Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

Shameful Betsy DeVos can't say what most human beings can say with ease

Here is the Secretary of Education for the United States of America, the caretaker of our public schools, the protector of our children's future, and also a person who has never taught in a school, never worked in a public school, and never sent her children to a public school, trying her hardest to avoid saying that children in her charter school program won't be discriminated based upon race or LGBTQ status.

It's remarkable. She is asked, rather simply, if discrimination will be forbidden in these schools based upon religion and LGBTQ status, and she refuses to say it.

It's shameful and disgusting. 

No one who works in education should have this much difficulty standing against the discrimination of children for any reason. No educator who I have ever known would struggle with this question like Betsy DeVos does. 

Then again, she is not an educator. She doesn't understand education. She knows nothing about the American public school student. She is literally the child of one billionaire and the wife of another. A wealthy, white woman who was sent to elite private schools for her entire life and never had to fear for her future. She has never known want or need or hunger.

And now she is the steward of our public schools. Teachers and children are depending upon her for their support, and she can't say, "No child will be discriminated against in these charter schools, for race, religion, LGBTQ status, or any other reason." 

Got kids? Here's how to turn them into writers.

As a teacher and a writer, I often give parents advice on helping their children to become effective writers who (more importantly) love to write.

My advice is simple:

Be the best audience possible for your child’s work. If he or she wants to read something to you, drop everything. Allow the chicken to burn in the frying pan. Allow the phone to ring off the hook. Give your child your full and complete attention. When a child reads something that they have written to someone who they love and respect, it is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. Treat is as such.  

Don’t look at the piece. Don’t even touch the piece. Any comment made about the piece should never be about handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and the like. By never seeing the actual text, you innate, insatiable parental need to comment on these things will be properly stifled. Your child does not want to hear about your thoughts on punctuation or the neatness of their printing. No writer does. Your child has given birth to something from the heart and mind. Treat it with reverence. Speak about how it makes you feel. Rave about the ideas and images. Talk about the word choices that you loved. Compliment the title. Ask for more. Forget the rest.

Remember: Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. Even final drafts are not meant to be perfect. That’s why editors exist. Go online and look at the rough drafts of EB White’s Charlotte’s Web. They’re almost illegible. Who cares? Writing is messy.  

Once your child has finished reading the piece, offer three positive statements about the writing. Compliments. Nothing more. Only after you have said three positive things may you offer a suggestion. Maintain this 3:1 compliment/criticism ratio always. Use the word “could” instead of “should” when commenting.

If your child asks how to spell a word, spell it. Sending a child to the dictionary to find the spelling of a word is an act of cruelty and a surefire way to make writing less fun. You probably so this because it was the way that your parents and teachers treated you, but it didn’t help you one bit. It only turned writing into a chore. If you were to ask a colleague how to spell a word, you wouldn’t expect to be sent to the dictionary. That would be rude, The same holds true for your child.

Also, the dictionary was not designed for this purpose. It’s an alphabetical list of definitions and other information about words, but is wasn’t meant for spelling. Just watch a first grader look for the word “phone” in the F section of the dictionary and you will quickly realize how inefficient and pointless this process is.

When it comes to writing, the most important job for parents and teachers is to ensure that kids learn to love to write. If a child enjoys putting words on a page, even if those words are poorly spelled, slightly illegible, and not entirely comprehensible, that’s okay. The skills and strategies for effective writing will come in time, though direct instruction, lots of practice, and a little osmosis. The challenge – the mountain to climb – is getting a child to love writing. Make that your primary objective. Make that your only objective. Do everything you can to ensure that your child loves the writing process. Once you and your child achieve that summit, the rest will fall into place.

I promise.

Except for the handwriting. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that. Just be grateful that we live in a world where most of the writing is done on a computer. 

Sometimes a job is more than a job.

I have been teaching at the same elementary school in West Hartford, CT since the fall of 1999. The way that this school and its people have become intertwined in my life astounds me.  

Just over the course of the Columbus Day weekend:

  1. I went to a Moth StorySLAM in Boston with a former colleague.
  2. I went apple picking with two colleagues and their children.
  3. I played golf with two former colleagues and the parent of former students.
  4. I exchanged a lengthy set of amusing text messages with the parent of former students. 
  5. I had lunch with two colleagues. 
  6. One of my former students babysat my children, as she does quite often. 
  7. I spent a great deal of time with my wife, who is also a former colleague. 

