Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

May is the month for both endings and beginnings.  For college graduates and student teachers, it is the month of commencement, which includes saying goodbye to college life and your very first students and saying hello to a job search which you hope will be fruitful.  What advice can this 37 year veteran offer?

First, I hope you had a wonderful student teaching experience.  Mine was January until May in 1974, and I still remember the faces and the student names as listed on each class period’s seating chart. I had three different cooperating teachers, and each one offered such important advice and knowledge that I use through my entire career.  The three main lessons I learned were Confidence, Communication, and Creativity, which ironically, became the three C’s in my new book, Rittman Rules!  A Practical Guide for Student Teaching, which is being edited before being sent to print,  even as I write this blog.  Having a valuable and important student teaching experience changes you as a person, and I think that experience renews your desire to teach and have your own classroom.  But how can you do that?

I know that all resumes and applications in today’s world are on the Internet, but when you have your chance for an interview, please allow your positive self and experience to show!  Do NOT attempt to curb your enthusiasm and passion for teaching.  You know the average questions to expect, but sneak in some “I” statements which show your love for the profession, not to brag, but to share the great experience you had and to show your desire to be a team player in the school building.  I always tell student teachers that having an avocation – coaching, directing, student council experience, etc.- are all little extras that just might help you to snag a permanent position. During your interview, try to speak up about any “extras” you have to offer.  When I was first hired at Penn Hills, I co-directed the ninth grade play during my two years there.  They needed a director, and that was one of my skills.

Let everyone know about your passion for teaching.  Positive exuberance may lead to an interview in a roundabout way.  You never know when a person who is listening and knows someone in an important position, and that person may be impressed with your energy and excitement and pass your name along.  Although this sounds crazy, it happens all the time.  Life is a series of happy coincidences.  In the meantime, get your foot in the door by substitute teaching.  Give your best effort in the classroom which you are guest teaching, and I guarantee that you will be noticed. 

Best of luck in your search for a position!  Keep loving teaching!

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions.- John Randolph

Losing a student to a car accident or cancer or illness is terrible.  Losing a student to suicide is almost incomprehensible. In 37 years as a teacher, I suffered and cried with the students more times than I can even count.  June, 2011, was the end of my classroom career, and I had so many favorite students (read- all of them!)  And I had a phone call last week that one of those favorite students chose to end his life.  He was 18.

Death is difficult to accept, even when a person has enjoyed a long and wonderful life.  I attended the funeral of a friend’s father last Saturday.  Her dad was 96 and I adored him.  He was wise and gentle and wonderful, but a stroke hastened his ultimate demise.  He would not have been happy being flat on his back and unable to move or speak, and he would not be able to work in his beloved garden, and that made the acceptance of his passing more palatable.  His insightful lessons about life to be still and to breathe slowly and enjoy Mother Nature and her bounty will live on.  Not so with my young friend and former student who chose to end his life.

Because Scott and I had no children, I have always felt that in some ways, my students and golfers and cast members of shows we directed are “my kids.”  I have always been the kind of teacher and person who formed bonds and interests and commonalities with others in a very rapid manner.  I was always the teacher who knew about the home and family relationships and problems, the girlfriend/boyfriend issues, the struggles with friendships, and the difficulty with reading and/or homework.  For all the years I taught school, I cried on the last day as every class left my 10th grade English class to advance to the high school.  I would block the door and shout “You can’t leave!  I am keeping every one of you with me forever”, even though I knew that was an impossibility.  I hugged every student every year.  I was especially sad to say goodbye to my students in June, 2011.  They would be my last students, and they all understood that I was leaving because Scott was dying. They knew that I wanted to stay, but that it would be irresponsible for me to do so.  The student I mentioned at the beginning of this blog was mature beyond his years.  We discussed my decision at length. He said he was sorry for the students who would not have the chance to know me as a classroom teacher, but that retiring to take care of Scott was really my only choice.  What a mature young man.

