Giving Joy Away

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Here’s a very weird fact about me. When I’m mad at you, I’m going to give you a present.

Isn’t that weird? Even I have always thought that was weird, but it’s an odd little fact. When I’m angry or frustrated or irritated or just plain mad at you, I’m going to go out and buy you a present. Especially if you’re name is Chris and we have been married for eight years. But I’ll do it for other people, too.

I think I used to do it subconsciously. I’d be mad at Chris in college for some stupid fight, and I’d find myself in a Hallmark store, picking up a funny little figurine or a sappy romance card. But a couple years later when I actually noticed my weird habit, I realized that going out and buying a present or doing something nice for someone I was angry with helped defuse my anger. It’s hard to be mad when you’re buying hot pink boxer shorts with French poodles on them for your boyfriend.

Over the years, I’ve continued to use this little trick to help me get over things. Frustrated with my kids? I take them somewhere fun for a treat. Fed up with my husband? I pick up his favorite beer and surprise him with his favorite dinner. Irritated with a friend? I bake some cookies for them. (Except you, Sarah Lee… Your cookies are never anger cookies!) It’s therapeutic for me. Though, I’m not quite sure what a real therapist would say about my habit. Something about repressed anger, I’m sure. But I’ll think about that tomorrow.

Anyway, I have this one class at school that has driven me crazy all year. It is a huge class with 27 students, 13 of which are special education kids, and 1 co-teacher who helps me out that period. The class size alone is staggering. Throw in some ESE kids, and it’s a party. Add in some behavior issues on top of that, a few emotionally disturbed kids (those are the ones who hit people…), and a handful of over-eager learners who sometimes demand more attention than those with special needs, and you’ve got yourself a headache before the class period even begins.

I’ve been racking my brain with how to deal with these kids. Truth be told and as frustrating as it is, these kinds of classes can be my favorite. Such a challenge, yes. But it’s 10 times as rewarding when they are the ones who succeed or master a new skill. However, on a daily basis, I run out of ideas for how to manage them. I’ve tried using bells and whistles to teach them, good old fashion note-taking, art projects, literature groups, small group learning. We’ve even split the group in half and physically taken half of them to another classroom with the co-teacher to see if we could teach them better that way. Some of it works. Most of it doesn’t. At the end of the day, it is discipline that is the issue. I’m not a yeller, but I have to be in this class to speak over them and keep them focused. And so by the time the class period is over, I hang my head and think, “What the hell just happened?”

I was completely fed up one day last week. Completely, over the top, could-not-go-on anymore fed up. I came home and was up all night long thinking of what I was going to do. Short of calling their mama’s right there in the middle of class, I was out of ideas.

So, I decided that’s what I’d do. I’d call their mama’s, their daddy’s, their grandma’s, their aunts, uncles, and cousins. I would call them all until my students realized their behavior had to change. Now, I call parents quite often. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve called just about every parent of every child in this one particular class, but this time I wanted the student to be there and I wanted them to do it right on the spot at the time of the incident.

I went into class the next day and before I began my instruction, I told my students that I would be making three phone calls home that day in the middle of class. It was up to them whether they were good phone calls, or bad ones. But at three different times during class that day, I might ask one of them to go call their parents or guardians on the phone at my desk and I was going to talk to them right there with the entire class.

They stared at me with mouths hanging open for about 45 seconds. Which, incidentally, is the longest period of quiet I’ve had in that class all year long.

And so, I went on teaching. I gave my lesson, gave them their assignments, broke them up into their groups, and turned them loose to work while I walked around and helped. And then I saw my first phone call. One of the male students who had not done ANYTHING that school year actually (gasp!) PICKED UP HIS PENCIL AND WROTE SOMETHING!!! I almost had a heart attack.

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I stopped where I was working with another group and yelled out over the class, “JOHN! YOU’RE DOING YOUR CLASSWORK! OH MY GOODNESS, BOY! GO CALL YOUR MAMA AND LET ME TELL HER HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU!”

John froze. The class froze. It was silent in that room.

“Go on,” I said casually, as I bent back over to help another student. “Dial 9 and the area code first.”

(silence)

“You…um… Want me to call my mom?”

“Yep,” I said, continuing to help a different group. “Just tell me when she’s on the phone.”

