“Students Transforming a School”

Guest blog by Erin Byrnes, English teacher, Garner Magnet High School, Wake County, NC

One weekend three years ago I got a text from a student who wanted to start a club to make our school better.  He had been talking with his friends over the weekend. By Monday morning five students wanted to start a club called, “Students Transforming a School” (STS). We now have the largest club on campus with over eighty members. At almost every meeting we get new members.  One week we had ten students join. The club has sponsored a number of activities that have improved our school.

The first project was “Fun Lunch.” One member noticed that some students ate lunch alone.  The club reached out to them with icebreaker activities.  The first few lunches, it was hard not to get emotional about the friendships being formed and the connections being made. Everyone benefited.

Another activity took place during preparations for anti-bullying week. Students described their personal experiences with bullying on colored paper.  Their heart-felt stories were displayed in the bathrooms around campus, and this inspired a palpable change in the tone of student interactions.  The art club used lacquer to make it a more permanent part of the bathrooms.

The club also wrote and performed a series of skits to help freshmen transition to high school. This spring, we will perform them at the three middle schools that feed our high school.  The students want to to improve the culture of their school by showing examples of positive behavior. It is inspiring to see such good work being done by such fine young people.

Appreciating the generosity of others

Guest blog by Jamaal Dunham, Social Studies Teacher, East Forsyth Middle School

Generosity has played a major role at our school this year.  We have fundamentally changed our school climate by making the awarding of “crystal apples” a school ritual.

It all started when a few of us wanted to express appreciation for coworkers who went beyond the call of duty. Since we are teachers, we wanted to award apples (but ones that would not rot).  We decided to award crystal apples to show appreciation for those who give unselfishly to the school.

Ever since we started, my coworkers have become more understanding, compassionate and attentive. Everyone is now being generous as they recognize and nominate others for their generous acts. Go Six Virtues!!!

Virtues promote healthy school culture

Guest blog by Josh Allen, East Gaston High School, Mount Holly, NC

In an effort to build strong character, East Gaston High School students recently participated in a program called Rachel’s Challenge.  Rachel Joy Scott was a student who died in the Columbine shooting.  A Colorado citizen, who is a friend of her family spoke to our school about an essay Rachel wrote as a high school student.  Her point was that, if people tried to be more compassionate and kind, the world would be a better place.

After hearing this message, students and faculty created a club called the Friends of Rachel Club (FOR).  This club isn’t unique to our school, but our students have really gotten behind the initiative. Their work in our school has made Rachel’s ideas a  powerful force in our school.

They recently sponsored events such as a “words of affirmation” chain where students wrote words of affirmation on small strips of paper that were then stapled together to form a chain.  Through the leadership of our FOR club, the chain was long enough to stretch from our high school to Charlotte, NC, 30 minutes away.

They also held a yard sale, with the profits going to local charities. They started “High Five Friday,” where students give each other high fives as a way to maintain a positive school culture.  They were Holy Angel volunteers in a community service project.  And they even received national attention for a video they produced about the need for compassion and kindness.  The success of these projects meant our school was awarded, “Most Active High School FOR Club.”

The participating students, and those they support in our school, are all better for this experience.  They model strong character, generosity, courage, and understanding for their peers. The school board has taken notice; the community has taken notice; the student body has been impacted (and will continue to be).  The six virtues are alive and well at my high school!

Student reaches for potential

Guest blog by Ben Jones, High School Science Teacher, Fayetteville, NC.

I approach teaching the same way I do coaching.  I don’t focus on winning or losing (passing or failing) but on teaching students to function at their highest levels.  One thing I learned early in my college basketball coaching career was that it isn’t always about winning and losing.  It’s about getting students and players to take pride in what they do and perform to the best of their ability.

Just the other day, a young man in my class asked what I would do if I had a friend who was homeless?  Would I let him stay at my house? Or would I get him some help through some type of organization or shelter?  The student watched to see if I would blow off the question?

I answered that I would probably help him by either letting him stay at my house until he could find a place, or take him to a shelter so they could assist him.  Come to find out, the student was explaining his life to me.  He and his mother had recently lost their home after his parents’ divorce.

The young man told me that he knew he had not been working up to his potential, and he was asking for help.  It took courage for him to show me that he truly cared about his education.  He wanted me to know why he had not been putting forth effort.  I was proud of the character he showed because I saw him reaching out for help so he could achieve his goal and get a high school degree.

