Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Letter to my Younger Teaching Self


As I look towards the end of my 20th year as a teacher, thinking about this journey happens almost every single day. Each day I'm in the classroom, each conversation I have with a student, each lesson that inspires, each lesson that fails - - I'm reminded of moments I've experienced in my classroom. I'm a big fan of the Player's Tribune and their series of "Letters to My Younger Self". I love reading about these sports stars and their journeys, but I've often wondered what if teachers had the opportunity to share their journey?

This was one of the hardest posts I've ever written. I modeled it after several letters and found that helpful with the writing process, but what made this hard was thinking about those moments that defined me. So many moments happened in my classroom that shaped me as a person and left a mark on my heart that it's impossible for me to include them all. Each of these moments, stories, incidents  I included are real. There is no exaggeration. They are told from my memory and from my heart.

Letter to My Younger (Teacher) Self:


Hey kid...yeah you....the one with all the energy, big smile, raising your hand at meetings, and filled with so much passion you can't wait to get to school. 

 I'm you.

Twenty years in the future. Twenty years of being a teacher later.

You're probably looking at me like "That can't be me...twenty pounds heavier, lot less hair...and man, those bags under your eyes? Are you getting any sleep?! What happened to me?" 

Well... let me tell you. Teaching happened. That’s sure you want to do this? You sure you want to be a teacher?

I know what you're thinking. "There's no way teaching is that hard. " You're ready to go get 'em. Get that classroom set-up. Learn your kids' names. Come up with those fun and exciting lessons. Let me tell you, there's so much more to it than that. You're going to soon realize that it's about the relationships you develop with those kids and families and they will mean so much more to you than any lesson plan you ever write.

Your first year will fly by. Teaching 5th grade was your dream and you got to do it. Some of the days in that class will be great. You'll think you're making an impact every single day.  September of your first year will be a blur and you plan the ultimate welcome for your kids' parents. You'll get your suit on, put that awesome powerpoint presentation together, set-up the desks with notes from the kids to their parents and you will practice in front of the mirror for your first ever Back-to-School night. You'll wait at the door to greet parents.  When the first parent shows up at your door and doesn't speak English you think that's okay, you can make this work. 

Only it doesn't work. No more parents show up from your class. Not one. This will hit you hard, but it will make you work even harder.  You sit down that night and write a note to each of your fifth graders and realize you're an even bigger part of their lives. 

The year flies. You won't remember all the late nights you spent in your class planning and setting up lessons, or the countless weeknights and weekends planning and grading. You won't remember the names of some of the teachers you worked with or even the principal's name, but you will remember the first "real" conversation you have with a kid. The first time a student tells you they aren't safe at their home, that they don't want to go home. Good thing you're friends with the head of the Children and Youth division in your town.  The next day, she's not in your class and you begin to worry. She doesn't show up for a few days and your heart is torn up... I just want to warn you, it's not the last time this will happen. It's not the last time you'll lose sleep over a kid that's not yours.

You will never see that kid again. But to give you the fuel to keep going, let me tell you she's okay. That head from C&Y runs into you several years later and lets you know how thankful that kid was for you. But I also want to keep it real - not all of your stories will have happy endings and I want to just remind you, don't quit. Don't stop giving your heart to these kids. There will be many more who need you.

You will teach 5th grade like you are never going to leave, but on the last day of school, the principal will tell you that the teacher you're filling in for is coming back. Your heart breaks a little again -what will happen to these kids? You'll only get to say goodbye to the few that show up to your wedding that summer, but you will never forget these kids. You'll be looking in the newspaper to see their names at graduation and your heart will swell when you see their names, but you will always wonder about the names you didn't see.

Your life will take a direction you never thought you'd be middle school. You'll spend the next twenty years of your life teaching in a middle school and man, what an experience it will be for you. You will come to love middle school - especially the kids. So much so, you can't see yourself doing anything differently. Sixth grade will be where you make your home first, but it's not where you'll end it.

Middle school will be your first experience working with a "team" of teachers and it will be something you should cherish. Sadly, it won't be around for your entire career. Your team over the few years will change and you will make life-long friends working alongside some of the best teachers and people you'll ever meet. You will do some really fun and engaging lessons with those people. Understand that the support and relationships with teachers who care as much as you are just as important as the ones you develop with the kids. Make time to connect with them - eat lunch with them, get together for breakfast, connect on social media...enjoy the adults around you who are also giving their hearts to kids.

