May is for Superheroes: The Teacher Homestretch

I’m exhausted.

Last week I had a student ask me if he could play me a song on his nose.

Befuddled, I nodded. They didn’t teach me how to answer that question in college.

He proceeded to place a finger on the side of his nostril and create a rattly humming sound as he “played” me a very unique rendition of Jingle Bells. I stood there in the hallway, questioning my life, and listened. Listening turned into singing as I joined my student in the medley. There I stood in the middle of the hallway, performing a nostril duet to a Christmas song.

Tomorrow is May 1. The official start of the homestretch (according to the calendar based on my opinion and perspective).

Like most teachers, I am looking ahead to the last day of school like it’s a light at the end of the tunnel. A shining beacon of hope that calls me to keep walking as the days feel impossibly long and the list of spring commitments grows impossibly more extensive.

I have reached the point where I would rather pull my hair out than say “Bummer” one more time.

Yes, Timmy, it is a bummer that you tied your shoelaces together and now you can’t walk.

I probably say “bummer” as many times as I hear my own name in one day (70,000).

I’ve reached the point where I have heard about so many lost teeth that when they tell me they lost a tooth, I tell them “I hope you find it” and laugh hysterically at my own joke.

It’s the time of the year that I’m questioning everything:

Can I do this? No, like seriously; is this actually possible?

Will I make it until June 14? Will those around me make it until June 14 having to deal with me?

Am I actually losing my mind or does it just appear that way in every facet possible?

I am so tired. Everything in me wants to auto-pilot the next 30 school days, getting through them with caffeine and a prayer. And while I will use both of those things in excessive amounts over the next month or so, I really want to fight the urge to mentally check out.

As summer break draws near and even as the curriculum winds down, those kids still deserve the best version of me. I think it’s possible to still look forward to summer yet live mindfully over the next 6 weeks.

In many classrooms in my district, we have been focusing on mindfulness with our students. With so many distractions, being present in the current moment is now something that really has to be taught, especially to some of our children who struggle behaviorally.

If I am going to practice mindfulness over the next few weeks, I am able to still be excited for summer, however I can’t be living there.

I can look forward to the pool time without inflating the floats and sleeping on them nightly.

The kids in front of us in May need us as much as they did in September. It may feel like we have nothing left to give: no ounce of creative energy, no ability to write another learning objective, no patience to respond kindly when a student still hasn’t learned an appropriate time to ask to use the restroom.

But the month of May is where the inner-super-hero comes out. Somehow we do it, year after year. We make it until the last day of school, sometimes with sanity hanging by a thread, but we do it.

We are going to make it. We are. The goal I am putting in front of myself is to not wish away each day, because the days go fast. The year has been like a  movie roll: month after month changing the calendar in the front of the room wondering, “How did we get here?”

I don’t want to wish away the years of my life, looking only forward to the next chapter (no matter how needed or well-deserved it is).

Even the day that feels the longest flies by and the years whiz past right along with them;  I don’t want to wish them away.

The weeks that are left, as exhausting as they will be, still have little moments that are going to feed my soul. They will have giggles and “aha” moments and new discovery. They will have dry markers, broken pencils, squirrelly behavior and probably some tears on my end and the students. But we are going to make it because that’s what we do.

Finish strong, stay in the moment and caffeinate regularly. Recommended dosage is 4 cups a day. Superheroes need their fuel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using Cheese to Encourage Engagement and Participation in the Classroom

If someone told me a few years ago that I would eventually possess the ability to get a group of sixth grade boys to curtsy like princesses during a lesson on fairy tale vocabulary, I would have asked just what kind of black magic I got myself into.

It must be some sort of wizardry.

Student buy-in can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching. Getting students to participate and get excited about things that are, well, for lack of a better term, boring, is an issue. However, once students are sold, magic can happen in the classroom.

I think it is important as teachers to own our areas of strength. We all are hyper-aware of our weaknesses. We are constantly comparing ourselves to other teachers and feeling insecure about our Word Wall or the way we set up our lesson plans. However, each of us has at least one thing we excel at, something we are naturally gifted in. I vote we start owning that and instead of worrying it will come off as “braggy,” share our expertise with others and then be willing to learn from them in areas we struggle.