Over the last few weeks he has become a different individual. He is now on track to receive his degree at the end of the year.  I am proud of the changes and effort he has put forth, especially since he had to overcome great adversity.  I am also impressed that he is trying to reach his full potential.

Success in an alternative school

Guest blog by Leah Burrell, North Carolina High School Teacher

I heard horror stories about unmanageable students in the alternative school. Some teachers refused to work with them. Since I often had success with “difficult” students, though, the principal assigned me to the alternative school this year. I knew that many of them had no support at home, so I was nervous about working with both them and their families.   Because of scheduling problems, the semester started poorly.  Once things settled down, I was able to start shaping student relationships.

In order to work with challenging students, a teacher must possess all six virtues. First, one must possess understanding. By this I don’t mean understanding curriculum.  I mean understanding students.  You have experiences with your students, your mind takes in those experiences, and you construct relationships from what those experiences mean.

For example, one of my students has bipolar disorder.  On her high days she performs well and is in a great mood.  On her low days she is surly and produces no work.  I learned to recognize and understand her symptoms, which has enabled me to help her accomplish her goals.

Teachers must also possess imagination.  Imagination makes all the difference in the outcome of your day.  The traditional math problems I use in my regular educational setting do not always work in the alternative school.  So I develop “off the wall” problems to gain their attention.  Once I hook the students’ imaginations they are more likely to complete their tasks.  They even do it with a smile, as opposed to the argumentation that other teachers experience with them.

Strong Character is the most important virtue when working with alternative students.  When I say strong character I don’t mean being in control of the classroom.  I mean finding the weaknesses that define your students and yourself.  You will often discover that your students’ fears are the same as yours.  This discovery helps you identify with your students and build relationships based on mutual trust and understanding.

Working with alternative students requires courage, humility, and generosity.  You have to have courage to face your fear of being an inadequate teacher. Students will sometimes say you are.  And they will sometimes say how much they don’t like your class or subject area.  Students with a history of difficulty in school don’t do anything just for the sake of learning, but it is still up to you to find ways to grab their interest.

This requires humility.  Not all your students are going to look up to you.  And their families don’t hold you in high regard, either.  This knowledge is humbling.

And generosity is important because these students not only require tenderness, but they also require a firmness that is generous at the same time.

Using the 6 virtues has made this year successful so far. I have not escaped unscathed, but I have found that teaching alternative school is not as horrible as some teachers made it out to be.  In fact, it might be an experience that all teachers should have at least once in their careers.

Sixth graders learn humility

Guest blog by Melanie Hook, Literacy Facilitator/Magnet Coordinator, Charlotte, NC

Teaching humility and character is not easy—especially to a group of sixth grade boys.  Throughout my career I have tried to teach character in a way that goes beyond presenting a specific character trait each month.

One year my class had 22 boys and just 4 girls.  The room was feisty and furious most days. Our last project before holiday break challenged students to demonstrate their understanding of the elements of a story.  I allowed boys and girls to share a piece of their project with the rest of the class. We pushed all the desks to the back of the room, and layered the floor with carpet squares.

One by one, boys and girls shared different pieces of their project, until we got to one of my most memorable students — a high functioning, autistic boy.  He had a love for science fiction. I’m not sure how long it took him to write his short story, but it was five handwritten pages, front and back. He insisted that he share his whole “chapter” with the class. He explained that he would have to read the whole thing in order for it to make sense.

His reading began slowly.  His peers strained their ears to listen to his quiet voice. No one said a word. There was no giggling, no muffling of chairs, or annoying sighs—distractions that were typical in this class. His reading went on for more than twenty minutes. The special education teacher and I were floored. At one point he lost his place because he was so caught up in his reading.  One of the most aggressive boys in class leaned forward and helped him find where he left off.

He finished the long, quiet rambling as the bell rang. No other students were able to share, but they didn’t respond as if they minded. “Great story Ivan,” a peer responded. “Yeah, you did a good job man!” echoed another. His classmates  helped him off the floor and quickly put his scattered pages together. He didn’t smile. He didn’t show an ounce of pride, but I was certain he was beaming inside.

“Thank you for sharing, Ivan.” I called as he turned in his paper. “You’re welcome, Ms. Hook,” he uttered as he walked away.

