Monday, July 28, 2014

Every child should have a caring adult in their lives. And that's not always a biological parent or family member. It may be a friend or neighbor. Often times it is a teacher. Joe Manchin

This week I have been thinking about the trust of children, and how some adults violate that trust.  Some children are abandoned or left in hot cars or even molested by the adults who are supposed to be caring for them.  I would like to extend that thought about caring to both educators and parents who have children in their charge.  

Students want to feel safe and happy at home and in school.  They want to feel loved and appreciated, and they want their teachers to be glad to see them each new day, even if the students themselves are not always elated to be in school.  Keeping a positive and welcoming behavior is sometimes difficult, but as the teacher, you must extend yourself to the pupils in your class.  You never know the difference you might make to a child. I would like to share a story. 

You're aware that I taught at North Allegheny for 35 years, and at Penn Hills for two years at the beginning of my career.  Although the two districts are almost polar opposites in terms of demographics and median annual income, student and family problems were the same.  Many children were involved in unpleasant divorces, in which the parents discarded the feelings and care of their child;  instead they spend their time and energy hating and baiting each other.  None of this drama ever went unnoticed by the child, and I always knew when something was wrong at home.  Attitudes changed, grades dropped, sudden outbursts of anger or tears happened, and pain glimmered in the eyes of the student.

Although I would call home and express concern for my student, many parents were too self-involved to see the pain that they were causing  their child. We had great counseling staffs at both of my schools, and they were very open to referrals and seeing students on a regular basis.  North Allegheny even offered counseling with grief sessions, children of divorce, etc.  But sometimes, as a classroom teacher, I knew I had to do more.  I was fortunate to be the kind of  teacher that kids trusted.  I had some students who shared with me that things were so bad between the parents with battling over custody rights, that the student had to spend Monday night with dad, Tuesday night with mom, Wednesday night with dad, Thursday night with mom, and then alternate weekends with each parent.  Many of these students did not want to participate in such a stressful arrangement, but they were given no voice and no choice in the matter.  They were exhausted, missing assignments, and overall, school was just one more chore to try to juggle.  They never had their books :"I don't know if my book is at my mom's or my dad's.  Sorry, Mrs. Rittman."  How could I possibly be angry?  The organizational skills of a tenth grade student are precarious at best, and adding the divorce/what day is it?/my stuff is at my mom's only made for more stress and more tears.  Although I could not do much, I could do something for each of these students.  I will tell you right now that what I did was against school policy, but I have always believed that the doing what is right for the student must come first.  I called each of these students aside through the years, and I said we were going to share a secret that would make their school lives better and more organized, as well as less stressful. Although students were only permitted to be issued one book, I secretly gave another book, so one book was at mom's house and one book was at dad's house.  That solved only part of the issue.  I then told the student that I would have an extra book on the right hand corner of my desk, and upon entering the classroom, the student could casually pick up the book needed for class and no one was any wiser.  I can tell you that all the times I followed this procedure, the students and I established a great pact of trust and respect.  Grades went up, and stress went down, at least for English class.  And in all the years I provided the extra book, both books were always returned at the end of the year.  

Although providing books and sharing a secret with a student was not a life changing event, students were so grateful.  They were grateful that a caring adult shared their pain, tried to alleviate some of their stress, and helped them to deal with a new way of living.  Even now, I can see the faces of the students who were stuck in the quagmire of their parents divorce, and that one kindness from a trusted teacher made a difference for them.  The teacher is "loco parentis"- in the place of a parent- and when the parents are not doing a good job caring for their child, sometimes a teacher can step up to help.

Be that kind of a teacher.

Comments and suggestions are invited.

Rittman Publishing, LLC


Monday, July 21, 2014

Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude. Zig Ziglar

I believe that a positive attitude is one of the best assets a person can have and share with others.  I never knew how important a positive attitude could be until I became a teacher.