Eleven different people in all over the course of four days.

Sometimes a job is just a job. You come and go. Make a friend, perhaps. Eat lunch with coworkers. Share cake in break rooms to celebrate birthdays. You might go home and tell your spouse about so-and-so at work, but the relationships rarely extend beyond the walls of the workplace.  

But sometimes a job becomes a part of you. The people who you work with become a part of your life and your soul. They become embedded in all that you do. 

They are some of the most important people in your life.

I'm not sure if it's the nature of teaching or the length of time that I have spent in one place or simply the extraordinary people with whom I have worked and whose children I have taught, but many of the most important people in my life were met under the roof of my school.

Teachers. Parents. Students.

I often marvel at how different my life would be today had I not been hired for a teaching job at my school on a morning in May almost 20 years ago. 

If you want to have a say in education, become an educator

Attention politicians, policy wonks, educational advocates, professors of education, and anyone else who wants to have a say in education:

"Every human being who wants to have an opinion of American education ought to spend some time as a substitute teacher."

- Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute, who served as a substitute teacher for a year in order to write his book and understand the challenges and rewards of teaching

Every time I tie my shoes...

Here's a little secret about me that I've never shared with anyone before:

Every time I tie my shoes, I think of Mrs. Carroll, the teaching assistant who sat at a table in the hallway between Mrs. Dubois and Mrs. Roberge's kindergarten classroom at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Blackstone, MA.

Mrs. Carroll taught children like me a myriad of life skills like zipping up your own coat, memorizing your phone number, and tying your own shoes.

I can remember sitting in that hallway like it was yesterday, learning to cross and loop laces until I could tie my own shoes without any instruction. Without even looking. 

I was five years-old when Mrs. Carroll taught me a skill that I still use today. 

Every time I tie my shoes, without exception, I think about Mrs. Carroll. I can see her sitting across from me, glasses perched on her nose, determined and unwavering, insisting that I master this skill before first grade. 

Teachers never know how long their lessons will live in the hearts of their students.

TEDxTheCountrySchool: Speak Less. Expect More.

This is a TEDx Talk that I delivered in April of 2016 at The Country School in Madison, CT. The conference was run almost exclusively by the students of the school, who were of middle and high school age.

It's a variation of a talk that I have delivered before about the idea that teachers should be speaking less in their classrooms and expecting more from their students. 

Hidden gems on my daughter's bookshelf and in my teaching career

My daughter and I pulled this book off her shelf last night, written by a former student named Maddie and given to Clara when she was born seven years ago. It's been hiding in the back between other books. 

My wife taught Maddie as well. One of those rare students who was blessed with having both of us as teachers. 

I just adore Maddie's inscription to Clara, and she does as well.

It is quintessential Maddie. 

No one tells you when you become a teacher that former students will remain in your life long after the school year has ended, and they will continue to touch your heart in so many ways years later. It's not quite as valuable as medical insurance or a pension, but in terms of benefits, it's close.  

Just over the course of the past two weeks, I've been contacted by two former students.

One of these former students decided to look me up ("It's 3:30 in the morning right now, and I randomly googled you.") and discovered that since he left my classroom, I've published novels, written musicals, and launched a storytelling career.

Back when he was in my classroom, I was still a struggling writer without a credit to my name. He was surprised to see all that I had done since he had moved on. 

He is currently attending Albertus Magnus in New Haven, CT. He's studying business management and is playing on their basketball team. He's considering playing professional basketball in Europe in two years. His email was inspirational and sweet, and it made my day.

Last week the other former student - now a senior at Suffield Academy - visited my classroom to inform me that he has the lead in their school play and invited me to be in the audience on opening night. He performed in my annual Shakespearean production - King Lear that year - and credited that performance as the birth of his love for acting. 

Elysha and I will be in the audience in April when he takes the stage.

Incidentally, Maddie - the author of No Socks No! - attends Eastern Connecticut State University. She's a communications major with concentrations in advertising and public relations. She's also a double minor in history and digital and art design. 

No surprise. She was a remarkable student in elementary school, and she remains one today. 

She graduates in May. If you have any job offers, I'd be happy to pass them on to her.