After I wrote the article, “11 Times Teaching is the Best: Even When it Isn’t” (you can read that here) I started getting tons of emails of teachers asking me about my Cheese Scale for Attitude and Engagement in the classroom.

My area of mastery is student engagement, and although I will own that in this post, I hope it is understood that I have MANY areas of weakness and by no means think I am “super-teacher.”

For example, last year at the end of the year I needed to hand back approximately 1,350 papers that I forgot about. They were in no order and represented about 20 classes of students. So I literally threw them in a big pile on the floor and the students went “scuba diving” to find their names. Kids were on their hands and knees, slipping on papers and searching for their names.The papers stretched out almost from wall to wall.

“Dylan, here is yours!”  Dylan looks up from being buried under 18 inches of paper and grabs it from his friend with gratitude and sits down in exhaustion.

Not my best teacher moment. Organization is clearly not my strong point as a teacher.  One fifth grade student gently told me, “Maybe next year you could keep a folder system.”

Yes, maybe.

Organization is one of many areas in which I need improvement. While I am strong in student participation and engagement and love sharing what works for me, I am a work in progress in so many areas.

Okay, I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t pretending to have it all together. I hope I don’t hear from my principal about the scuba diving incident.

With all that said, I want to share a strategy I use in my classroom to keep students engaged and actively participating at all times. It involves cheese.

Now, I had a wonderful diagram of my Cheese Scale that a 6th grade student drew me, but, plot twist, I lost it, so let me try to explain.

Like many of my interesting ideas, this one came to me out of nowhere when I was trying to convince a group a 11 year olds to do the dance moves to this crazy song we were listening to using our new vocabulary. There is always that group of students that live and breathe to make you happy, but when it comes to getting adolescents to dance in front of their friends, you might get some push-back. Getting students excited to learn about conjugating verbs is not natural.

We started having a conversation about cheese.

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I began by explaining that I knew that many of the things i asked them to do were a bit crazy and silly. I leveled with them by saying I by no means thought what I was presenting was “cool.” It was totally cheesy and that was the beauty of it. I am not living in an alternate universe where I think that grammar lessons are the definition of fun. But I do say that the more we get into it, what we make of it, can make it as fun as it can ever be.

So we started talking about cheese in relation to attitude and participation.

Since almost all of what I ask them to do for me is silly and cheesy, everything on the scale is in relation to cheese, but the flavor of cheese differs greatly.

The language we use in our building for student behavior is “Expected” and “Unexpected.”

We began to discuss how a scale of cheese can demonstrate expected behavior.

Now, at this point, be aware you will need to settle in and give a bit of time to having an in depth conversation about dairy products with your students. It will get strange at times, and if your evaluator walks in during a discussion about Parmesan Cheese, have him or her shoot me an email and I will take the fall for you.

I started by talking about Cottage Cheese. It is still on our scale of expected behavior, but it is at a very basic level of flavor. Cottage cheese is the bottom of our cheese scale.

Now, at this moment, you will have passionate advocates for Cottage Cheese who become wildly offended you are placing this curdy goodness at the bottom. At this point, you explain Cottage Cheese is still in the A-OK zone. Nothing is wrong with Cottage Cheese, but in comparison with flavor and experience, it is just a little more bland than other cheese products.

I make sure to emphasize that nothing is wrong with Cottage Cheese, because there are students who will only be willing to give a cottage cheese effort and that is okay.

At the beginning of a lesson, I always give a “Cottage Cheese minimum.” The expected behavior for this cottage cheese minimum is that you repeat the word and do the motion for the word. You don’t have to be excited about it. You don’t have to smile and enjoy yourself, but you must participate. This give kids the freedom and the “pass” to not be silly if they don’t want to be.

At this point, we talk about everything in between Cottage Cheese and a nice Sharp Cheddar.

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The cardboard piece of cheese that started it all.

This is when you need to let them get into the cheese discussion. Maybe have some cheese focus groups. Mozzarella vs. Provolone. American vs. Monterey Jack. Ask their favorites and ask them to describe the flavor and experience.

