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No White Flag

 

Would you come with me on this beautiful, rugged journey of education as I attempt to learn from my failures, challenges, and successes?  I invite you to pull on your best walking shoes, and gear up for the course.  I guarantee it will be rough, scary, confrontational, and worth its full reward.

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I walk you into this journey  to a time when the challenges beneath my feet were ready to halt me for the long haul.  I am walking you into my path three years ago.  I was teaching a class of 18 first graders in a Title I school in Keller, Texas.

I was passionate about my calling.  Radically passionate.  I worked long hours planning lessons, reflecting on lessons, and striving to go above and beyond to reach every kid.  I found myself ready to quit and raise my white flag and surrender my calling.  Why would I give up a calling I was so passionate about, you may wonder.  I tirelessly worked to instill a love for learning, a message of value, and a hope for a future within my students.  They were more than my students, as I let them know.  They were my classroom family.  The moment my students made their names on my roster, I let my students and their families know they were a part of something BIGGER.  It was bigger than me, and bigger than them.  I needed them to know that I possessed no greater a part in my classroom than their child did. This hope was driving me, and I had seen the impact I was making. I had successfully connected with many students and families – helping children create goals for their own behavior and navigate their own success. Parents who had acquired caustic tastes towards education began to shift towards finding it more palatable, and I watched in awe as their tastes changed.  Stoic parents let their guard down as they trusted me with their child and allowed themselves to be refilled with hope for education.  Students whose behavior was disruptive to the classroom environment, gained emotional tools needed to self-regulate.  I felt empowered and hopeful for the future of my students.

But, there were times this future did not declare its hope so brightly.  The voice of hope began to be muffled in the ears of my heart that had led me so well.  “You’re not making a difference,” my heart seemed to say.  “They won’t stay changed,” the haunting thoughts seemed to be taunting me.  One child’s behavior, in particular, seemed to push a button that made these thoughts even LOUDER until it was all I could hear.  She came to me with a very troubled past, a stifled present, and what seemed an even bleaker future.   The trouble was, I thought I had made so much progress in this child’s life, and it seemed I had.  Towards the end of the school year, I learned they were moving away from our district and far away from Texas.  Fear drowned out any voices of hope I had for this child. I nurtured these fears and coddled them until they grew so big, they were all that surrounded me.  “Who will care for her when she moves away?”  I cried to myself and to our school counselor.  As her move approached and the school year’s conclusion intersected with this path, she began to act out worse than I had ever seen.  “I just want to die,” she yelled one day in class.  With heavy heart, I said good-bye to her at the end of the school year, getting her address and hoping to stay in touch.

The problem was, I had allowed myself to become disconnected from my source of hope. The voice of hope was so distant, I couldn’t locate it.  Fears blanketed my ears like headphones drowning out any other voices.  With despair, I sought prayer from my friends, asking them to pray for the future of this child who had woven her way into my heart.  As tears began to fall, and I shared the pain and fears I had for this child, a little tap on my heart disturbed me from my grief.  “Don’t you know that  I care for her more than you do?”  The Lord prodded at my heart.  It was then that I realized I was not trusting the one who placed this child in my life along with the calling in my heart to take care of His own child.  I was playing God, thinking I knew her future better than He.   I surrendered my fears and felt the burden lift away from me, and as it did, voices of fears I had owned as my own tore away, as well. I realized, with great relief, those thoughts that muffled my hope, were not my own thoughts.  There is an enemy who wants to destroy your hopes and calling, and he almost destroyed mine.

The Lord gave me the promise of 1 Corinthians 3:6 for my classroom, and that promise leads me with hope. It’s not my job to make the fruit grow. He will take care of the increase. It is my job to take care of the seeds.

Shortly after this hope was rebirthed, I learned a little more about the tap root of an oak tree.  Did you realize it can take up to three years before you see the buds of the oak tree emerge from the ground? Does that mean it’s not growing in that interim?  Certainly not, and when we don’t see the growth we want to see (or think we should see) in our students, maybe it’s because it’s growing beneath the surface like a hearty Oak Tree, whose roots must go deep.  I’ll do my job to nurture the seed, and I am not quitting.

 

Jessica Chandler

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1 Corinthians 3:6 – I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

 

Are Leaders Born? Are Leaders Made?

Are leaders born, or are they made?   Yes, and Yes. Leaders are born, AND leaders are made, is my response. Some believe that only some of us are made to be leaders.  I would argue, that we are ALL made to be leaders.