My latest appearance on Mom and Dad Are Fighting: Discussing violent tragedy with children

I made another appearance on Slate's parenting podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, talking about how to handle discussions with children about horrific tragedies like the terrorist attacks in Paris or the mass shooting in San Bernardino (which was actually taking place while we recorded my segment).  

31 lessons I teach my students that aren’t in the curriculum

Never, ever ask a woman if she is pregnant.

Old people look weird but have lots and lots of good stuff to say.

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“I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I won’t do that again,” is always the best first response to any trouble you may be in.

The people who make their dreams come true are the people who work the hardest. Talent means little.

Good listeners are the most beloved people on the planet.

Fight with your feet. If someone hits you, run. You never know what that person might have in his or her pocket.

Never, ever download a videogame on your mobile phone.

Most people settle for a career rather than chasing their passion and end up living lives of quiet desperation. Promise yourself that you won’t let this happen to you.

Remember that almost every disaster will be meaningless in a year. Maybe a week. 

The unexpected thank you note is the best kind of thank you note.

The weird ones are the interesting ones.

Befriend people who are smarter than you.

Make sure that your bathing suit is securely fastened to your body before jumping off a diving board.

You care about what you look like. No one else does. Truly. 

Wear deodorant everyday.

Always record video with your mobile phone in the horizontal position.

Never, ever tell a person who asks you how to spell a word to look it up in the dictionary. There is no stupider way to find the spelling of a word.

Never, ever allow a person to sit alone in the cafeteria at lunch.

Don’t be “too cool” to sing, dance, or participate in gym class.  

If you learn to speak extemporaneously to an audience, you will have a skill that almost every other person on the planet does not.

Shakespeare isn’t as hard as people want you to believe.  

If you want something, fight for it in writing.

Always help your family with dinner. Cook, set the table, or clean up afterwards. Work for your food. 

Winners arrive on time. Losers are always unexpectedly stuck in traffic.

Any chore that takes two minutes or less should be done immediately. Dishes in the sink should never be a thing.

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The single greatest thing you can do to guarantee your future success is to read a lot. Read more than everyone else.

Don’t ever expect life to be fair.

Complain less than the people around you. If possible, don’t complain at all.

Nothing good ever comes from watching reality television.

Drop mean friends instantly. There are too many people in this world to waste your time with a selfish jerk face.

Visit your former teachers often.

If the teacher tells you that your child is not gifted, it’s more likely that it’s the teacher who is not gifted.

The most common response to a piece I wrote last month entitled 12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents was a suggested addition to the list. It was phrased in many ways, oftentimes sarcastically, and it generally went something like this:

Your child is not as gifted as you think he or she is.

There was a reason I left this particular item off my list:

It’s stupid. It’s shortsighted and narrow minded. It’s unproductive. It’s adversarial. It’s not true.

This is not to say that I haven’t heard this sentiment expressed many times in my 17 years as a teacher. But whenever I hear a teacher express this idea, I push back immediately, and I push back hard, for three reasons.

1. Parents are supposed to think that their child is gifted.

It’s only natural for them to think more highly of their child than the rest of the world does. Their child is the most important thing in their life. They will invest more time, money, and energy into their child than anyone or anything before or after. It makes sense for them to believe that the person who they love the most in the world is gifted in some way.

And we all deserve to have someone in our lives who believes in us above all others. It should be our parents. They should be our champions. To think that parents should feel differently is short sighted and stupid.

2. Wouldn’t it be a better world if every teacher thought like parents and assumed that every student in their class was gifted in some way?

I’ve taught about 350 students in my 17 years as a teacher, and I have yet to meet a kid who I didn’t believe was gifted in one way or another.

In fact, some of my most accomplished students were the ones for whom learning came the hardest. Their gift was not intellect but effort -  a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed.

Give me a student gifted in effort over a student gifted in intellect any day. 

I assume that every one of my students is gifted, and this assumption has served me well. When a teacher sets remarkably high expectations and demands more from his students than ever before, students perform better. The research on this is irrefutable. 

Yet history is littered with presumptuous, ignorant,  and arrogant educators who assumed that their students wouldn’t amount to much and were later proven wrong.