(silence)

“Like, right now? You want me to call her right now?”

“YES, JOHN! Good Lord, go pick up that phone!”

At this point, no one knew what to do. Some of them snickered nervously. Some of them sat silently. Some of them whispered back and forth between each other. And I know what they were thinking. How could I call JOHN’S parents and tell them how good he was? John was the laziest kid in class! But eventually, he went over and called his mom.

“It’s ringing!” he shouted to me.

“Oh, good!” I said, and I jumped across the room. The entire class was staring at us while I asked John what his mom’s last name was so I knew how to address her. Finally, Momma John answered.

“Hi, may I speak with Mrs. Smith?” (snickers from the class) “Oh, hi there, Mrs. Smith. My name is Katie and I am John’s language arts teacher. I am actually standing right here with John and his entire language arts class. Everybody say hello to John’s mom!”

And I turned the phone so the whole class could yell out, “HI!”

“I just wanted to let you know, Mrs. Smith, that John is having a great day in my class. He is working really hard and he’s contributing to his group’s assignments. I’m just really impressed with him today, and I thought you’d like to know. You should be very proud of him. I know I am!”

And that was it. That’s all I had to say. I thought Mrs. Smith was going to die of shock. She just kept stammering, “Well, that’s fantastic! That’s just fantastic!”

I got off the phone right after that, and turned to see a completely BEAMING John and a classroom full of laughing, happy students.

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I made two more good phone calls that day. And every day since then, I’ve made one phone call home to someone who was working especially hard that period. It’s become a really quick process now. The students know that when I say, “Hey, go call someone!” that they get to go call their parent or guardian and that I’m going to brag on them for a minute or two. They know that they get to be part of someone else’s phone call, too, by saying hi to the parents. For a few calls, they’ve even given rounds of applause during the call. But it never takes more than a minute or two and then they go right back to work.

Now, I can’t say that this has fixed all the problems with that class. There are still rowdy days and days when they leave that I feel like collapsing. But it has made a difference. An extreme difference. In fact, today, one of my students told me I needed to call another student’s mom because he was being so helpful. Now they are ratting out each other’s good behavior!

More than changing the students, though, it has changed my entire outlook about that class. I know that no matter how frustrating things get, I’m never more than a phone call away from everyone being in a better mood. And it makes me feel GOOD. These are not the kids who get good phone calls home. They are the ones who are suspended and failing and struggling to get by. To make a good phone call for them takes me 1 or 2 minutes, but it makes their entire day! How good does that feel?!?!

And I’ll tell you something else. Just like when I buy presents for people I am mad at, making nice phone calls about students who drive me crazy forces me to notice the good. When you’re talking to a parent with the student standing there looking at you, you have to find the good. You have to celebrate that sunshine in there because let’s be honest, it’s not really about the parent. It’s about what the student hears me say.

It’s about realizing that, yes, my own children may pitch temper tantrums. And, yes, my husband may forget to call when he’s going to be home late. And, yes, some of my students make me want to pull my hair out by the handfuls. But I still care about them. I still love them. They are still important to me. And sometimes when I’m angry and I can’t quite get those words out, it’s a little gift or plate of cookies or a phone call home to parents that help me keep my perspective.
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All student and parent names have been changed. So that I don’t lose my job. The end.

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57 Thoughts to “Giving Joy Away”

  1. As a former English teacher, this brought tears to my eyes! What a wonderful thing you’re doing!!!

  2. Rebekah Gunter

    I teach 6th grade LA and I have to admit, I have 2 of these classes…not with all the SPED and slightly lower class numbers(though not by much)…but still very talkative, behavior-issue ridden classes. I love this idea! I really hate calling parents because I hate being called by my child’s daycare! I can’t even imagine being called by a middle school. Thanks for this classroom management tip! Sometimes, I think a little bragging is all some kids need 😉

  3. Lissa

    LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this idea, this post, the whole amazing thing!!

  4. Teresa W

    Way to go Katie! As a retired teacher, I know your pain. This is a great idea! Those kids are lucky to have you as their teacher!

  5. Andrea

    I love this idea for the classroom. I teach 7th and 8th grade Personal Finance in Oklahoma and read your blog all the time; it’s one of my favorites. I will totally be sharing this idea during my professional development meeting on Friday.