I enjoyed teaching many subjects in the realm of English education during my 37 year tenure, and one of my favorite classes to teach was a lower level English II class.  These 10th grade students came from varied backgrounds:  some were under achievers; some were children of alcoholics and home issues prevented them from focusing on success in school; some were in recovery themselves, and some had a learning disability like dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, etc. The one thing that all of these students had in common was their lack of success in school.  They were grouped together for their four main course subjects:  English, Social Studies, Biology, and Math, in a special program at North Allegheny, and I was lucky to be an anchor teacher in this program for 33 of my 35 years at NA.  I loved these students and these classes, but it was not easy.  You see, because of their lack of success in school, some of the kids came to class with negative attitudes toward not only learning, but also toward themselves.  For me to be able to teach them, and for them to be able to learn, their attitudes had to change.  

I made sure on that very first day of school to tell them that I was so happy that I was to be their teacher for the year.  I remember some of them exchanging glances, as if to say "Is she for real?"  I told them that I did not care about their grades from last year or any other year, because tenth grade was a new start.  I let them know that I was there as a support system and available for help, but they had to put forth some real effort, because it would be OUR  class, and everyone would contribute and everyone would be important.  As a strong believer in high expectations, I shared my ideas with them, as well as some tidbits about the upcoming curriculum, and how much they would enjoy learning. I also told them how much I loved teaching, and that I was excited to begin a new school year with them.  In a very nice way, I explained that no one could put anyone down in front of the class, and that all negativity had to be left outside in the hall and not brought into the class.  Everyone had to respect everyone else, and no one would interrupt when someone else was speaking. I also said that I wanted our class to be someplace that everyone felt safe; safe for being themselves, safe for learning, and safe for sharing ideas, no matter how outlandish.  I said that there would be no self put-downs, because to maintain a positive attitude, a person must believe in himself.  

Not only did I say these important things at the beginning of the year, our class lived them every day.  Some days, keeping the positive attitude going was challenging, to say the least. Of course, kids would say things like, "I am so stupid!" The entire class was in on the positive attitude adjustment, and the perpetrator of negativity would receive a soft rebuke from his peers. And guess what? Something wonderful happens when others believe in you as a person, and as a learner. Unexpectedly, you start to believe in yourself.  I saw this happen time and time again in my years in the classroom, and suddenly grades and self-esteem were on the rise, and students would begin to take risks as learners, and school was no longer something they were not very good at doing.  All because of an attitude adjustment.

Many of my former students moved up to more difficult classes and went on to college.  You see, their attitudes, not their aptitudes, really did determine their altitudes.

A teacher has a powerful influence over young minds.  Although it is sometimes difficult, and even though students can be very trying, make sure your influence is positive in every class, every day. 

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Monday, July 14, 2014

Teachers have three loves: love of learning, love of learners, and the love of bringing the first two loves together. - Scott Hayden

In my 37 years of teaching high school, every day I learned something – from a student, a colleague, an administrator, a film, or a book.   I really loved learning, and I still do.  Many of my friends are retired teachers, seasoned veterans, and even some novice teachers, but they all have one thing in common:  they all love learning. Learning is what teachers do, and the process of sharing that love of learning with students (at least in my case) is not work, it is a passion. Passion on a daily basis is exhausting, which is why teachers are so tired at the end of the school day.  Passionate teaching and all that standing and walking around the room really wear a teacher down!

When I first retired in June of 2011 to take care of my husband Scott, who had stage four colon cancer, I really missed the daily learning experiences at school, but I knew that I needed and wanted to be with Scott.  When Scott died in May of 2012 and I spent a year reorganizing, downsizing, moving, and grieving (not in that order), I began to think about the two giant holes in my life.  With the passing of my best friend and soul mate, as well as the loss of my daily routine of going to school and being the teacher, I missed having new experiences and learning every day.  Because of those holes, I decided to finish my book for student teachers.

I sent the finished manuscript to my publisher last Monday, and since then I have enjoyed long meetings with both my editor and publishing team and my lawyers.  And guess what?  I don’t know any of the things that they all seem to know and understand, and to quote Shakespeare, for all of those meetings, “It was Greek to me.”  Who knew that cover design, book size, types of paper, copyrights, and trademarks could be so involved?  I have even been given assignments by these professionals so that I can contribute to future discussions as the book goes to print.  And guess what?  I am back to learning something new every day!  In fact, I am learning MANY new things every day!  And STUDENT TEACHING: THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM A MASTER TEACHER is about to become a reality.  I am thrilled.  When I started the whole publishing process, I did not know where it would lead me, and a series of baby steps and learning in increments have brought me to the brink of becoming a published author. 