Albert Einstein. Helen Keller. Robert Strenberg. Thomas Edison. Louis Pasteur. Enrico Caruso. Ludwig Beethoven. Leo Tolstoy. Louisa May Alcott.

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Many more. Too numerous to count. Myself included.  

Each of these men and women were told by teachers that they were hopeless, half-witted, and doomed to a lives of mediocrity.

It turns out that it was the teachers who were hopeless, half-witted, and mediocre.

As a teacher, why not err on the side of gifted? Why not assume the best? Expect the best. Demand the best. Give students the chance to shine by assuming that they can and will shine.   

3. Why promote an adversarial relationship with parents?

If a parent thinks that their child is gifted, and you – for whatever reason – disagree, why not find some middle ground?

Yes, it’s entirely possible that your child is gifted, and if he begins working to his fullest potential, we may start to see more evidence of that. Let’s find a way to make that happen.

There’s no reason to quash a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child. The teacher-parent relationship is one of the best tools available in my teaching arsenal. When it is strong and trusting, learning increases. Behavior improves. But that relationship only exists because I understand how parents feel about their children, and I embrace those feelings.  

Yes, your child is gifted. I’m not sure about the scope of that giftedness, but let’s get your child working as hard as possible and find out together.

That strikes me as a more productive and respectful position than the smarmy “You’re child isn’t as gifted as you think” response that so many teachers who responded to my initial piece seemed to default to.  

Every child in my classroom is someone else’s whole world. I try to remember this at all times. When I do, it’s never too hard to see every child in my classroom as gifted in some way.

Teachers of writing at any level: Read this immediately. Nothing is more important.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, who had this to say about the writing process during his acceptance speech:

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

Similarly, here are some other comments on the writing process from a variety of accomplished and respected authors:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
~E. L. Doctorow

Start before you’re ready. ~Steven Pressfield

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner

There are hundreds more like this.

Why do I bring this up?

In hopes that all of the teachers who require students to complete graphic organizers or planning sheets or move little pencils across bulletin board displays of the writing process or force their students to work on one piece at a time or assign their students specific topics for their writing assignments will knock it off and learn to write themselves instead of subjecting their students to their bizarre, inaccurate, nonproductive, and likely damaging perceptions of the writing process.

This is not to say that organization and planning should never be used when writing. About half the writers of the world plan in some way. Mystery, historical fiction, and many nonfiction writers plan their stories with great detail before they begin writing, but not all, and even when they plan, this process is often as amorphous and convoluted as the writing process itself. Rarely does it fit into little boxes and pocket charts. 

If you are teaching writing but not writing yourself on a regular basis, you are probably – no, definitely – doing more harm than good. Your ignorance of the writing process – coupled with the way you teach it – is turning out ineffective, uninspired, under confident writers.

You have made the ability to write well and love writing a rare commodity. You have made people like me more singular and valuable than we should be.

The writing process is not some finely delineated series of steps. It is not a codified system of applying words to the page. It does not adhere to structure or schedule or graphic representation. It is none of these things.

If you teach writing to students of any age, my advice is simple:

Write.  

Write. Write. Write. Learn about the process that you are teaching instead of making bizarre and wildly inaccurate assumptions about it or replicating the terrible instruction that you received long ago that never actually turned you into someone who loves to write or you would already be writing and wouldn’t be forcing students to do such ridiculous things.

Just write.   

See how often you use a graphic organizer.

See how much you appreciate being assigned a specific topic.

See how productive you think it is moving a little paper pencil across a bulletin board from one facet of the writing process to another.

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See how much you value the notion of prewriting.

See how un-delineated things like writing and revising and editing are. See how amorphous and undefined the writing process is, and how stupid stupid stupid it is to force students to work on one of these parts of the writing process and not another.

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Please. Just write.

Either that or your choice is simple:

Stop teaching writing altogether. You’re doing more harm than good. Just let your students write, absent any instruction or interruption. Sit at the back of the classroom and read. Or eat a sandwich. Or take a nap.

Your students have a far greater chance of leaving your classroom loving to write than if you open your uninformed mouth and do all the ridiculous things that non-writers think belong in the instruction of writing.

A student wrote something that made me cry while reading it aloud. And thanks to the rules of my “Make your teacher cry” contest, my tears were caught on video.

