waning days of a school year and no better place to do it than an empty classroom. The purpose of this reflection is not to beat yourself up. It’s not meant to be “I should have done this.” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” guilt trip. It’s simply meant to allow us to step back and look at the year and our performance with some perspective (a perspective that’s hard to maintain during the year). I suggest you write you answers in a journal. Come back to them over the summer and before the start of the new school year.

A few suggestions:
Look out for burnout. At some point we can let our purpose and calling drift into a job. It takes work to keep reminding ourselves of the special work we do with children.
Be on the look out for the effects of stress on our thinking, our health, and our family life.
Be specific about our strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. We can build on our strengths, we can learn to address our weaknesses.
Students offer us a wealth of information on our classroom effectiveness if we’re courageous enough to look at the cues and clues they provide.

The questions I’ve presented are just suggestions. Your heart knows what questions are right for you. If you’re quiet and allow your inner teacher to come forward, it’ll guide you in the right direction.

Good luck and have a great summer!


The Man of La Mancha and the Heart of a Teacher

When I think back to my days in the classroom some of the most important moments happened when I looked past the hardened sneer or a facade of indifference of a difficult student to see them as they really were. They were rarely ever what they seemed on the surface. Somewhere deep inside of them, like all of us, there was something more. Of course, this inner spirit was often walled off and starved; and the more a student needed my help, the more they pushed me away. It seemed the one’s who needed love and attention the most were almost  always the hardest to love. There were many, many days I lost sight of my students as people. I gave in and saw them as they wanted to be seen and not as they truly were.

I believe it’s essential for teachers to have the heart of ‘Don Quixote’, the Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote saw the beauty in life, as well as the inner beauty of the people around him including Aldonza, a hard hearted and angry prostitute. Quixote sees her inner spirit and goodness and treats her as Dulcinea, a virtuous lady. Aldonza, hurt by her hard life, walled off and angry, rejects Quixote’s vision of her. She insists she is nothing. As the lyrics reveal, she knows how to deal with anger but not with tenderness.

Quixote’s response? “Never deny that you are Dulcinea!”

I wish every teacher could see the best ‘self’ that lies hidden in each of their students. I wish every teacher were able to  bring that best ‘self’ to the surface. But the classroom is a complex organism. It’s composed of many, many unique individuals, each with their own set of experiences, each on a journey to find their place in the world. We’re busy, and it’s easy to lose the heart of Don Quixote and to simply deal with the world, and our students as they are on the surface. Near the end of his life even the Man of La Mancha lost faith in his own quest to see others as their best selves.

Interestingly, it’s Aldonza, the most hardened of souls, that finally begins to see herself as Quixote has seen her. Without realizing it he has planted a seed in her heart. The seed begins to grow and she feels the good soul within her. It’s Aldonza, the student, who revives Quixote, the teacher, from his despair.

Don Quixote has touched the soul of Aldonza. She’ll never be the same. No longer a prostitute, she is Dulcinea, the lady. Touching the hearts of our students isn’t easy. but it’s here in the realm of the heart, that we are most apt to experience the true magic of teaching.

May the heart of La Mancha burn in your heart and in the heart of every teacher. May we open our eyes to the Dulcinea’s and the Quixote’s that enter our classrooms every day. May we help them see the goodness within them.


The Power of the Spider

From my book: A Path with Heart..

.preilly_smallI was on the phone with my “teacher”. The conversation had moved to an important crossroads, I was learning to open my heart more fully. At that moment, he said softly, “Look at that, a spider just appeared by the window.” I was confused. What did this spider have to do with our work together? He continued, “Some Native Americans interpret spiders as having ‘grandmother energy’. Grandmothers are so often touchstones of unconditional love.” I immediately thought of my own grandmother and like the petals of a delicate flower, my heart opened and I felt the unconditional love she had for me. It was an important moment in my life.

A few days later I spoke with my wife, Liz, a middle school math teacher, about what had happened. It might not have made complete sense to her; but she listened intently. A month or so later, we were eating dinner and Liz told the following story.

“We were in math class today and one of the girls saw a spider on the classroom floor and screamed. The kids nearest her jumped out of their seats to see it. In just a few seconds the entire class was up, probably happy to have a little incident to add some excitement to the day. They were definitely over-reacting.

Several of the boys approached the spider and there were shouts from the group to step on it. “Kill it!” the kids were all screaming. One of the boys was happy to oblige; but before he could stamp on it, I said loud enough for them to hear, “You know my husband says that spiders hold grandmother energy.” They stopped and looked at me. “What’s that?” one of the girls asked. I continued, “Some Native Americans believe that spiders carry the energy of their grandmothers.” The class had a look of general confusion, “Really?”

I stepped over to where the spider had stopped. One of the boys shouted, “Don’t kill it!” Another shouted from the back, “Pick it up and put it outside!” At that an entourage of students carefully worked the spider onto a piece of paper and the entire class escorted it to the window where they gently released it to the softness of early spring.

We all stood watching to see what it would do and in seconds it disappeared from our view. No one wanted to return to their seats. An odd mood had overtaken the class. We had moved from frenetic middle school excitement to quiet pride. Like we had done something important and meaningful.

Did they believe it was “grandmother energy”? I don’t know; but I know they’ll never look at a spider again without having the thought pass through their heads.”

As educators we take so much of our power for granted. For the most part, our influence ripples through the world and over the generations silently, unnoticed. Our lessons are seeds. They are blown on breezes far and wide. They are carried by lively streams to rivers and oceans where currents move them to lands we will never see ourselves. Whether these seeds germinate in distant lands or close to home, whether they grow immediately or wait for decades, our gift is nestled in the hearts of our students.

Remember the power of the spider. From lips to lips, from heart to heart; the gifts we bestow, the lessons we teach, ripple through time and place.