Although Sharp Cheddar may not be the very most flavorful and most intense cheese, I use Sharp Cheddar cheese at the top of my scale (except for Spicy Nacho, and I will get into that later).

Sharp Cheddar cheese participation is all-in, 100% effort. You are giving it your most flavorful, tastiest all. You are living and breathing this lesson.

You can make a visual of Cottage Cheese at the bottom and Sharp Cheddar at top, and have kids fill in other types of cheese in between. I have all students model what the “Cottage Cheese” level of participation would be and what the “Sharp Cheddar” would be. I accept both and anything in between.

What we love about Sharp Cheddar cheese is that it is flavorful and adds so much to the eating experience. It can wake up boring eggs or add a kick to tortilla chips. Without that kick of flavor, things can be bland. A nice firm cheddar can change everything.

All cheese is beautiful. All is accepted in my classroom.

There is a time and a place for an even higher level of cheese. Spicy Nacho.

There are occasions in my classroom where we throw caution to the wind and reach volume levels that I am sure my neighbors absolutely love. #sarcasm

We had a song that taught our vocab words, and students would ask “Can we dance to it Spicy Nacho?” and on occasion, and depending on the amount of coffee I had that day, I would permit this.

Spicy Nacho is total chaos. The deal I have with my students is that I will let them go Spicy Nacho as long as I am able to get them back to a normal Cheddar in a matter of seconds. We have the obvious rules of safe body and voice, but other than that, if they want to spin around while singing in Spanish at an alarmingly loud level, go for it. But when Spicy Nacho is over, it’s over.

I once had a teacher visit my classroom and say to me after, “I was equal parts terrified and amazed.”

There are moments of total chaos in my classroom, but it is always productive chaos. Of course there are times I see students taking it too far, but I am not afraid of chaos. As long as the students are learning, the occasional Spicy Nacho makes everything more fun.

As always, I am getting wordy. Here are a few quick pointers of what I have learned from managing a very cheesy classroom:

  1. Be a cheeseball yourself

This is exhausting. But if you aren’t willing to get wildly, overly excited about a lesson you are presenting, there is no way the students will. I’m not scared to embarrass myself in front of the kids. They bond over having something universal to giggle at: my dance moves. When they see me putting myself out there, they are much more willing to do the same.

2. Relationship first

It is important to have built a safe and authentic relationship with students, especially the older ones, before they are comfortable enough to be silly in front of their peers. Kindergarten and first grade students may be an easy sell on acting like farm animals or making elephant sounds, but getting a sixth grade student to do that in front of his peers takes trust and time. Build that first.

3. Accept that some students might always choose Cottage Cheese

As long as students are learning and engaged, I am happy. Some kids just won’t ever be willing to hit Sharp Cheddar, and that’s okay. Cottage Cheese isn’t bad. It just isn’t as much fun. But my job is for kids to learn, and if kids learn via cottage cheese, then grab a spoon.

Every class has a different personality. In my job, I see about 28 different classes per week. There are some classes I use this scale as part of our normal language, and others where I barely mention it. You are the best judge of the climate and personality of each class and trust yourself to make those calls.

The Cheese Scale has been a blast in my classroom and the students have totally eaten it up (couldn’t resist that pun.) Please let me know if you have any other questions!

My Cheese scale is not the “end all be all.” It is simply something that works for me and is something in which teachers around the country have emailed me about. I never thought I would be writing a post about cheese, but here I am!

I am always open to new ideas for student engagement and would love to hear your thoughts!

Jenna

jennawiley@yahoo.com

 

 

 

My Summer Break Acceptance Speech

Greetings to all who read this.

I am used to having an audience of about 27 little humans, so being here on stage to accept this award does not faze me in the slightest. When you have asked  students to tell you if you have chocolate on your face or not, it takes a lot to feel embarrassment anymore.

Summertime is here.

I can tell you that there were times I didn’t know if I would make it. I didn’t know if we would make it.

Specifically towards the end of October. And then March. And then again today.

Yet we have reached the end of another school year, and entering summer break with this acceptance speech is my utmost honor.

I have many people, food items, and inanimate objects to thank for reaching this point.