So, what to think?  An entire population of friends and former teachers and family members are left with a question of WHY?  Although I have repeated this same scenario over and over in my career, trying to understand why a young person wants to end his life stymies me even more than this English teacher trying to solve for X with Calculus or Trigonometry.  All I know is this is a waste of a beautiful life, not lived.  And I know that the parents will never be the same, as the light of their lives was taken away.  No parent should ever have to bury a child. 

And what is the message of this blog, of the contrast of a life well lived and a life not lived? Be thankful every day.  Tell the ones you love that you love them. And especially for teachers and parents, please be kind as teenagers work to find their way in this difficult and fast paced world.  Let them know they are loved and valued.  Live your life well by caring for others.

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Sunday, May 11, 2014

No one who achieves success does so without the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude. Alfred North Whitehead

As a rule, teacher rewards are not a daily occurrence.  This is true in that an entire week has been deemed "Teacher Appreciation Week", just so the overworked and underpaid may receive a few kind words. I was very fortunate during my career to receive numerous accolades from parents and principals and students, but the gifts that really mattered were the handwritten student thank you notes.  On a bad day, I could pull those notes out of my desk drawer and read them over and over to erase any sad or bad feelings of the day.  Even better, I found a way to share these notes full of wonderful feelings with my colleagues in a unique way, and everyone on the staff looked forward to the notes from Mrs. Rittman's classes!

Near the end of each school year for 35 years, I talked to my students about the fact that teachers never get to see a finished product; thus, they never really know if they have been successful in the classroom.  I explained that in our school, where every teacher had a minimum of 150 students per day in classes, that it was impossible to know if the students cared or felt they were a part of the learning process, and sometimes, it was difficult to know if students were even enjoying the class.  I explained that teachers spent hours creating a lesson that would last just 40 minutes, and then they would work at home for long hours again to create another lesson. I found out through the years that students thought teacher lessons came from a book, and then later from a web page. They always seemed surprised to discover that most lessons were teacher-made.  I was blunt in saying that teaching was not an easy job, and that most of our staff used the summer to improve their education and to improve their lessons.  I let them know that thank you notes were SO appreciated, explaining how much a hand written note from a student meant to me, personally, and  that I kept such notes in my desk drawer as an antidote for a bad day!  They were shocked.

Next, I asked students to think about any teacher or guidance counselor or principal or school nurse or para-professional or other support staff member who had helped them in some way, shown them a kindness, or made class fun and interesting.  I let them know that today's class would be a writing day, and that they had the great opportunity to "make someone's day" with a personal note. They were allowed to write as many notes as they liked, to any teacher in the district. (I sent these through inter-school mail.) Every year when I planned this day, the voices would start with "Do you remember . . . ?  I loved that class" or "Mrs.___ is so nice to me in the library every day.  I have to write her a note."  Sometimes students sat together and wrote a group note to a current or former teacher.  

I made thank you notes from colors of papers with various designs with THANK YOU and IN APPRECIATION pictures on the masthead. I reviewed the acceptable form of the notes, with the date, the salutation, indented paragraphs, the closing, and the signature (full name.)  Students could choose the color paper/design they wanted to use, and the class went into full writing mode.  I made suggestions for words to use in the notes (appreciate, enjoy, grateful, etc.) and any questions about how to spell a word or name were answered with the correct spellings on the board.  I also provided colored pencils and some students drew a little flower or cartoon on their notes.  All notes were folded in half with the teacher's name and department or school building on the outside, printed legibly.  I posted a notice in the mail room that the notes were from my classes, and the staff felt very valued.

I must tell you that during this lesson, I told students that they were not to write a note to me; that we were doing this for others in the school.  Although I issued that admonition every class period, I usually received 30-50 notes every year, and I kept every one of them. Each one is so special to me.

In the 35 years that I did this lesson, there was only one incident in which a boy wrote an inappropriate note to a teacher.  Luckily, I recognized his handwriting and the issue was addressed.  Most students really took this lesson to heart, and they were thrilled with the compliments and feedback they received from the staff members.  In fact, I had students who wrote 5-10 notes and even took extra stationery to finish their notes at home. This lesson was a win-win for all involved.  Personally, I still believe that a thank you note goes a long way. Although handwritten thank you notes may be close to a lost art with the advancement of emails and all electronics, there is something so satisfying about opening a note and knowing that someone took the time to write a personal note. 