I am sharing this information with you because I firmly believe that we are never too old to learn or to try new things.  Learning stimulates the brain, making a person feel so fresh, and so filled with wonder.  And sharing new-found knowledge is equally as exciting as learning new things!  In my vast experiences with friends, I have found that most people are interested in learning something new.  So, take a class, read a new book, write your own book, or take a chance on something you have always wanted to do.  Enrich your own life, and you will enrich the lives of others when you share your new expertise.  Learning new things keeps you and your brain young!  Better yet, you never know what influence you may have on another when your share your experiences.  In my mind, the world is just one giant classroom, and sometimes you are the teacher, and sometimes you are the student.  I find both sides of the desk to be equally stimulating. 

I welcome your comments or suggestions.  Thanks for reading!

Rittman Publishing, LLC

Sunday, July 6, 2014

“Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.” ― Marvin J. Ashton

I would like to share an extraordinary story with you in this week's post.  It is the kind of story that will touch your heart, whether or not you are a teacher.  I am sharing this story with the permission of a wonderful young man and his parents, because they, too, realize the power and value of John's story.

Although he is now 20 years old, I first met John at the Ingomar Middle School sports' meeting when he was in eighth grade.  Varsity coaches have spring meetings at each of the three North Allegheny middle schools to recruit for Fall sports.  John immediately stood out from the crowd. He spouted off the averages of each of the players from the past several seasons, discussed the yardages of each of the courses we played for section matches, and he seemed to know everything about my long golf coaching career at North Allegheny.  You see, John is autistic, and his passion is golf.  But that is only the beginning of this story. 

As a classroom teacher, I was hand-picked by administrators to teach almost every special needs student who was mainstreamed at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, in both my English classes and my Introduction to Theater classes.  I loved working with these students, their parents, counselors, and special needs teachers.  Helping these students to achieve their best was a total team effort, and the personal and professional rewards I received every single day were very fulfilling.  Nothing is as exciting as helping a student to learn social skills, life skills, and subject matter, and to see the student blossom with self-confidence and pride.  Every year was exciting, but I only had one year with each of those students.  I had four years to be John's golf coach and watch him grow.

Many children who are autistic have specific likes and dislikes, and as I mentioned before, John loves golf.  On the first day of tryouts as an incoming freshman, John knew some of the boys from the King's Tournaments, and I observed that he was quite social when discussing golf.  In the other social areas, he was not comfortable.  I approached his mom that day, introduced myself, and said, "Tell me about John."  She told me that John's teachers had always been extremely supportive of him in every facet of his life, and that this tryout was John's first foray into high school life and what she hoped would become a life filled with friendships.  (I must interject at this point that I came to know that John's parents and sister are the most supportive family I have ever seen.  They walked every round he ever played at North Allegheny and in his tournaments-except for tryouts- no parents allowed on the golf course.)

John made the Varsity team as a freshman after a sudden-victory playoff for that coveted spot. He was the only freshman on the team, and he was thrilled!  That first year, and the three years thereafter, John blossomed.  His love of yardages and golf equipment and courses played and favorite golf holes were his favorite topics.  On the bus trips to away matches, John would review in detail: hole by hole yardages from specific tees; hazards to avoid; the best club selection for avoiding those hazards; risk/reward shots; and slope of the greens.  It was like I had an assistant coach who knew the configuration and yardage of every hole the team had ever played or would ever play. John’s contributions to the team and his playing ability, as well as his fun personality, helped him to become a true team member, accepted and loved, and he formed fast friendships which are still flourishing today.  With gentle guidance and caring, the four years of boys' golf teams helped John to understand what it meant to be appropriate in many social situations. (This is a problem for autistic people.)  Their patience and caring for John echoed mine as his coach.  John was held to the same high expectations as the rest of the team; he was treated no differently because of his autism.  This was very important to me as a coach and as a teacher; I wanted everyone on the team to recognize that it was the same for everyone.  Each golf season, we were a little family of support who nurtured John's growth, never realizing until much later that John was helping all of us to grow into better people because he was a part of our lives. 