Let me begin with the most important. First and foremost, I would like to thank coffee for everything it is to me and everything it will be.

You might be thinking, “Jenna, as a devout Christian, shouldn’t you being thanking God first for helping you through the year?”

God made the coffee. And He and I have it worked out. He understands. God is everywhere. Even in an elementary school. He knows.

Not only would i like to thank coffee, I would like to thank everyone and everything associated with coffee.

Thank you to the coffeemaker in my kitchen that rings a sweet glorious sound when the coffee is ready. Thank you to the filters for allowing the water to run through it in a way to make the coffee juice taste good without getting grounds in it. Thank you to all the workers at Starbucks and Biggby who have my order memorized. Specific shoutout to the worker who poured me a new coffee when I spilled mine all over myself.

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notice the coffee spilled on my desk. and the general mess.

 

Thank you to every colleague who has brought me coffee in moments of distress, or out of sheer kindness. Thank you to the coffee farmers in every remote area of the world. I love you and I thank you.

Now I would like to thank the Lord. He heard my 1pm prayers and 6:50am cries as getting out of bed became harder and harder every day in May. He got me up. He reminded me at the perfect times why I love my job. He brought amazing people in my life that makes the job even better. He made coffee. And it was good.

Next up is the Teacher’s Lounge. A resting place. A time of solace, laughter, or sometimes silence because it’s only Tuesday and it feels like Friday a 4pm.

That brings me into my teaching family. From the amazing staff who clean my classroom each day, to my teaching partners,  to parapros to secretaries and lunch staff. We are a family. Sometimes a dysfunctional one, like families can be, but we love each other in the mess and we make the best out of it. So much love to you people.

You have saved the day and covered for me so I could go to the bathroom.

You have brought me kleenexes when I am having an adult meltdown.

You feed me snacks.

You people are some of the best parts of my job and I genuinely love you.

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Next, I would like to thank bandaids and water fountains. Bandaids and water fountains cure 95% of all student ailments. Magic.

“My head hurts.”

“Okay honey, why don’t you try a drink of water and see if that helps.”

“Ms. Wiley, I’m bleeding”

*uses magnifying glass to find microscopic speck of red*

“Okay here is a bandaid.”

Bandaids and Water fountains- the MVP’s.

 

 

I would like to extend a thank you to each of my fabulous little students. We have our moments. They give me grace. I give them grace. We laugh. We cry. We learn together. It’s a great gig. Thanks for everything guys. I loved *almost* every minute with you. It was awesome but now teacha needs a break. Thank you for bringing in Hawaiian leis and celebrating the end of the year with a Karaoke Party in my room yesterday after school. Kids rock.

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Karaoke Parties are the best way to celebrate the end of the year.

 

Thank you to the yoga balls on which my students sat this year. You let them move and wiggle and bounce and be all hyper while letting me still teach. I got a little motion sickness at first, watching the ups and downs in rhythmic form. But I got used to it.

 

Thank you to my friends and family outside of work. The ones who understood if it was a “bad day” and listened to me vent as needed.

Thank you to my Spring Break vacation. I needed you.

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Me and my nephew enjoying a relaxing dinner in Florida. Turns out caring for an infant isn’t vacation.

Thank you to the substitute teachers who literally saved my life by filling in for me on days I was out.

Thank you to antibiotics for the 2 times I got bronchitis.

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Thank you to the teacher I share a classroom with one day a week. Your healthy life tips are appreciated. I am a hoarder. Thank you for dealing with my piles everywhere.

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You could have played iSpy with the stuff I found in there.

Thank you to the people behind “treat days.” Seeing random treats in the lounge for no reason at all gives you a perfect excuse to binge eat the stress away. Carb loading on donuts did come with a few consequences, but in the end, totally worth it.

It was an amazing year.

An exhausting, happy, emotional, fabulous, insane year.

As you see, I never could have done it alone. So with great joy and little to no pride (I have none left after some of the  lessons I have taught this year), I accept summer vacation.

Congratulations to all who made it. Your trophy is sunny and sandy.

And to anyone who thinks it’s unfair that teachers get summers off:

actually, never mind. I honestly don’t even have the energy to debate with you.