For the past five years, I have offered a challenge to my fifth grade students:

Write something that makes me cry.

The contest was born from Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a book I once read to my students but no longer do because I always get weepy at the end.

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There is nothing wrong with crying. There’s nothing wrong with crying in response to something you read. There’s nothing wrong with crying in response to something you have read many times before. 

But crying in front of two dozen merciless fifth graders?

Not good.

Rather than reading Love That Dog, I’ve challenged students to write something that will make me cry in the same way Sharon Creech’s story makes me cry.

Here is how the contest works:

If you write a piece for the contest, I will read it aloud to the class while the writer records my reading on video. If I cry or get weepy in any way during the reading, I agree to post the recording of the reading to YouTube with a caption of the student’s choice.

For five years, dozens of students have tried. All have failed.

Until now.

Here is a recording of me, reading Julia’s piece aloud. Unlike previous contestants, Julia decided to write memoir rather than fiction. Clever girl. And in my defense, Julia begins weeping in the middle of my reading, which may or may not have contributed to my tears as well.

Regardless, I got weepy, so Julia wins. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, so she deserves the glory that comes with her victory. Enjoy.

 

12 Things Teachers Wish They Could Say to Parents

Parent-teacher conferences begin for me this week. I will sit down with parents and students and discuss academic progress, effort, behavior, and the students’ prospective futures in middle school and beyond.

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I like parent-teacher conferences. I have excellent relationships with the vast majority of my parents over the years, and in some ways, the parents of my former students once saved my career.

Nevertheless, if I could, this is what I wish I could say to parents during my upcoming parent-teacher conferences. While these 12 things pertain specifically to me, I strongly suspect that they will also pertain to most teachers as well.
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1. I love your child just a notch below my own children. Truly. And oddly, that love kicks in almost immediately, just like it did with my kids.

2. I will miss your child for the rest of my life. Even if your child was incredibly difficult and made my days long and exhausting at times.

3. My primary goal as a teacher is to make my students and the parents of my students happy with my performance. Students and parents are both my customers and my bosses (though I’d never let my students know this). If you are happy, then my administrators will also be satisfied with my job performance. If they are not, something is wrong with my administrators, and their opinions will matter very little to me.

4. You are so very wrong if you view our relationship as adversarial in any way.

5. When I ask you to call me by my first name, it’s because I want to have the kind of relationship with you that requires first names. There is no need for artificial barriers in our relationship. We are two adults who both love your child. Why would we not be on a first name basis?

6. Some of my closest friends (and the godparents of my children) are the parents of former students. These relationships developed because we treated each other as equal partners in their child’s education. If you and I are doing our jobs well, we should be friendly, if not actual friends, by the end of the school year.

7. There is nothing wrong with questioning my decision. I only ask that you don’t question my intent. Know that I am always trying to do my best on behalf of your child, and that despite my best intentions, mistakes will be made.

8. If I have done something that disappoints or upsets you, always come to me first. You can’t imagine how hurt I am when I hear about your feelings secondhand, either from an administrator or (even worse) through the parent, teacher, or student rumor mill.

9. The single greatest lesson that I have learned in my 16 years of teaching is the importance of follow through. Always do what you say you will do, and never make a threat or a promise that you cannot make happen. This is given me a hard earned reputation with students and has allowed me to be as successful as I have been. It’s a lesson I have brought into parenting, and it also serves me (an my children) well. It’s the one parenting piece of advice that I pass onto you. 

10. Please know that both legally and ethically, there are times when I want to say something or agree with you but cannot for a multitude of reasons, usually pertaining to the privacy of another student. It’s frustrating for me, and I’m sure it is for you, but it’s also my professional responsibility.

11. A lower-than-desired grade on a report card is only my honest assessment of your child’s performance and not an indictment of your parenting or your child’s potential. It’s probably just an indicator that there is room for improvement. 

12. I will wonder (and worry) about your child’s future for the rest of my life.

Less lecture. More learning.

In 2013, I did a TED Talk entitled “Speak Less. Expect More.”

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Unfortunately, the audio engineer failed me that day, and the recording was poor. Although my voice is discernible in the video, the audio is of such low quality that the talk never received any real attention despite initial excitement by the organizers to the contrary.

I hope to repeat the talk someday at another conference so I can get the version that people can actually listen to. 