  6. What a crazy, spontaneous, and positive thing to do for your class! Keep them on their toes! However, after this post, family and friends will probably look at you cross-eyed when you do something nice for them.

  7. beth

    This is awesome Katie! Way to spread the JOY!

  8. I work in schools too, as a school psychologist and am SO impressed with your creative use of positive behavior support for your class! It is fantastic to hear such a great success story- your students will carry the memory of this with them for the rest of their lives, and just think of the effect on the parents hearing the good news! They will most likely start bragging on their kids too- you have created a ripple effect!

  9. LOVE this! What a fun idea that gives back to you, the students, AND their parents. Thank you for sharing this. It’s really heart-warming.

  10. JenniferLO

    What a great post! I’ve been following your blog for 5 years now and this post made my think back on you! How cool to see how the Lord has most definitely been planning and preparing the way for you to be a GREAT teacher! The Lord never leaves or forsakes and looking back on your blog/life is a HUGE example!

  11. Pam

    You are just full of wonderful ideas, Katie!

  12. As a fellow teacher (elementary, though) I NEEDED this little push today. It’s been one of those days. I will make two calls tomorrow. Thanks, Katie!

  13. Paula

    If I were wired the way you are I would be running out the door to buy my husband the biggest present ever right now. Instead, I took a break and read your blog. You’re post almost made me cry! I absolutely love what you are doing for yourself and your class. As a parent who has received some scary phone calls from school I kindly suggest leading with “Everthing is fine…” so the parent doesn’t go to that dark place where they think something is wrong. (Had to rush my daughter to the hospital once.) Other than that, Keep up the great work Katie!

  14. This is FANTASTIC! What a great way to turn a really frustrating situation into something positive for everyone. I am beaming for you and your students– how awesome.

  15. Samantha

    Oh my goodness, you rock. I’m off to figure out how I can do this in my non-teaching life. You have made a permanent, lasting impression on those kids. John will never forget that day .

  16. Katie, as an aspiring teacher, this is fantastic! Thank you so much.

  17. I love this!!! Yay, Katie!

  18. I. Love. This.

    I’m showing it to my principal/boss first thing tomorrow!

  19. Courtney Sloane

    This made my day; such a simple yet totally awesome thing!!

  20. Heather in nd

    I hope you read this and check out this link. Its exactly the thing you are talking about and i think its only a matter of time before this sweeps the nation!! such awesomness!!!!
    http://difficultchild.com/nurtured-heart-approach/

  21. Amy

    I’m certain you’re going to be one of those teachers kids are still talking about 20 years later. “Remember Mrs. Brown? She believed in me when nobody else did.” Way to go, Katie.

  22. jenny-bird

    *high five*

  23. Amanda H

    AWESOME!! Just Awesome.

  24. Made me cry…as a boss it is harder to do this (do you call an adult’s mom? spouse? kids?) but I try to find ways to “catch them doing something good” – it is SO powerful…for the giver and receiver. Good for you!

  25. PK

    That is awesome, Katie. Even something seemingly small like a phone call to say “John is doing great today” and be a big thing for people, especially students in tough situations. Way to go and keep it up! I agree with Amy (#22) – you will be one of the teachers they talk about and fondly remember in the years to come.

  26. Jenna

    I want my kids to be in your class. Actually, I want ME to be in your class!

  27. amazing idea! it made me cry just reading about it!!

  28. meg

    I echo the above, Katie! Am totally tearing up and hoping the people on either side of me in lecture don’t notice 🙂 What a beautiful story. One of your best pieces yet!

  29. I like that… giving away when we are angry. Anger is so counter productive, although… sometimes it has to come out. As a newlywed I am learning important things like this and me and my husband are very aware of the habits we now allow, or don’t allow. When I am upset I do have the tendency to withdraw and it is not good, but all I want to do is protect myself from pain. This ‘buying something for someone’ may actually be really good for me. And it could be anything, even a simple card. Thanks for bringing this up. What a way to act out of love!

  30. Kimberly M.

    You are an amazing teacher, mother and wife. What a positive way to get the kids to do their work… this is incredible. I’m so glad we have teachers like you. 🙂

  31. Lisa

    Katie, What an amazing idea and creative way to turn around classroom problems. I’m sure those kids love you for it and will remember you the rest of their lives. Few teachers make a personal impact like that.