Happy Summer

xoxo

Jenna

2lynfdf

 

 

Why I Don’t Want a ‘Normal’ Job: 11 times teaching is the best, even when it isn’t

About 39 times a year, I question why I went into teaching.

It’s a crazy life. A life that one can only understand once in the trenches: tying the shoes and wiping the tears and teaching the words.

There are some days where on my way home, I am convinced that I am never stepping foot back into my classroom again. It can go on without me. You can find me working at an animal shelter under a heap of  puppies. I will just be laying there, arms stretched as puppies and kittens bound across me and lick my face. That is what I will do.

But alas, I wake up the next morning and I walk into my classroom and I tie the shoes and I wipe the tears and I teach the words.

Today was a bit of a crazy afternoon and to be honest, a crazy week for me, but amongst the chaos and tattles and peer arguments, my head started to fill with all of the reasons I could never do another job right now (except maybe the aforementioned job where all I do is lay on the ground and get tackled by baby animals).

I grabbed a sticky note and started jotting down some of the reasons that this is the best job there is. Even when it isn’t.

Maybe in the future when my life circumstances change, I won’t be in a classroom anymore. But right now, a classroom is home to me.

With all of the stress that comes with teaching, I think it’s easy to forget all the amazing things I experience as a teacher that would NEVER be the status quo in a “normal job.” For example…

  1. Small chores being done for you

I can’t remember the last time I filled my own water bottle or walked across my classroom to retrieve the coffee from my desk. When I ask the little students to do small chores for me, you would think I am bestowing upon them the grandest honor of all. Students take pride, and gloat shamelessly to their peers when they are selected to complete basic life tasks for their teacher.

Beaming, they wipe off my table, as though the most important job in the world. For some reason, I think this would be an issue in the corporate world if I expected all of those around me to wait on me hand and foot.

“Steve, can you run across the office and rinse out this cup and fill it with water for me?”

“Margaret, I spilled my tea. Could you grab me paper towels and jump up and down on the spill so it all absorbs?”

“Dan, can you come here and open my window halfway? I’m a little warm.”

Something tells me I might struggle to develop healthy coworker relationships.

2. The compliments 

My classroom is pretty much the only place I am considered “cool.”

Small children love to lavish compliments. With my specific job, I have over 700 students in and out of my doors per week, so the compliments reach incredible heights as I get a new group of kids each hour.

A new group of kids to comment on my outfit, lipstick and shoes. Though I should probably take them with a grain of salt (many children still can’t tell the difference between me and the building art teacher), I let them go directly to my head.

Why not? If you had tiny humans lavishing affirmations upon you all day, you might get a little pompous, too.

Compliments from children are also contagious. If Maddie compliments me, and Ginny hears it, Ginny will try to one-up the previous compliment with an even better compliment, until I am fending off compliments with quick “thanks, honey, but you need to go sit down.”

Again, that same something tells me that I couldn’t expect this kind of praise in a “normal” job.

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My first year of teaching, students rolled a red carpet to my desk.

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Me, drawn as a queen on her throne. (Those are puffy sleeves).

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This was written to me by a Kindergartener who was moving away at the end of the year.

 

3. But yet, they keep you humble

While this may seem conflicting after pointing out how children make you feel like a million bucks, it should be noted that young children are brutally honest. I was sick yesterday and was struggling through the morning. Students, concerned and confused asked me, “Did you forget to put makeup on today?” “Why does your face look like that?”

Just when your head is getting a little too big, they are there to humble you with their innocent and honest observations about your appearance.

A few months ago, upon returning from Florida, I was rocking’ a deep, dark tan. I was flaunting my sun-kissed skin and basically using my classroom as a runway, when one 10 year old boy took one look at me and told me I looked like a “burnt hotdog.”

Extra points for the creative simile.

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thanks?

 

4. The Weirdness

If I had to manage adults for a living, I think the turnover rate at my company would be alarmingly high. I am very, very weird . I can’t help it. I was born like this. I love that kids GET my weird.

All of the following are statements that would make perfect sense to almost all of the students that walk through my doors:

“If you aren’t going to bounce like a baby kangaroo, you will sit on Broccoli Island.”