“Speak less. Expect more.” is a hard lesson for educators to learn. So many believe that teaching is about talking. Lectures. Stories. Delivering content and imparting wisdom to eager young minds.

We call these teachers “sages on the stage,” and even though they work incredibly hard and are no less dedicated to their students, they would be far more effective if they simply stopped talking and allowed their students to do more.

If you were to ask my students what my ultimately goal is as an educator, they would tell you that it’s to do nothing. My dream is to sit at my desk, reading a book, answering the occasional question, while the students run the classroom and guide their own learning.

It’s unrealistic, of course. Pie in the sky. Nevertheless, I’m working on it, and you would be shocked at the level of responsibility that students have in my classroom.

What I’ve discovered is that children are far more capable than we ever realize, and that letting go of as much responsibility and placing it squarely on the students’ shoulders is good for everyone, but especially the kids.  

I mention all of this because I read a quote by Stephen Fry recently that summarizes my belief and my TED Talk so well:

"Education is the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars."

If I were king, I would have this quote placed above the door of every classroom – elementary through college – in America.

Four things to consider before dating a coworker: An office romance with my future wife.

Jackie Zimmerman of Time’s Money section writes about four things to consider before dating a coworker.

The last coworker who I dated was my wife. When we started dating back in March of 2004, she was teaching in a classroom one door down from mine. A friend and colleague now teaches in Elysha’s old classroom, and though Elysha’s been gone from that classroom for more than five years now, I still think of it as ‘Elysha’s room.”

I still leave school almost everyday through that classroom’s outer door, even though it often means going out of my way to do so. Before I push that door open and step out onto a wooden ramp, I always pause and purposefully recall something about those days long ago when Elysha and I worked together and spent so much of our time side by side.

I remember so I won’t forget. I remember because I was one of the best times of my life. I remember because it makes me smile every time even though is also often makes me sad, too.   

Some couples could never work together. Many couples, perhaps. Elysha and I loved working together. It made my days brighter and better. I’m always hopeful that someday, we may be able to work together again.

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In reading through Zimmerman’s four suggestions, it looks like Elysha and I did well when we dated (and married) as coworkers.

1.  Avoid Getting Involved with the Wrong Person

Zimmerman’s suggestion pertains to dating people in positions higher up the corporate ladder. Though I always thought of Elysha as unattainable in every sense of the word, we were both teachers when we started dating, with no power over each other.  

2.  Know Your Company’s Policy Before the First Date

Before I dated Elysha, I had dated another colleague at the school and had already checked with my principal to be certain that there were no policies against it. He told me to make sure that if things didn’t work out, we ended our relationship amicably.

Not exactly a policy, but a good suggestion.

Thankfully, I have always been highly skilled at ending relationships. I’m friendly with almost all of my ex-girlfriends. In fact, the colleague who I dated before Elysha remains friends with me to this day, and in July, I will be the DJ at her wedding.

Still, I thought it was important to keep my principal informed when I was dating someone at work, so on April 1, 2004, as he crossed through the school auditorium, I told him that I was dating Elysha.

“Ha ha,” he said. “April Fools.”

“No, we’re really dating,” I said. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, walking across the auditorium and out the door. “You and Elysha dating. Right.”

I have no idea when he realized that I wasn’t joking, but he was the person who married us two years later.   

3.  Consider the Worst-Case Scenario

Zimmerman suggests that you take careful stock of the person you are considering dating. If you break up, is this someone you can trust? Someone who you want potentially influencing your career? Could you still work together afterwards?

Honestly, this wasn’t even a consideration when Elysha and I began dating. She practically moved into my apartment immediately, and three months later, we had an apartment of our own.

Six months after that, we were engaged.

Even before we started dating, on one of those late night phone calls that people who are falling in love tend to have, she told me that if we ever started dating, she knew that we would never break up. 

A bold move, I thought at the time. And my heart soared.

I had also known Elysha for almost two years before we started dating. We began as colleagues and eventually became friends. Close friends. So I knew her well. I knew we would never break up, but I also knew that if the unthinkable happened. we could remain friends.   

4.  Remember that During Business Hours, Work Comes First

Despite one lunatic claim that this wasn’t the case, Elysha and I always took our jobs seriously and never placed our relationship ahead of our responsibilities. When you’re a teacher dealing with students and their futures, this is not hard to do.

