The Superhero

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Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about language and the power that it has to affect ourselves, our students and the environment around us.  I had a student in my class one year who was really struggling academically, organizationally, but definitely not imaginatively.  No matter which subject we were on, be it math, science, socials, English or Health, he was somehow magically drawn into the world of StarWars or other epic battles armed only with his erasers and his 1 inch pencil nubs. As soon as the lesson would start, and sometimes well before, this student could instantly transport himself into other worlds – anywhere but where we were. Trying to get him to be in the moment, or even in the room was a task- somehow at the beginning of every math lesson or writing task he needed a drink, or to go to the bathroom, to leap across the room to grab something from his bag or to fight off the evil warlords who held the kryptonite.

I would find myself struggling with this student- how to keep him engaged, on track, and on task even for just a few minutes before he slipped away again- and also still manage my other 25+ students? I realized that I was becoming increasingly frustrated at many (what I saw as) failed attempts to help him to develop better work habits.  Was it an academic barrier he was facing?  Were the lessons not engaging enough?  Did he simply need something basic like more water or less sugar?

Getting to the root of a problem can sometimes be so complex, and as I teacher, I only have the power to change so much- mainly, my own behaviour:) Faye Brownlie, an expert in working with struggling learners (, recently challenged a group of colleagues and I to become aware of the way that we speak with students who have the most challenges.  She mentions that students need at least a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative comments before s/he will be able to believe something differently about herself/himself.  4:1.  Wow, if anything, I feel like sometimes I have used 4:1 comments in the corrective: positive reinforcement ratio.  I wondered about the way that I was “motivating” my students and if fear was one of the underlying entities behind my choices of words.

Sometimes it is hard to decipher what a child needs to be motivated, but I know that for me in my own life, fear has only been a positive motivator when there was any real danger.  Of course if there really was a bear licking his chompers as he pounced on me for breakfast, then fear would be a great thing to have.  Running away screaming is probably a better, if not the best, option:) It would also happen to positively result in me keeping my left leg for another few seasons and passing my yearly fight-or-flight test with flying colours. In the case of motivating children, inciting a sense of anxiety is most certainly only adding more difficulty to an already negative situation. So what could I do instead (of using fear) to help motivate struggling learners- especially those that struggle within the traditional school system?

I suspected that in my sincere effort to help this student to get things in order, I was being unwittingly hard on him.  He was getting anxious instead of more confident and a wake up call for me came from a discussion with his mom.  She mentioned that he was losing sleep at night over a project (that we had been working diligently on in class) and that she had noticed his behaviour becoming more nervous.  Yikes!  Had I played a role in this?  It was one of those moments that make you take a step back, breathe, and endeavour to do better:) So I started to change just one simple thing.  And, as a wise person once told me, something is better than nothing.

I started by calling him “Superhero.”  No real rhyme or reason behind it other than it seemed like a cool nickname at the time and I myself had experienced a positive change within myself when a mentor of mine started doing that with me.  Both in team and staff situations over the years, I have seen myself rise to challenges and be successful through positive interactions with leaders.  Even something as small as giving someone a (positive) nickname can promote those underlying principles that can give another human being the courage to accept themselves, make changes as necessary and develop the skills necessary for success.

To me, a Superhero is someone who is confident, who keeps others safe from harm and who works to help others out.  I wanted this student to know that- to feel accepted, safe, and that he belonged. Of course I don’t really know if this kind of a thing had any real long lasting or profound effect, but I did start to see things I hadn’t seen in a little while– a smile here, a proudly walking kid with a puffed out chest there, and the best moment of all- the first time I said it.

“Hey!  How’s my superhero?”


“How’s my Superhero?”

“What, me?”

“Yeah! How’s my superhero?”

Big grin, “”Uh, I’m good”

“Ok, see you on the morning walk!”

Bursts out the door with a huge smile on his face, “Hey guys!  Miss (Edutriage) thinks I’m a superhero!”

And I smiled to myself… I gotta do that more often:)  Maybe now he can use the incredible powers of his imagination to see himself as he really is – a Super cool human being (no matter what) and that I’m here to cheer him on!

Because something is better than nothing.

For an amazing tool kit… Copy & Paste this link : into your browser for other great ideas in supporting students positively.


Developing Strong Character… by Admitting your Weaknesses

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I know that it gets a bit dodgy when you mix religion with, well, just about anything, but I’d be lying if I didn’t talk about how the spiritual aspect of my life is also influencing my teaching practice.  Without going into too much detail, I decided to become Orthodox Christian a few months ago and I feel as if it is changing my character for the best.

In dealing with social emotional issues in the classroom, a lot seems to be involved in our natural reactions as teachers.   If a student is misbehaving, do we “out” him in front of the class?  Send him to the hall?  Speak to him gently?  Use proximity, or a short word or a look?  There are any myriad of responses that could be used, and I have to admit, it is sometimes very difficult to know which one to use in the situation.

Many of the incidences that occur are multi-layered.  Has the student had a bad morning at home?  Are they dealing with a learning disability or ADHD or austism and have trouble dealing with their own situations?  Are there environmental or social stimuli that are contributing to the problem?  Is it their first time disobeying instructions or their 9th in a row?  Did they truly mishear you or were they off in “outer space” when you thought you made yourself clear for the third time?

I would like to say that I am moving towards a state of being where I am able to respond with compassion.  Too many times I feel caught up in whatever is going on and perhaps feel stressed out myself and don’t seem to be able to give a response that elicits the behaviour that I desire.  I have been pondering over this phenomena and am wondering about whether this is even the right question.  Am I then asking if I can change a child’s behaviour or reaction based on how I myself am reacting?  I suppose I will have some sort of influence- if I give them the “stern eye” I will no doubt cause some sort of discomfort in them- perhaps an unsettled feeling, perhaps defiance, perhaps something neutral if they have learned to tune me out.  Or if I smile I will probably receive some sort of positive acknowledgement in return, but I cannot rely on myself to always be able to do that.

Children, and people in general, are going to react how they react.  They have certain beliefs, ideas, and situations that they are dealing with and I am only one of the factors.  I do, of course, have a moral and ethical responsibility towards them as I am their teacher and have a position of authority, but I cannot look to myself as being responsible for their happiness.  They have choices, as I do, in how they can react, what they will do in certain situations, and how they feel.  Their thoughts influence their actions.  If I were to place that responsibility on my shoulders, as I think I often do, I will feel like I can never catch up.  Why is “Student A” sad?  What can I do to make him feel better?  Is “Student B” upset because of something I’ve said?  Can I phrase my questions differently?  These kinds of questions are not “bad” in and of themselves but they can become burdensome when they are running around with free reign (in both space and quantity) in your brain.  Without discernment, these thoughts begin to take over until I am overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of, well, doom is too strong of a word, but you get my drift.

This past weekend, I got to go on a retreat with my church where we learned about the Beatitudes.  They are ways of being that promote a lifestyle of peace, compassion, doing as much as you can to be in a “right” relationship with others, accepting your weakness and acting out of humility.  (Side Note) Funnily enough, the very question of “how can I be more humble” doesn’t make one more humble.  It is in admitting that we are not that is what gets us on that path.  I link this to my thoughts above by thinking about who I can be as a person.  I might not be able to control the reactions and behaviours of my students all the time, but I can choose to be a social barometer.  As much as I can, I would like to act more in the way of showing mercy and compassion.  I know that I respond better to these things from other people, and while sometimes I might need a “kick in the pants” to get going on some things, more often than not, it is from words of gentleness and kindness that I have made the most significant changes in my life.