“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Triggers and Habits in Teaching Part One

Dreaded Seating Arrangements

Almost every teacher I talk to says, “I have a really difficult class this year.”  The difficulties identified are most often tied to “behaviour” issues.  In my experience effective classroom “management” can be connected to dynamic programming and developing solid relationships with students. Many of us go to things like Class Dojo or incentive programs to “manage” behaviour and some have their merits.  However, they might “manage” behaviour, but does it help student to learn to self-regulate?  I understand that there are students who have behaviour safety plans that can provide challenges and I do not mean to downplay the effect that even one student’s behaviour can have on an entire class.  However, there are ways in which we can have small tweaks in our triggers and habits in teaching that will have a positive outcome on developing a community of learners.

So what is a trigger?  A trigger in psychological terms can  used to describe sensations, images or experiences that re-visit a traumatic memory.  It can also mean to make something happen very quickly; a reaction.  It is also referred to as an event that kicks off the automatic urge to complete a habit.*  Habits are seen as something that people do often or regularly.  Habits can even be unconscious behaviours and sometimes difficult to stop.  What do triggers and habits have to do with teaching?

Over the years I think I have become more self aware in the classroom about my own triggers and habits.  It is easy to continue to do a routine in a classroom simply because it is something that we have always done. Even when we have sound pedagological reasoning, it can be difficult to change or cease a habit. For example, for many years I put names on the desks of students before they entered the classroom on the first day of school.  I don’t really know why I began this habit.  Besides a wedding, some kind of gala or a reservation at a restaurant, I get to choose where I sit every day.  It is a fairly important life skill.  I’m not going to find my name on a seat on the city bus.  Once I recognized that this routine was purely out of habit and was “triggered” by the first day of school, I decided to change it up.  On the first day of school with a grade 4-5 class, the students came into the room and sat wherever they wanted. I admit that this made the perfectionist in me who loves order, routine and habit rather uncomfortable.  I had some students sit in groups, some in pairs and some on their own.  Then we had a class meeting about how they had felt when they entered the room and had to make their seating choice.  There was talk of anxiousness, sweaty palms, heart rate increase, fear of missing out and for some it was no big deal.  I decided to create a google form to survey the students about where to sit in the classroom, how often we would change it up and who would decide.  The results of the survey were fascinating.  Some students wanted me to choose where they sat and wanted to have that same spot every day for 194 days.  Some never wanted to “sit” in a group but wanted to be a part of it during group work time.  We came up with a plan that each Monday the students would choose where to sit for the week and the students who wanted a regular spot would be able to keep it and the other students would respect their choices without question.  We also had some extra choices for seating that students could go to if their choices for that week weren’t working out.  The students gained incredible insight into self-regulation.  I heard things like, “I sat with Gracie all week and we’re such good friends, I didn’t get my work done so I’m not going to sit with her next week.”  or  “I don’t hang out with Olivia but I know she is a serious student so I’d like to sit with her in a group.”

It isn’t easy to be self aware while we are trying to keep our head above water, collect permission forms, listen to announcements, adjust our day plan for the assembly that was announced, deal with a parent that wants to chat in the hallway AND teach curriculum.  I GET that…however, being aware of triggers and habits and making small tweaks to our teaching behaviour can make a big difference in our classroom community.

*106:Triggers-The Key to Building and Breaking Habits, Chris Sparks, 2018


Mov(i)e Time

It’s the last school week of June. Things are still happening at the speed of learning, of course. Final assessments are in the books and reports are printed. Students are buzzing, bristling, and bursting with energy like they’ve been equipped with new solar panels from TESLA to absorb the energy of sunny days.

By this month’s end my school will have hosted an evening fun fair, a talent show, track and field day(s), a graduation, a TED Ed event, a play day, and a year end celebration. Despite June being the month with the longest days, it still feels there is not enough daylight to get everything done.

In addition to the above, we have curated, collated, crafted, and corrected our report card comments. Many of us are moving classrooms within the building or to new schools. Boxes are packed and rooms are returning to their neutral states, void of anchor charts, memes, inspirational quotes, and student work. The memes are gone too.

What do you meanWith so much happening around a school, it might be easy to let things slide with free time or busy work. Popping in a movie in order buy a little packing time is tempting, but it is also a great time to engage in some real world learning.