I had the privilege of working underAmy Erb, an amazing leader, at my last school, who was working to transform our school into a Leader In Me Lighthouse School. She threw up a bulletin board at the beginning of a school year, reminding her students and staff of this design for leadership with the saying displayed, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – There’s a Leader in Us All.”  The truth of this saying resonates with me, because I believe each one of us is a leader by design as we are leading our own lives. It’s from this position of self-empowerment, that I can encourage my students to take charge of their learning, as they rise up and lead their lives past their current circumstances. If left uncultivated, it’s like a seed unplanted, or planted and not watered.  My friend, Don Sturm, described leadership as a seed that we water and nourish. Education, he likens, is the way of nurturing that seed for our students. This leaves me to wonder, am I keeping the weeds out of my classroom? Am I providing ample light to shine on the seeds I am charged to nurture? How can I move beyond being a watering can for my students, to setting my students up for success in an Artesian aquifer system, where they are not dependent on me for their sustenance? Educators, like parents, are trying to work ourselves out of a job. We want students to step into the highest level of leadership for themselves, as self-actualized humans. The only way they can get there, is if we help them find their leadership capacity to begin. This is my desire. I want every student to leave my classroom family believing in their leadership over their own life, which will change the world.

We don’t have to have a line of people following us or a microphone in our hand to be a leader.  Sometimes leadership is just the quiet kindness in sitting next to a heart who felt lonely and invisible, as Trudy Ludwig described in The Invisible Boy.  The motive for leadership should not be in getting others to follow us.  The motive should be in leading our lives to pursue what is right for us, and realizing that the world will be better if we act beyond our own desire for comfort.  This is what Jen Betton touched on when she wrote Hedgehog Needs a Hug.  

To me, this looks like kindness.  Kindness is not something we are born leading in, but its capacity IS within each of us.  We are not born thinking of others, and leading with empathy, like a muscle, it must be trained, but nonetheless, the muscle is there.  We all are capable of leading with more kindness, empathy, and helping others to find their voice. If I hold the notion that it’s someone else’s job to be a leader, and it’s someone else’s calling to call out the best in others, I will miss my impact on this world.  Yes, some of us may have a greater level of influence, with a larger following, or a louder microphone, so to speak; this should not stop any of us from finding our own seed to nurture, and just watch as the buds of leadership bloom from our lives. How will you call out the leaders around you today?

Leading with love,

Jessica

My Treasures

Books are missing.  I run my classroom library on a trust system, but I ask that students sign out the books they borrow and kindly return the books when they are finished.  This past week, we were preparing for an event, and looking for specific titles, which were not on the shelves, yet they had not been checked out either. I always said, a stolen book was okay, because at least it may get read.  I had to question my belief this past week, when a favorite book from my classroom library went missing. It’s a picture pop-up book, and let me remind you, I teach fifth grade.  What does a fifth grader need with a picture pop up book?  I don’t know what they need with it, but I am committing to quit worrying about the matter. At each section, when my students arrive, after I have greeted each one of them at the door with a hug, high five, or our special handshake (many of them have chosen a unique handshake between the two of us) I greet the entire class with the same phrase EVERY DAY, “Hello, my treasures,” I say.  This daily greeting, pronounced over my treasures three times each day is not just a verbal affirmation, but I want it to be an echo of my heart. Yes, I was connected with that book. Yes, I have memories of sharing that book with every class I have ever taught, with each of my own children, and during my internship at Stephen F. Austin. My shelves seem a bit bare without that prized book. I had it since college, and it still bore my maiden name on the inside cover, but the book is just a book.  I want my students to know, that when I call upon them each day with the affirming greeting of “my treasures” that I mean it. THEY are my treasures. Yes, I am a bibliophile, through and through, and I will probably miss the book for a long time, but I need them to understand that they are the prize that I have already earned, and greater than any treasures of this earth, pouring into their lives is my greatest gift. When I step through my doors to #CelebrateMonday, I most importantly, celebrate their lives, and the beauty of impacting their lives.  I will let them know that I still hope they will help me find my prized book, but most importantly, I will let them know that if it is never found, my heart is still full because THEY TRULY are MY TREASURES.

Gratefully,

Jessica

#OneWord2018 in Reflection

Fire

As I reflect on the seminal events of 2018, I  hold my #OneWord2018, fire, dear to me, and feel that it served me well, but it did not start out with strong hopes.  