That said, it doesn’t mean that our romance didn’t find ways into the workplace. I purchased her engagement ring online with a committee of fellow teachers after work one day in a first grade classroom. I plotted my proposal with a colleague in the office of our curriculum specialist. I was known to leave her notes on her desk during my lunch hour, and at least once, I sent three dozen roses to her classroom.

One dozen per hour for three hours.

We kept our relationship a secret from our students for quite a while, but one day, after Elysha’s students saw a fairly innocuous note from me on some chart paper, one of them asked, “Are you and Mr. Dicks dating?”

She admitted it. Happily. Over the course of a school year, your students become as close to you as any of your friends or family. At least that’s the way it’s always been for us. Letting them in on our secret was so much fun.

In the unlikely event that my books, films, and musicals don’t make me a wealthy man, I have a back-up plan more than 350 people strong.

Theologian Adam Clarke once said:

“The old proverb about having too many irons in the fire is an abominable old lie. Have all in, shovel, tongs, and poker.”

I couldn’t agree more. I like to have as many irons in the fire as possible, hoping that one or more will eventually make me a rich man.

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For the past 16 years, one of these “irons in the fire” has been to teach my students about how patronage worked hundreds of years ago. In those days, kings, popes, and wealthy landowners funded the lives of artists such as musicians, painters, poets, and sculptors so that they could focus solely on their creative endeavors.

Every school year, I explain to my students that someday, one or more of them may grow up and invent the next Internet, win the lottery, discover a vein of gold in their backyard, or make their fortune on Wall Street. And when that day happens, I want them to remember their former teacher, Mr. Dicks, toiling away in his elementary school classroom, probably still loving his job and his students but perhaps ready to take a break and write  fulltime.

I won’t need much. Just enough to support my family and live in relative ease and pleasure. A big house. A couple decent cars. Two or three vacations a year. Maybe a membership to a country club so I can play golf when I’m not hunched over the computer. 

I’m not asking for much.

In my 16 years of teaching, about 350 kids have passed through my classroom. The oldest of my students – second graders in 1999 – have graduated college and either begun their careers or gone onto graduate school.

Not quite old enough to have amassed great wealth, but not too far away either.

350 irons in the fire, just starting to get warm.

This guy is too damn young to be teaching.

A student from my very first class, way back in 1999, sent me this photo. It’s actually a screen grab from a video that they were watching.

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It’s me, of course. I was probably 29 or 30 at the time. My first and only thought was this:

How could anyone hire someone so young to teach children?

What the hell was my principal thinking?

The prize for my latest writing contest is the threat of tears and possible humiliation. No wonder my students are writing up a storm.

It’s that time of year again when I encourage my students to make me cry.

Parents and teachers often ask me about how my students so consistently fall in love with writing. The answer to this question could probably fill a book, but here is one tiny example:

Each week I sponsor one or more writing contests in my classroom. I choose the topics for these contests, and a panel of three independent, anonymous judges (usually teachers and former students) determine the winner. There is a standard prize for every contest, consisting of a certificate of achievement, a privilege of some kind for the following week, and the winner’s name added to a plaque of previous winners that is displayed in the classroom forever.

But sometimes I vary the prizes.

There was a time when I would read Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog to my students, but after finding myself unable to get through the final pages of the book a few years ago because I was in tears, I ask my students read it silently now.

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Whenever I cry during the reading of a book, my kids never let me hear the end of it, so it is to be avoided whenever possible.

Inspired by the ending of Love That Dog, this week’s contest requires students to write a piece that will make me cry. Poem, story, song… whatever they want. 

Here are the rules: 

  1. I agree to read every contest entry aloud to the class while being recorded to video. 
  2. If I cry, get choked up, become verklempt, or produce even a single tear during the reading of the piece, I will post the video of my reading to YouTube with the title “Big Baby Grown Up Cries Like A Big Baby” and credit the student for his or her achievement.

In the four years that I have run this contest, no student has made me cry yet.

Since announcing this contest yesterday, the kids have been working feverishly. Some have even begun researching me online in order to find my “weak spot.”

This is one tiny example of why my students love to write:

I give them good reason to write. I make it profitable and fun.  