So in between assemblies, graduations, and ancillary events, instruction is alive and well. My grade 6s are working, consolidating, collaborating, digging, questioning, sharing, encouraging, playing(baseball for gym), and reflecting. As I type, they’re calculating the cost of living in Markham in Math. #EyeOpener

These lessons are meant to inform students in the area of financial, social, and life literacy as well as teaching them to be reasonable, realistic, and responsible consumers in our society. The lessons spark curiosity, comments, and conversations that lead to deeper understandings about a world of responsibility out there.

I’ve discovered that whenever students engage with activities like these, they are the ones that are remembered most. Most of the lessons will fade into the recesses of the mind, but the skills, the discoveries, and the “A-ha” moments never go away. As this final week hits its stride, my grade 6s are too. Now that is a scene that I can watch over and over again.

In my post Tick…tick…ticked off I rail against media making claims that teachers are holding film festivals during the last weeks of school.

The last weeks in a classroom cannot be taught on auto-pilot because there is still a lot to teach, discover, and share. So contrary to a public broadcaster’s opinion, the kids and teachers have not “checked out”.

Sorry I’m not sorry to burst this bogus bubble folks, but the kids will have to sit on their own couches over the Summer if they want to watch a movie.

Admittedly, I was prepared for another battle as June approached. However, this year, the same broadcaster brought forward a more appreciative stance towards educators, and in doing so took time to honour the hard work and dedication of our profession. Listeners heard stories of impactful educators as well as memorable students. Hearing these simple affirmations have made these last weeks, much more enjoyable. Once again, an encouraging word makes all the difference.

With 450 minutes or less of instructional time left to count down on this year’s clock, I know most teachers are looking forward to every minute. I hope that you do too.




Emotions, Context and the Reluctant Writer

One of the biggest challenges I face is getting my students to enjoy and take risks with writing. Too often they get bogged down with the fear of not knowing what to write or nervous about experimenting with vocabulary they do not know how to spell. There are two critical approaches I take in helping my very reluctant writers to engage in the writing process. The first is to help them understand the stages of writing (Idea, Plan, Draft, Edit/Revise, Publish and Share). Each stage is explored and its purpose discussed and demonstrated in multiple ways. Once a student understands that the edit/revise stage occurs after you are able to get your ideas, thoughts and/or feelings into print form they become more likely to take risks in getting their ideas out. When they give themselves permission to let their ideas free flow without word-by-word critiquing, the quantity and quality of their work improves. A completed draft version allows them to separate I have good ideas and can write from I need help in making sure my writing is correct and ready to share with others. I also experience a huge drop off in the question “How do you spell _____________”.  That focus typically grinds the creative process to a complete halt.

The second element that greatly assists me in helping my reluctant writers is to as often as possible design a writing focus around an event relevant to their life. This may be something going on in their school community like writing a persuasive writing piece on allowing students to wear hats in school. It may be a news event from their community or a global situation that will help connect my students to a bigger audience.

Several years ago when the Chilean mining catastrophe occurred we had taken time to have it as a part of our morning circle conversation. That lead to a brainstorming session on what might we do to help out. The final decision was that we could write letters of support to them.  I found the address to the Chilean Embassy in Ottawa and we mailed our letters to them. The power of the contextual relevance automatically tapped into their emotions. When emotions are involved in the learning process the lesson, the message, the focus becomes more consolidated in their cognitive realm. A magical bonus on this project was that my class received a letter from the Chilean Embassy acknowledging our letters and honouring the efforts of my students. Our next writing unit was accepted with little or no resistance.

Remembering To Remember

Life is so busy that it sometimes takes an overwhelming effort to make time for yourself, let alone remembering all the sacrifices that have been made that allow us to live in such a free country. Yet we must and we must teach our children so they understand the why of remembering and not just the act of remembering.

Every year we make a concentrated effort to bring the community and school focus on Remembrance Day. Teachers and students put together emotionally compelling presentations to honour the generations from our past that made the ultimate sacrifice to make Canada the country it is. As part of our daily commitment to students we must commit to educating them not only about the world events that lead us to November 11, but also the small, day-to-day acts that make their world safer, healthier and provides them with a seemingly endless list of opportunities.