The co-teacher and I were speechless. We fought all year with some of the boys. I would say, “Don’t tease. We don’t make fun of others.”  The co-teacher would do the same. We were terrified to have visitors in, for fear of embarrassment. But, today, for some reason, the class came through, when it mattered the most. No one drug their feet and yelled out how bored they were. Not a single student rudely interrupted with a whiny, “we can’t hear you!” The class treated Ivan like they should’ve done all year long, without me having to say a word.

I was able to leave for break feeling like I had finally made an impact on the kids. This impact had nothing to do with standards, assessments or grading. It had to do with how we treat each other. No matter what else happened that year, I could send those kids to their next class, their next teacher, their first job or even their friends, and they would know of a time when they demonstrated something far deeper than what I had been trying to teach in an English language arts class.  They had experienced the beauty of humility and strong character.  It happened right before my eyes — with sixth grade boys.



Leading other teachers is a challenge

Guest blog by a middle school language arts teacher

Our Common Core workdays typically turn into gripe sessions.  The assembled Language Arts teachers, myself included, complain about students, other teachers, and our administrators (of course).  As the reluctant “leader” of these sessions, I have tried half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to reign in the negativity.  These workdays were supposed to be an opportunity for teachers to learn about and prepare for the shift to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

I assumed the tone of our meetings was like that of other groups, but I was made aware of how bad ours had gotten during a post-observation conference with my principal. She asked how the Common Core meetings were going and I replied that I thought they were going fairly well.  She told me one teacher had been so offended during the most recent meeting that she did not want to attend any more CCSS sessions. I was shocked.

I appreciated the principal’s understanding and courage.  Telling me that another teacher expressed such strong concerns was not easy or comfortable for her.  She risked a confrontational situation.  She also demonstrated understanding.  Her intent was not to berate or embarrass me.  More than anything she expressed her understanding that I was in a difficult situation.  Being a teacher-leader is not easy for anyone and being one of the least experienced teachers in the department made it even more difficult.  She assured me that I was not the one who was offensive, and she maintained the confidence of the concerned teacher.  By discussing the situation with me I was able to reflect deeper on my leadership and the quality of our sessions.

I can’t say that recent sessions have been perfect, but they are improved.  Teachers now evaluate the sessions, which has provided valuable feedback.  Because negativity naturally emerged from my laissez faire approach, I’ve become more direct in conducting the sessions. I interject when I see that the conversation is turning negative. I’m still learning how to be a teacher-leader.  In many ways, leading teachers is even more challenging than leading sixth graders.

Humility replaces pride

Guest blog by Andrew Oberman, Middle School Social Studies

Prior to reading The Six Virtues of the Educated Person (TSVOTEP), I would tell my students to take pride in their work, their athletic achievements and their lives.  This was a weakness.  In my personal and professional life, pride manifested itself in a mentality that said my way was always the best way.  My own pride meant that I didn’t value the opinions, views and beliefs of others.  This sometimes resulted in a lack of patience and willingness to help.

Primarily due to the readings from Dr. Hurley’s class I have discovered that it is not my role to provide this type of leadership and not the example I want to give my students.  TSVOTEP (2009) in particular, has opened my eyes to the type of leader and person I want to be and the example I want to set for my students. This has driven me to be more open to others and to change some of my self-centered behavior and views.

Throughout this school year I have tried more to serve the needs of others.  As a mentor to two first-year teachers, I have had the opportunity to lead, follow and collaborate. I am now humbled by their improvement from the beginning of the semester to the end.

In the past my pride would have limited my collaboration and manifested itself in an authoritarian, pride-based leadership style. This would have resulted in far less growth and development for these beginning teachers.

Humility has not only helped me as a leader and teacher, but as a person. I find myself having more patience with others because I have reduced my feelings of pride. Humility has allowed me to see that I do not always know the best way to do something and that others have valid opinions and ideas, too. It has fundamentally changed the way I approach my career and personal life.

Ask a Curmudgeon #2

Grandpa, you are an old teacher.  Why are old teachers’ lessons on yellow overheads?


The essence of what you need to learn is the same as what I learned at your age — to read, write, imagine, reason, work hard, and give to others. Young teachers change their lessons, trying to find something that will help you learn these life essentials. Good teachers are those who discovered the essence of what to teach, and teach it on overheads that turn yellow with age.

Ask a Curmudgeon #1

Grandpa, you are an old teacher.  Why do old teachers reject new ideas?


Most new ideas in education are old ideas with new names.  Old teachers want progress, not the ideas that did not work 20 years ago. Young teachers like these ideas because they did not experience their failure 20 years ago. In other words, they cannot be 55 when they are 35.