I wrote earlier that I had the chance to watch John grow for four years on the team, but our relationship is still continuing.  I was fortunate to meet Hank Haney, head of the IJGA, at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in 2013.  I spoke with Hank about John, and wrote him a letter of recommendation for John to be accepted into the IJGA (International Junior Golf Academy) at Hilton Head.  John just finished a fabulous year there, learning more about the game he loves and having many opportunities to play in international tournaments.  

I am so fortunate to continue to see John at the club where we both belong, Diamond Run. John and his dad always play the black tees- the tips- and John is a favorite at the club, even playing in the men's championship for several years, despite his young age.    

I had the chance to really observe John's growth as a person and as a golfer, as John and I were playing partners in the Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Memorial Tournament for Autism in June. Although John had never played at Montour Heights, I sent him the link to the scorecard and layout of the course.  He memorized the course and yardages at first glance (what a special gift) and John had our foursome on every par 5 in just 2 shots.  Although we shot 9 under par because of John's extraordinary playing ability, we did not win.  John did win a prize and was recognized at the dinner for being the only autistic player to ever play in the event, and for his 0 handicap.  Although his mom joined us for dinner, this was the only round I can remember that his mom did not walk the course.  I took this as another sign that John is growing up.

I was so proud to be with John all of the years that I was his coach, but that pride was nothing compared to what I felt about this young man as I watched him comport himself in many new situations at Montour Heights.  He met many new people and he was completely comfortable, shaking hands and conversing with ease.  He took the lead in our foursome, making suggestions and telling us how to hit the shots during this amazing scramble.  John quickly made friends with the other two men in our group (friends of mine), and Tom and Mike both told me they thought John was awesome.  That day, I played golf with a man, a man I taught and coached and cared for as a boy, who has grown into himself, with the love and support of a fabulous family and wonderful team mates.  I have always believed that nurturing support can transform a person, and in this case, seeing the growth and transformation of this young man was overwhelming.  I spoke with his mom at length about John’s new independence, and his family is also so proud of him.

What's next for John?  I met with the golf coach at CCAC, and he wants John on the team.  So John is about to embark on another wonderful adventure.  I am sure that this adventure will lead to another, and although I cannot predict what will come next, I do see a bright future for John, and of course, that future includes golf, his true passion.

In my upcoming book and in other blogs, I have mentioned the importance of teachers working with students in extracurricular activities.  Although teachers usually only have that one year to see growth, I have been so fortunate to witness John’s continuing evolution for years.  Being a part of John's life is one of the best things that ever happened to me as a teacher and a coach. My hat is off to his family and all of his golf friends who surrounded John with love and acceptance, allowing him to be himself and to mature.  I am SO proud of this young man!  John McCabe, you are awesome!

 If you would like to read more about John, this article appeared on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 10/11/12:  

When I sent this blog to John’s parents for their input, I received this heartfelt reply from his mother, which I am using with her permission.

Beautiful!  Thanks for making me cry!!  

We just take things day by day, but reading about how he has grown in the past 4-5 years alone has made me realize that his growth didn’t “just happen”.  There were many special members of “Team JP” who have helped him along the way, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without your help and the help of so many others.  I love that John was treated just like the others. When he did something wrong he received the same punishment as the others.  This helped teach him life lessons and made him realize that he had to follow the same rules as everyone else, no exceptions because of his disability.  Golf is about so much more than hitting a ball and getting low scores.  It has taught him basic things like waiting for your turn, keeping quiet while others are hitting, counting ALL of your strokes (even when no one sees!), and being honest with yourself and your playing partners.  I love the commercial for the First Tee program where the kid says “I learned so much at the First Tee.  I even learned how to play golf.”  John has learned so much about life from the game of golf and has made some incredible friends.  I don’t know where he would be now without high school golf.  That is when he really blossomed and people started to see him for the amazing person he is.

He is an awesome young man and we are so proud of him.  I think this is a wonderful article. I’m looking forward to the positive feedback you will receive!  Lynda McCabe

Please leave me a comment or suggestion for future articles. Thanks for reading. 

Rittman Publishing, LLC