Take the time to have classroom discussions about the role of police officers, firefighters, physicians, crossing guards and any other key individuals that impact their life. Write letters of thank you and deliver them to those individuals or organizations. As a teacher (and key role model for your students) model for them on a daily basis how remembering can be demonstrated in such small ways as simply saying thank you.

Finally, as a teacher who has been in the profession for over thirty years, I must say thank you to the generations of colleagues before me. They spent days on the picket line, sacrificed family time and were the target of public scrutiny in order to make my profession what it is. I am blessed to have job security, benefits, peace of mind knowing my wife is treated equitably as a teacher and that my working conditions and student learning conditions are constantly being protected. This was not always the way for teachers.

 “Remember For More Than A Day”

School Spirit

What is it? Where do you buy it? How much do you need? Who is responsible for it? Several weeks ago I was part of a re-opening ceremony for a former school that I had taught at in the 90’s. That once old, archaic building had been transformed into an architectural state of the art learning environment. As I watched special guests, children and their families and community members arrive you could hear the oohs and ahs as they entered and saw the amazing interior of the school. If you have ever bought a new home, a new car or anything new, you know the excitement that comes with it.

This is where my post shifts gears. It was not the shiny new building. It was not the posh interior that I was in. It was not the formality of the ceremony, nor the speeches, nor the prestigious opening ceremony that had impacted me. What struck me that night was the immediate feeling I had as I entered the building of being a ‘Wildcat’. It had been almost two decades since I was a part of that staff and community. Yet, that feeling of belonging, that feeling of loving to be there and that feeling of comraderie immediately overcame me. Of course the culminating event that cemented that feeling was when a friend and former colleague lead the entire crowd in the long-standing Wildcat cheer. The building erupted into an atmosphere that resembled a pro sporting event.

When I went home that night still on an emotional high I sat and pondered why I had not had that feeling in such a long time. What was it? What caused it to resurface? I have been in many school settings over my career and not every place created that kind of feeling. According to Wikipedia, school spirit is defined as the emotional support for one’s educational institution. There is no curriculum to create it. There is no instruction booklet on how to teach it. There is only the passion and commitment that the teachers bring to their classroom and school.


The Power Of A Story

Story is a magical tool that can bring to your students exactly what they need or want at any time in your day, week, month or year. When my students need to laugh I find a story that brings us to belly laughing. When my students need to understand empathy, a story helps them look beyond their own needs to the needs of others. When my students need to learn a lifelong lesson, I find a story where we learn from the positive or negative choices of the characters. Story, whether it is bound with a beautiful cover or comes from the mouth of an 8 year old captivates all of us.

I want to share with you how a young, heroic young girl named Maya has helped change my students and I. Several years ago I met Maya as she entered our school in Grade 1. Maya has had to deal with the effects of a brain tumour all of her life. She has encountered the ill effects of chemotherapy and made hundreds of hospital visits that each time involved some kind of painful treatment. She has lost some mobility, has limited vision and struggles with learning new concepts. Yet despite all of those barriers to living a regular life she is this magical, bundle of positive energy that lights up a room. When you are around Maya you can’t help but smile and enjoy life.

I teach some very challenging students who have learned how to use aggression and violence as a way to deal with the struggles they face. Our first unit in our class this year was looking at heroes, both fictional superheroes and nonfictional everyday heroes. We established some criteria as to what makes a hero and have been examining a variety of characters and real people to determine if they will make it to our hero board. I told my class that they were going to be able to meet one of my heroes. They were all excited and made multiple predictions as to who that hero might be and what made them a hero to me. So on one quiet Thursday morning the call from the office came that our guests had arrived. I went down with our class receptionist and welcomed them. As you would expect, the excitement was at a peak as to who would walk through our classroom door. As Maya carefully and slowly made her way in to our circle area there was an absolute look of shock. How could this young girl be Mr. B’s heroine?

Over the next hour, Maya with the help of her Mom shared her story. The group was captivated as they went through a spectrum of emotions listening to the courageous story of Maya. Despite my knowing and hearing this story many times, the students noticed the tears in my eyes. By the time Maya was ready to leave, the boys had embraced her and made her an official part of our classroom.

Needless to say, the letter writing we did that afternoon was some of the most powerful I had experienced with this group of students.There are so many stories out there that can and need to be shared to help all of us become better people.