The year began with me finishing my winter break, and with new year voracity, I proclaimed my #OneWord2018 to my #PLN on Twitter with excitement and high hopes, but to my chagrin, a series of events left me wanting to rethink my word.  My son wanted to warm the house and build a fire for us while his daddy was at work and we were soaking up the last of our break from school. Realizing we were out of kindling, he decided to put his chopping skills to work, and the hatchet found his hand instead of the wood for kindling.  This led us to the urgent care for stitches to ring in the bloody new year. Just a week later, school was back in session, and I needed to get a meal together quickly. The ignitor was out on our grill, so I had to manually light the grill using a lighter, which is not something you want to take too long to do. Distracted by my phone call, I lost track of how long I had spent between turning the propane on and striking the lighter, flames jumped out of the grill several feet, and singed the front of my hair and the sweater that I later had to toss into the trash.  My hair was pretty trashed, as well, but I had to remedy that problem in another way, so I donned some bangs for a few months. It seemed I was taking my #OneWord2018 too literally, so I inwardly pledged to keep the rest of my “fire” commitments to an emblematic sense, and I believe I managed to do so!

The year dawned, with Victor Hugo’s words ruminating about my mind, “To learn to read, is to light a fire; every word spelled out is a spark.” To light a fire I did, as students made leaps before my eyes and made the quantum jump from the stuttering stage of pre-phonemic blending to emergent readers in a matter of months, and the fire was almost palpable.  In May, I left this fire to be tended by other educators, and passed the torch of early childhood onto my most trusted peers, and prepared to step into a new flame for the upcoming school year, which I quickly learned must be tended to with great care, because the retardants of life were trying to squelch these flames quicker than I could kindle them. I accepted the position of a fifth grade reading teacher, and discovered many a ember, barely still burning, and began to gingerly blow on these flames, trying to arouse the desire to read within students’ hearts who had succumbed to the cold ashes of life as non-readers and forsaken the hopes of literary flames as not for them.  Some students, it seemed, had no desire to light a fire to learn, when they were still trying to find the warmth of food, shelter, and belonging. In my zeal to light their fire to learn, I have to help them first learn that they belong and that they matter. I do not hold optimism with ignorance, because I am aware of the daunting challenge before me. Witnessing the pain of this emptiness again and again is a blow to one’s own fire, but messages like this student’s keep my flame burning.


Not all of the fires were dim, thankfully, some students came to me already on fire for learning, and we fed on each other like wildfire. My own fire burned brighter than ever, as I encountered many readers who came to me with flames already burning brightly, and my task was to increase their impenetrable energy.  

The flames of teaching have nearly burned out in my own life in years past, but have been burning stronger than ever since I became a connected educator.  On days, where every setback brings a cool rush of despair, I know where I can go to fan the flame in me. I am especially thankful for my friends on Twitter and my #PLN, with whom I connect daily on Voxer through #4OCFpln.  I met this fiery league of colleagues through a series of book studies, #2MenAndABook, led by Matthew Larson and Ricardo Garcia on Voxer, where a band of educators unite with the common goal of becoming stronger for the students we serve through literary discussions and burning up the status quo.  These friends have all found the fuel of connection, and fan my flame daily. If I did not have these connections, I am certain that in my aim to teach with passion, I would lose all of my breath fanning my students’ flames, and my own fire would turn in on itself until ashes to ashes, I would fall down. My fire will burn brightly with me as I embrace 2019 with the tenacity with which I warmly accepted 2018, and the year goes out as we step into 2019, but this fire will not die within me.  

Warmly,


Jessica Chandler

All I Have to Fill My Gratitude Plate

             

 

Coffee is my love language, and my husband faithfully tells me he loves me every morning before my eyes even open. His hard-working feet hit the floor at least thirty minutes before mine stumble on the ground in pursuit. Straight to the kitchen I trod, but the stumbling stops, and this day I pause to think on the blessing that awaits me each day. I am so thankful for this little token of love, but I haven’t always been so thankful. How can anyone lose sight of this blessing that rises like the faithful sun each day? I don’t quite know how, but I have. Sometimes, it seems like I have a checklist going of everything I need help with, of everything I am falling short in, and of my lack, which leaves my heart and eyes no space to focus on the blessings.

