Prepare To Take The Helm: Building Community Together

Helm (PSF)
Helm (PSF) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s funny how life circles itself around you sometimes, isn’t it?

This morning my freshman AVID students discussed the quote, “A community is like a ship. Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” It was one of those inspirational quotes printed in their daily calendar, meant to encourage critical thinking.

As usual in my classroom, things didn’t quite go as I expected. In small groups, I asked them to talk about what they thought the quote meant, and how they could apply it to their AVID experience or their life in general.

First, I heard several kids asking what ‘helm’ meant. Didn’t expect that one.

“It’s something you wear on your head,” I overheard one boy explain. “Like helmet.”

Well, not exactly. I do like that he’s looking at the word, though.

“I think it’s the front of a ship,” said another.

“No, it’s being in charge,” a few responded.

Now we’re on the right track. Something the person in charge wears on their head on the front of a ship. Sigh.

When we came back together, they began to share. Eventually, we talked about why it would be important to be ready to take charge, or to be prepared to step up. We talked about how communities need to have leaders, but that everyone needs to feel heard and be able to contribute.

I felt good as they went into their tutorial groups, and noticed a spark of understanding in their eyes. Their discussions were animated and thoughtful; it really seemed like they have learned to depend on each other for support.

Less than an hour later, the true meaning of the quote as it applied to my life became visible.

One of the absolute benefits of my job is my colleagues. Teaching isn’t an easy job, and teaching middle school definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. The constant rollercoaster of being around hundreds of teens experiencing puberty can send the toughest personalities over the edge at times.

That’s exactly what happened today. Someone hit their tipping point and came to me for support, lips quivering, eyes welling with tears.

Without hesitation, I listened. I empathized; I knew precisely the complete overwhelm they were experiencing. I felt the anxiety, the vulnerability, and the fear.

I took the helm. I did what I knew how to do. I tried to envelop them with safety, trust, and a sense of importance. I got help, and took action.

I actually didn’t think twice about it, and then I went back to my day.

Hours later, after the kids left for the day, they thanked me. Their message of relief, trust and belonging broadcast clearly how much my actions mattered.

community
Photo credit: planeta

And when they breathed their sigh of relief, spoke their words of gratitude, and expressed their sense of belonging, I knew. Really, it’s the reason I’ve stayed there as long as I have. It’s the people, the relationships, the community.

We realize that we don’t always have to be the one steering the ship; our shipmates are right alongside, ready to step up. They help us avoid the icebergs, clean up after a storm, and sing when our spirits need a lift. They are always ready to take the helm.

It’s funny how life circles around itself like that sometimes, isn’t it?

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Teaching Middle School is Not Insanity: How to Change Behaviors Einstein-Style

Albert-Einstein-Insanity-Quote-300x253

I started teaching 22 years ago, full of energy and sure I could make change happen.

Twenty-two years later, I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but ultimately I’ve had more success than failure.

I guess that’s why I keep teaching middle school.

Middle school teaching isn’t for everyone. Some say it’s the worst possible age group, but I disagree. I love it.

Challenging? Yes. Frustrating? Often. Fun? Usually. Rewarding? Definitely. Insane? Sometimes.

For the last five years I’ve been building up the AVID program in our school. AVID is an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and is a nationwide program to ‘level the playing field’ for students stuck in the academic middle.

I love it.

In fact, I’d bet that Einstein would have been a perfect AVID student.

Einstein's high school transcript
Einstein’s high school transcript (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes students are stuck through no real fault of their own-their family situations, socioeconomic status or access to education may have caused them to slip behind their peers. Sometimes, however, it’s just good old fashioned stubbornness, with a dash of insecurity, that results in their underachievement.

That’s where Einstein comes in.

His definition of insanity is one I share over and over with my students, as many times as it takes for them to believe me.  Sometimes is takes all year. Sometimes two years, depending on their stubbornness factor.

Middle school kids, especially eighth graders, like to think they know it all, and their parents know nothing. Teachers usually hover somewhere above or below parent status: we often are listened to a little bit more by virtue of not living with them, but sometimes students see all adults in the same light.

When my AVID students arrive at the beginning of the year, I lay down some basic rules about school: organization, responsibility, collaboration, and critical thinking are high on my list.  And always, there are the kids who say they like it ‘their way’, despite the fact that ‘their way’ hasn’t been working for them. They want to hang on to what they know. They are afraid to change, even when what they’re doing isn’t getting the desired results.

I know some adults like that, too.

It almost always happens the same way: the kids who try it ‘my way’ find that it works better, and their grades improve. The stubborn ones who won’t change, and have parents who don’t know how to support change usually take a very long time, if ever, to get where they want to be.  Their binders stay messy, their planners incomplete, their homework missing, and their grades below average.

So, ironically, I keep insanely repeating Einstein’s words, knowing that deep down, kids will realize that just because an adult suggests change, it isn’t all bad. Sometimes the kid has to hit bottom and decide for themselves to try it another way.

I say, whatever it takes. I know that my way gets results, eventually.

I’m pretty stubborn, too.

*  *  *  *

This post was written as part of the Saturday Sayings series on:

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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