Presentation consultant for hire

Over the past four years, I have written quite a bit about my hatred of  meetings. Regardless of the context, the majority of the meetings that I have been required to attend over the course of my lifetime have been ineffectively designed and poorly run.

I’ve admonished presenters to not be ordinary. 

I’ve begged the people who plan and conduct meetings to adopt the Khan Academy’s meeting policy.

I have advised meeting attendees on strategies to express your disapproval of a presenter without risking blatant insubordination or disrespect.

I have offered the all-important but never adhered to The Spiderman Principle of Meetings and Presentations.

In addition to the writing that I have done, I have also become an expert on communication.

I’m a professional storyteller with a long list of accomplishments.

I’m a professional speaker who is paid to deliver keynotes, commencement speeches, and inspirational addresses. I conduct workshops on a variety of subjects ranging from teaching to writing to storytelling and more. I’ve delivered TED Talks. I’ve emceed events like the Mayor’s Charity Ball, fundraising galas, and story slams for colleges and literary festivals. 

I’m a teacher who must maintain the attention and engagement of two dozen 10 year old children every day while delivering content critical to their future success.

I’m a wedding DJ who has been emceeing receptions for more than 19 years.

I’m a minister who has officiated wedding ceremonies, baby naming ceremonies and more.

I offer these credentials as a means of demonstrating my expertise when it comes to the effective design and delivery of content, because I am proposing a new line of work for myself:

The presentation consultant.

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Yes, another job. But one for which I would excel mightily.

And while it may seem crazy to simply declare yourself to be something you were not yesterday (and in the process invent a newish line of work), this is not without precedent. Three years ago, I declared myself a professional best man, and since then, five grooms have attempted to hire me, with only geographic distance standing in our way from doing business together. I’ve also had two reality show producers reach out to me about possibly doing a television show in which I would be a professional best man, so these things can happen.

I’ve put myself out there many times before and found surprising success. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being bold enough to take the first step.

So today I declare myself a presentation consultant. It’s a new job of sorts. There are many meeting consultants out there, but these are people who handle the logistics of meetings and conferences. They arrange for locations and transportation, hire vendors, and may hire speakers and even assist in the planning of content, but in the most traditional sense, they do not assist in the training of these presenters.

They hire professionals. 

In contrast, my services would look something like this:

You are a leader of some sort who is responsible for conducting meetings and training sessions in your organization. Let's start with the assumption that you have a lot of room to grow, because you probably do. I know this will be hard to hear, because if you are a leader of some sort, your ego is probably large (especially if you are a man).

That’s okay. Large egos are assets and exceptionally helpful in leadership as long as they are not also fragile.

There is nothing more dangerous and detrimental in business than the large, fragile ego. It’s like working for an overfilled balloon. At any moment, it may pop.

But I digress.

Regardless of the skill that you think you possess, your subordinates are probably not fans of your meetings and training sessions. You’re probably not planning and executing them well,  or at least as well as you could. 

Trust me. 

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So I arrive at your place of business with an expertise in communication and years of experience delivering engaging content to a wide variety of audiences. 

I start by observing you over the course of one to three meetings or training sessions. I conduct pre and post meeting interviews with you in order to better understand your planning and reflection process. I interview the attendees of your presentations in order to determine how they honestly feel about your presentation skills. After I have gathered data on your strengths and weaknesses as a presenter, we go to work.

I critique. I teach. I model. I assist in planning. We establish guidelines specific to your organization and the kinds of meetings that you conduct. I assist in the development of realistic, targeted reflection. I continue to observe you as you conduct additional meetings and training sessions. I continue to critique. I reteach. I tweak. 

In the end, you are a better presenter. Your meetings are more productive and appreciated by your subordinates.

That’s my pitch. That’s my guarantee.

Hire me now and you’ll get me on the cheap.

Wait too long and you’ll pay more.

Either way, I’m worth it.

And on a side not, yes, I apparently have a large ego as well. But it’s not fragile in the least. It is battered and bruised on a daily basis. I feel good about myself and my abilities, but I accept criticism openly and without vindictiveness.

Remember: I’m the guy who publishes an annual list of flaws and shortcomings and invite friends, family and strangers to contribute to it.

If that’s not a sign of a lack of fragility, I don’t know what is.