  32. kat

    I don’t think there are words out there to describe how effing awesome this is

  33. Wow. I would be so shocked to get that phone call as a parent. What a unique idea! and really awesome!

  34. Grandma Barnes

    You are an awesome granddaughter who never stops surprising me. Now, excuse me while I try to get this lump out of my throat. Oh, and don’t bake me any cookies!

  35. Kelly H

    Love everything about this!

  36. Brooke

    I work with college athletes, and I love meeting parents and telling them how great their kids are. This is an amazing idea.

  37. Ashley

    I have never posted a comment on any website before but I feel compelled to, right now, to tell you thank you and good job! You brought tears to my eyes. I volunteer in my kids’ schools and see the struggle teachers face with similar students. To acknowledge them with positive attention is huge! I felt pride for “John” just reading your post. Thank you!

  38. Carlene

    I teach preschool (different age than middle schoolers, same attention span) and I recently tried out a technique I saw on Pinterest similar to this and it worked like a charm! We got a tiny bell, and whenever we see someone being especially good (particularly the difficult kids), we ring the bell. All the kids freeze to listen to who is about to be praised. Then they all shape up because they want us to ring the bell for them next. any opportunity to use positive reinforcement makes such a difference in the classroom! Love that you get the parents involved too, that must make their day.

  39. Suzanne

    This might be my favorite post, ever. You’re a great teacher Katie!

  40. Chloe

    So lovely! Great lesson.

  41. kathleen

    Katie that is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  42. Carrie

    Oh Katie. This brought tears to my eyes. As a parent who has had more than her fair share of phone calls from teachers because of my “challenging” kid, I know how over the moon I would be to get a phone call like that. Not to mention how proud it would make my child. Wow! I think I need to anonymously pass this on to a few teachers. hehe 🙂

  43. Alicia

    So awesome!! I shared this on Facebook with all of my teacher friends. I am sure that you are mostly definitely going to be that teacher that makes a lasting impact on many lives. You are truly one of those people who was meant to be a teacher!!!

  44. Catherine

    Katie, I just have to say what a great teacher you are! Your students are very lucky. I have taught some of these kids and I’ve seen teachers use negative behavior modification and all it does is hurt the students. What you are doing is so much kinder and so much better for the students! Yay for you!!!!!

  45. Love this! I’m a kindergarten teacher and I give out “Good News Notes” for random little things. The kids love to get them and I love to write them!

  46. This makes my entire day better! I have a 1st grade group that I only see for lunch duty and each week I question why I still teacher after 11 years….(6 year olds, Friday 12:30pm lunch….in their classroom, you get the idea?!) I might just try this with them! Good on you for turning your class and your heart around! WOOT!

  47. Meghan

    As someone who’s taught difficult students, this made me tear up. You are a fantastic teacher.

  48. You are such a great teacher. Loved this post!!!

  49. Katie, this gave me chills! Not only did you find an awesome way to manage that class each day, but you are giving those kids hope. You may be the first person to ever acknowledge that they can do amazing things. I think you may be the best teacher ever!!!

  50. Laura

    This put such a huge smile on my face! Where I live, teachers are usually jaded and demotivated (a governmental problem), and I really hope that one day I’ll know that my kids are being taught by someone as lovely as you! Amazing 🙂

  51. Becky

    Katie I am so glad you found teaching. Those kids are so lucky to have you!

  52. Lillian

    Wow! What a great approach. To see the immediate impact must be so wonderful. Love it!!

  53. Kris

    That’s a great way to use positive reinforcement. I’m a special education teacher that teaches language arts and math to 6-8th grades and through experience have found that positive behavior interventions always work better than negative reinforcement. In my co-teaching and resource rooms I use whole brain teaching by Chris Biffle and love it…the kids love it too! It has really helped me get a hold my my chatty classes and help them learn. All the info you need is on his website and you can start using his strategies at any time. Good luck!

  54. […] changed is seeing the opportunity to be kind all around me, every single day.  Things like calling my students’ parents when the kids are really working hard.  Or stopping to talk with a co-worker who recently lost her […]

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