 

I fear the idea of gratitude has become so commonplace that it has slipped into the markings of a platitude. Or so it has been the case for me, as of late. I am turning my eyes around to see the long list, not of all I have to do, but of all I have to fill my gratitude plate.
How can you ensure that gratitude is being passed down to your students? First, with all things, we must model it. Gratitude does not happen by accident. My friend, Barbara Gruener says, “Gratitude is circular like that, creating a win-win, touching both the giver and the receiver in tangible and intangible ways.”. While I hope to nurture it within myself, my modeling will transcend beyond me. The brain is a fabulous organ, and I love its ability to CHANGE. I implement brain games into my classroom in each subject, empowering my students to make new connections, and to celebrate the new pathways being formed. Our brains are programmed to keep us safe from harm, but sometimes that means we are focusing on the dangers and the places to avoid, rather than focusing on the blessings that help us. Dr. Greenberg out of California shares some fascinating points from research on gratitude that reveals gratitude levels are tied to one’s level of happiness. In this same article, Dr. Greenberg shares tips to increase our gratitude such as keeping a gratitude diary.

Gratitude is shown to be the common thread among studies of people who reported an elevated level of happiness. Not only will we increase our students’ gratitude quotient, we will grant them access to increase their happiness! Sounds like a win in my book.

I use a variety of mentor texts to build upon the character traits I’m hoping to foster in my classroom family. I read Those Shoes to my students, and we discussed the character traits of Jeremy.

                                           

 

“He needed to be thankful for what he had.” And, “He is being greedy,” were some of the remarks from my fifth graders. I was proud of my students, who used their skills in character analysis to watch Jeremy’s heart stretch in kindness and gratitude; in turn, their hearts were doing the same. If we don’t build in time to point our students towards these character lessons, often, they will fall short of finding the tools they need. I don’t want blessings to pass them by, or a prepared pot of coffee to greet them like it’s commonplace. I will hunt for those blessings with them, and help them to see the blessings, as we train our eyes together, to focus on the positive.

Hailey Bartholomew, in this Ted Talk, shares her gratitude breakthrough, and the spillover of blessings it brought in her life. By retraining her thinking, she began to look at life through a new lens, and captured the images which evoked gratitude. Some of the things that made that list were the color green, a beetle that landed on her daughter’s chest, and hugs from her children.

I encourage you to look around and fill up your list, not with all of your to-dos, but with the makings of a gratitude list with me. Let’s fill that list up, so our eyes will see everything through a lens of gratitude.

With Gratitude,

Jessica

Resources:

Dr. Melanie Greenberg, How Gratitude Leads to a Happier Life, Psychology Today, November 22, 2015 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201511/how-gratitude-leads-happier-life

Boelts, Mary Beth. Those Shoes. Cambridge, Candlewick, 2009.

Ted Talk

Barbara Gruener

What Love Looks Like

 

Tomorrow, I’ll turn the page on the second week of school.  My heart is so full. I have 46 fifth graders and have given away my heart 46 times in the last two weeks.  “I love you,” came off of my lips before the objectives were even discussed.  I am driven by the belief that I have to reach these kids before I can teach these kids.  I am not trying to convince them of my love for them as a ploy to get them to pay attention. I NEED them to know that I love them. It’s a message that is as important as the content.  I need them to know I believe in them.

I had a teacher who was struggling with classroom management compliment me once at how kind my kids always are.  I am honored by the compliment, but I want to share the secret: I’m not lucky; this kindness is intentionally built into my classroom.  

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I’ve spent a lot of time observing patterns, and I have been able to identify some predictable responses.  When the classroom begins to take shape, and celebrations are shared, complimenting a child for the appropriate behavior, a trigger reaction predictably follows with, “I did it too” or “What about me?”  Knowing these reactions are slated to follow, I now stop them before they arise. Like a mind-reading soothsayer, I announce, “instead of whining that you did it too, what would love look like?” Puzzled faces usually follow my probing, as a confused audience stumbles to figure out how I read their minds.  After a bit of a delay, answers begin to organically arise, and the formation of what “love looks like” begins to make its mark upon my classroom family. The boos are replaced with cheers, and I introduce my favorite classroom cheers, that have taken shape over the years, many being passed down from the generations of our family before them.  As these cheers layer upon each other, a culture of love begins to weave its way into the walls of our classroom, and walls around hearts are torn down as we all begin to trust each other and realize this IS a safe place. The layers of love and trust go too deep to share them all in this post, but I urge you to find what “love looks like” in your classrooms, and allow the members of your classroom family to have an active voice in what that looks like.  