Sharing Your Passions Early and Often

When you are passionate about something, whether it is spending time in the natural world, cooking, art or music your excitement is palpable. It is also contagious. I have used this belief for the last three decades in my teaching practice. Every September my initial plan for developing a learning community and establishing relationships with the new collection of young learners is designed around those areas that I am passionate about.

My personal passions that I bring into my classroom centre on movement, life outdoors and literacy. Through these three vehicles I engage my students from the moment they enter into my classroom. I teach them that you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy moving, to have fun through games and play. I spend as much time in the outdoors using the natural world as a springboard to the curricula we will journey through over the next 10 months. Finally, my love for reading is shared through a treasure of wonderful, engaging books that bring learning to life for my students. My favourite book to start off my year is ‘YO! YES!’ (written and illustrated by Chris Raschka) as it helps set the stage for the type of community our classroom will strive to become.

Photo of Tammy Axt

Do you like the band Rush?



Do you like the band Rush? I guarantee no matter how much you think you love Rush, you are no match for the man who sat beside me at the Rush R40 concert last night. He knew every drum beat that Neil Peart played, every lyric that Geddy Lee sang and every guitar solo that Alex Lifeson wailed. He didn’t just love their music, he loved their music and worshipped the band. We all have music that speaks to us in that way. For me, when I hear Fleetwood Mac or Michael Franti, I have an emotional connection to their music that is unlike any other.

During the school year, my students spend a lot of time writing music or playing music that is from a variety of cultures and time periods. This June, I decided to let the students create a list of what songs they would like to sing in music class to tap into the songs that they love. Most songs that they chose were modern pop, rap, hip hop or alternative songs. The goal was to give my students the same experience that the man at the Rush concert had when he cheered and high fived me for all his favourite songs.

I took the lists that they created and went on line and previewed the lyrics. Some songs had just one or two bad words and with the magic of “YouTube” I found clean version of the song. Songs that had inappropriate themes got omitted from the list. After the list was created, I made a word document that had all the YouTube URLs. I projected the lyrics on my screen and had a good old fashioned sing-along.

These sing-alongs were also a great opportunity to talk about musical tastes with the students. I started off every class by telling the students that “I guarantee that there will be at least one song that you do not like today.” I asked the students what they should do when they hear a song they don’t enjoy. The students quickly said that they should be respectful of someone else’s choice. I added on a quick conversation about how musical tastes develop and that interests in music are very personal.

I have spent the last two weeks singing songs like “See you Again” and “Firework” with my students at the top of our lungs. We have been high fiving each other when we hear our favourite songs. It has been a great way to end off the school year!


Photo of Mike Beetham

Service Learning Projects

Service learning projects are a form of project-based learning in which learning outcomes are accomplished through community service. It is a powerful approach to teaching that provides students with authentic learning experiences in real-life contexts. The outcomes of a quality service-learning project are endless (citizenship, responsibility, character, teamwork). Service learning projects are timeless and can be used at any time of the year.

I have used a service-learning component in my yearly plan for over two decades. In that time, my Junior students have worked with seniors, redesigned local parks, multiple environmental projects with the municipality, projects within our own school community, work at local outdoor education facilities, assisting local charities or community organizations and international projects with Sierra Leone. No matter what the project, the outcomes have been very consistent. First and foremost my students are able to start to look beyond their personal needs and develop a global awareness.

The goodness of all children just shines through like beacons when they know they are helping others. For my current teaching assignment I work with students who have reputations as aggressive, ego-centered individuals who do not care about the people around them. They rapidly lose that bravado when they know that they are making a difference for other people. Throughout this year we worked with our local education centre stacking wood for the upcoming maple syrup program, replanted trees and helped keep their site litter free. The experience of knowing they were making a difference for others created an outcome that was palpable. I am sure that I could see their self-esteem grow in front of my eyes.

My most memorable service-learning project occurred several years ago where my Grade 4 class worked with a group of seniors in a program called ‘Walk A Day In My Shoes’. The end result of our year-long work together was two fold. My students developed both respect and understanding for seniors and for many of the seniors, they found a new purpose in their life. As for me, I was reminded how much I love my profession and the difference teachers can make.