I cherish every hand written note I have ever received.  So does every teacher.  (Just ask them)

Feel free to use this lesson in your classroom if you would like to try it.  

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Monday, May 5, 2014

“At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

Being a teacher is so difficult on so many levels.  Classroom teachers must be able to juggle IEP's and parents and disruptions and personalities and procedures and grades, all while wearing a smile and making everyone around them feel happy.  The thousands of things that teachers must do in the classroom force every day to fly by, leaving little time for reflection. The students move on at the end of the school year, and you may say to yourself, "Did I make any difference at all in the lives of my students this year?" From my viewpoint, if you are a carpenter, you can point proudly to a staircase and say "I built that staircase."  If you are a stonemason, you can look at a chimney, and say "I made that chimney."  If you are a doctor, you can tell a patient "You are well."  But one facet of teaching that I have always found to be particularly dissatisfying is this: teachers never have a "finished product" to show for your work. The purist might say that there are test grades and other measurements to use as guages, but all of those scores do not make a finished product.  However, sometimes, if you are really lucky, you will receive some little rewards along the way that let you know that you did, indeed, make a difference.  I have been fortunate enough to have this happen on many occasions, but I was extremely lucky to be a recipient of a very big "thank you for making a difference" on Saturday, and I would like to share my story with you.

Saturday afternoon, I left the Delta Kappa Gamma meeting and luncheon, which was held at Treesdale Golf and Country Club.  (Female teachers- this is a service organization for retired and working female teachers.  They do some great work and also give scholarships.)  I decided to travel north to get a few items at the Walmart in Cranberry.  (Yes, this good news story actually happened in the Walmart parking lot!  With all the crazy emails about Walmart, I have good news from there!)  I was walking with my packages back to my car when a large truck approached me and the woman driver rolled down her window and asked "Are you Ms. Faltot?"  To tell the truth, I have not been Ms. Faltot since the 1980-1981 school year, but I answered "Yes, I used to be."  The woman said "I knew it was you!  You look exactly the same!  I am so happy to see you because I want you to know how much you helped me in tenth grade.  I never would have made it through tenth grade without you."  She told me her name (I will call her Angela, because she was my "angel"on Saturday), and I remembered that she had serious family issues in tenth grade.  She parked her car and we spoke for several minutes more.  She let me know that she is married to another one of my former students, and that they are happy.  She has children of her own, and the oldest is a senior in high school.  She told me that her mother, who was a big part of her problem, has passed on, but that peace was made before her passing.  Angela told me that I have always been her favorite teacher.  She recollected that during a particularly bad bout with the stress of home and school issues, she was weeping profusely as she searched the school for me, she said because "I knew you would listen and calm me down."  She did not find me that time, but, oh, to be needed so much and to hear that after all these years was so touching.  She did find another one of her teachers, whom she said she always had been afraid of, but the teacher was compassionate and caring and helpful.  Angela had tears in her eyes as we talked about the problems of yesteryear, and I never knew that I was such an integral part of her life in tenth grade.  She said the family had gone through counseling together, and that all is now well.  She told me she was so happy to see me because she had always wanted to say thank you for all of the support and love I gave her in tenth grade.  By the way, she will be 50 years old this year, but for about 15 minutes on Saturday, she was 16 and I was 28 again. 

We hugged and parted ways and said we would hook up on Facebook.  But whether we do or do not, I will never forget that feeling that I had when she told me how important my positive influence was to her during that school year.  A teacher is so much more than an instructor. Anyone can teach a subject, but it takes a special teacher to be compassionate and caring for those in your charge.  Angela and I did not talk about the tenth grade curriculum; we talked about the way she felt, then and now.  And we talked about the way I made her feel.  Kindness returned kindness on this day.  I believe that no matter how busy or stressed you are as a teacher, kindness is a must.  And maybe kindness will return kindness for you someday, sometime, today, tomorrow, or in the future, and you will find your Angela and know that you made a difference.  

Rittman Publishing, LLC