With a full heart,

Jessica

Spilt Cereal and Broken Glass

Ⓦhen the new school year arrives next month, and I open my door to a new wave of students joining my classroom family, I will begin creating a family culture driven by intention.  I want my students to take ownership in creating this culture and express themselves freely, but there are a few caveats from which I cannot budge: we 𝕔𝕖𝕝𝕖𝕓𝕣𝕒𝕥𝕖 𝕖𝕒𝕔𝕙 𝕠𝕥𝕙𝕖𝕣, we 𝕔𝕙𝕠𝕠𝕤𝕖 𝕝𝕠𝕧𝕖 𝕚𝕟 𝕒𝕝𝕝 𝕥𝕙𝕒𝕥 𝕨𝕖 𝕕𝕠, and we 𝕖𝕞𝕓𝕣𝕒𝕔𝕖 𝕞𝕚𝕤𝕥𝕒𝕜𝕖𝕤.  I taught my kindergarten and first grade classes about the joy of mistakes, and drew them inside the fireworks display that takes place in their brains when mistakes happened.  They understood that when we learn from a mistake, not just one but TWO connections are made and there is an explosion of synapses firing in our brains. They hunted for mistakes with the fervor of a young child on an Easter egg hunt.  Throughout any given day, cheers could be heard of, “Yea! I made a mistake!” They owned this celebration with intensity because they knew it was safe to make a mistake.  

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My 9-year old daughter, Landry, has been “vacationing” at my sister’s house for the past few days.  My sister is the picture of a laid back mom, and I admire her go-with-the-flow ease with which she embraces life.  Just the other day, when the bottom fell out, and rain ruined their plans outside, she embraced the unexpected weather by inviting the kids to jump with her on the trampoline in the rain.  Last night, at the end of my sister’s rope of energy, she hadn’t the pep to cook, and cereal was offered up as the menu. Landry was enjoying her cereal from a thin plastic bowl, when just a little tip of her hand knocked the bowl of cereal about the table and across my sister’s floor. As milk filled my sister’s floor, fear brimmed in my daughter’s eyes.  Approaching Landry, and seeing the fear on her face, my sister comforted her the way she tackles everything – with a joke. “You better not be the only one throwing cereal on my floor,” she jokingly warned, and threw a handful of cereal all over her floor. She watched with comfort as a smile stretched across my daughter’s face. If that wasn’t enough, she picked up the milk, and splashed it about the mess that marked my daughter’s mistake, sending the message, “It’s okay to make a mistake…you’re safe here.”  

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When my sister shared what she had done, she shared the story with a bit of chagrin, thinking I would think she is a bit “Fruit-Loopy” herself.  Far from that, I thought of how I wouldn’t have had a knee-jerk reaction of grace, and I responded with awe and encouragement. It left me wondering, “Am I splashing down the milk with the kids in my life?  Am I picking up the cereal and laughing with them?”  I have paved careful steps to set my students up, not for a smooth path with no stumbling blocks, but one where they know it’s okay if they fall.  My sister’s actions challenged me though, to look even deeper at my parenting, my teaching, and the way I embrace my own mistakes. It’s just a little cereal.

As she shared of the spilt cereal and thrown milk, it took me back to the model of embracing mistakes I had in my life.
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I am reminded of when I was a young child, trying to embrace independence, and I ventured into the kitchen to demonstrate this independence attempting to pour myself a glass of orange juice.  To save a dime we kept the frozen, canned orange juice on hand. My mother had mixed up a fresh pitcher of it for my siblings and me. I delicately pulled the mixed juice out of the fridge and hoisted it up shakily as I began to flow fourth with my independence.  No sooner had my pride of self-reliance found its way across my face than the shock of my grip’s failure demanded my smile cease. The glass shattered before my face and my smile fell with it. Fear came all over me as I realized what I had done. Knowing I had not asked for permission, and realizing as shards of glass surrounded me that I had broken my mama’s pitcher, I wanted to run.  Alarmed by the sound of breaking glass, my mama came running. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I cried, trying to interrupt any chiding that may be headed my way. I’ll never forget the gentle way my mother scooted me out of the way, smiled tenderly at me, and responded, “It’s okay, it’s just glass. I’m glad you’re okay, baby.” That moment marked me forever, and guides me as a mother and an educator. Mistakes are just like the broken glass – let’s guard the hearts of the people behind them, clean up the glass and move on.

As we make the shift into the next school year, I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to throw down the cereal with the kids and show them how okay it is to make mistakes. I am entering a new grade level, and I’m holding my head up with the shakiness I held that orange juice pitcher as a young child, but if I fall in this process, I can hear the reassurance of my mama’s voice, “it’s okay,” and it reminds me of how safe it is, even amidst broken glass, let’s embrace the mistakes together.

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