“You guys are only giving me a Parmesan Cheese level of participation. I need to see more Sharp Cheddar.”

“Ms. Wiley, can we dance to this song ‘Spicy Nacho’ style?”

“Guys, you know that while Cottage Cheese is still expected behavior, you make me happiest when I don’t see any of it at all!”

(yes, there is a cheese scale for attitude, engagement and participation in my room).

“Are you at Belly Button University right now?”

Need I say more?  It sounds even weirder in Spanish.

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Me pretending I am lost in the Amazon and need to be rescued. #weird

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Agreed, kid. Agreed.

 

5. The camaraderie with other teachers

While teaching is definitely about the kids, the relationships and bond I have with my colleagues is one of the highlights and most treasured parts  of my job.

Teachers have a look they give each other in the hall when they pass and when they can’t audibly say “I am about to pull my hair out if I hear my name one more time…”

Work friendships are amazing. This morning, a colleague, and dear friend, brought me coffee. I frequent the classroom of another dear friend to break into her stash of 3 year old gum balls when I need a rush of sugar. I know where the chocolate drawer is in most of my teacher friends’ rooms.

Those small interactions, encouragements and moments with my amazing teaching family  keep you sane and keep your caloric intake high.

The most comforting thing of all is when you have another adult, like a beautiful, priceless Paraprofessional (God bless you, wonderful people) in the room with you and something insane happens and you can look at each other and say “Are you seeing this???” “Is this our life right now?”

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Cheering on a teacher friend as she runs a marathon!

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I have an open coffee tab with most teachers in my building.

6. Shake Your Head and laugh moments

I am sure most careers have funny, memorable moments. But oh, if the walls of Room 7 and Room 22 could talk. There are moments in my classroom where all I can do is laugh.

Hilarious, unbelievable moments.

I have a kiddo who is fiercely protective of me. I have had him for years, and we have a very special bond. If this student ever perceives someone isn’t treating me well or I am in ‘danger’, he comes to my rescue like a flash of lightning.

A few weeks ago, I was eating an apple and teaching. That combo has never typically worked out well for me, but that day I was confident I could do it.

I had choked a few times and cleared my throat, but finally after the third time I choked on a piece of apple, I exclaimed, “Uh! This apple is trying to kill me!”

Upon hearing this, the student immediately snatched the apple out of my hand and threw it in the trash can forcefully. There was NO place for an ‘evil apple’ in my classroom.

With every bone in his little body, he was protecting me from that apple. It was the most precious thing I have ever seen.

Once, first graders were having a discussion amongst themselves about why I wasn’t married yet. Before I could chime in to encourage them to change the subject, a passionate 6 year old yells “Don’t rush her guys! She’s not ready yet!”

Those types of moments are ones that keep me coming back, day in and day out.

A more concise list…(I am getting wordy. And if you are a teacher, you should probably be grading, lesson planning or doing 17 other things right now, so allow me to wrap this up.)

7. Pajama Days

These are the best. There is nothing left to say.

8. Birthday treats

It’s always some kid’s birthday. Except for when I go on a strict diet (2x a week), birthday treats are the reason I make it until 3:45pm.

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This was ONE day’s worth of birthday treats. #summerbirthdays

9. Summer vacation and Snow Days

Duh.

10. When you watch students “get it” right before your eyes

This is a magical, inexplicable moment. When you have a breakthrough with a kid and try not to cry and then they laugh at you for being so emotional.

11. It’s always an adventure.

No day is the same. You can try your darnedest to ensure an airtight plan and seamless routines and transitions: but EVERY day, something unplanned will happen. Every. Single. Day. You roll with it. You get really good at that.

Just when you think you aren’t making a difference, a kid’s flip flop breaks so you tape paper all the way around it  so they can walk home with their shoe still on.

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#changinglives

 

I don’t want a ‘normal’ job.

I want this crazy, exhausting, hilarious, stressful job.

I wasn’t born to be normal, anyways.

Here is to the last few weeks.

Jenna

jennawiley@yahoo.com

 

Hearing from you is pretty much my favorite thing. Love to hear teacher stories and connect with people all over the world. Shoot me an email or follow my blog on Facebook.

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