That first year in your classroom will be amazing. You will meet the first group of kids from a community that you will become a part of, and you will never forget any of them. There will be kids from this class that you connect with deeply. You will form bonds with them because they are the first group of kids you teach at a place you’re going to spend a long time at. Take all the coaching jobs they ask you, teach those lessons that others will question, and leave your door open to the kids before and after school. There will be many early mornings and late nights.

The crazy thing is you'll be doing this while you try to raise a family. Teaching will take a toll on you - your blood pressure will be up, your diet won’t exactly be the best, and you will always be thinking about those kids,  but remember your family comes first. Your kids will thank you for helping them chase and achieve their dreams. You will also be lucky to have a wife who will be there to listen to your stories about the day and understand your passion.  It won't be easy being a parent, a husband, and a teacher, but it will be worth it.

The teaching years will fly by. You’ll make a promise to each class that you will remember each and every one of their names, but the years blend together and you won’t remember what year you taught them. But I’ll tell you this, you will not forget the kids that you taught.

You will have names and faces that are burned in your mind forever. There will be moments that make you look at sunny days in the spring a little differently. Like the sunny afternoon in the spring when you were out in your backyard and your wife hands you the phone. Time slowed as you heard the phone chain message beginning with “we have terrible news…”

 Time will stop when you hear the name. The name of a kid who’d said goodbye to you Friday afternoon. A kid who visited your room every day after school. A kid you’d never hear say goodbye again  It’s the first time you ever experienced a kid you knew taking their own life. That moment will stay with you and shape the rest of your career. It will be a driving force in your career. You will always do your best to read a kid’s face and really see what they are feeling.  No matter what, you will make time to listen to kids

That student won’t be the first you’ll lose - there will be car accidents - kids like Chris and Larissa; drug overdoses - kids like Katey and Jose. And there will be more tough conversations with kids about abuse, drugs, eating disorders, and self-harm and you will find a way to listen and be there. You will have kids that go off to serve our country and not come back the same. These kids will stay in your heart and you’ll remember their twelve-year-old smiles forever.

Those days and moments won’t be easy…

Doesn’t sound like what they tell you in college, does it? None of those undergrad classes prepared you for that, huh?

Keep your head up. It will cross your mind many times about what you are doing. Is it worth it? Am I really making a difference? Can I be the change these kids need in their lives? You can and you will. I promise you.

You will go through many changes as a teacher. You will begin to understand that there is a lot that needs to be fixed with our education system.  Keep trying to fix it, change it, and be that teacher that you needed when you were in middle school.  Find the support you need to make it through. You will connect with amazing teachers across the world. These teachers will inspire you, motivate you and challenge you

You will attend graduations, birthday parties, and even be the DJ at one of your student’s wedding (and no, you won’t get much sleep the night before that). You will be there to offer encouraging words reminding a kid to keep chasing their dream of being a vet, even after almost quitting twice - she’ll learn that the third time is the charm. You will attend sporting events, plays, and dance recitals.  Those kids will become your kids.

You will question whether or not the kids even care? Believe me, the kids will find ways to show you they care. Some will eat lunch with you every day for two years straight. Some will make you cards and pictures - make sure you hang on to those, and some will cry on the last day of school.  Other kids will do it in the most “uncaring” of ways, but those are the kids that will need you the most. Always remember that. 

You will get to know a lot of kids and their families. You will come to be part of a community that you don’t even live in. You will always hope that all the work you’re putting in is helping this community.

When you get that notification on Facebook from a face that looks familiar to you but seems all grown up, accept it.  Social media will allow you into their lives, like you allowed them into yours. You will look at the pictures of these “kids” (they’ll always be kids to you) and realize you had a part in their lives. And all over again, you’ll be there to experience the highs and lows with your kids. Don’t be afraid to comment, congratulate, offer condolences...let them know you still care.

1998 will turn into 2018 in the blink of an eye.

When you walk through the door on a cold winter day of your twentieth year, you’ll comment to your wife,  “I’m tired, so’s so hard this year. I can’t believe what my kids are telling me and going through.”  

To help you try and feel better your wife will reply, “You’re not going to save every kid.”

No, no  I’m not, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to think back to you. I’m going to think back to why I became a teacher.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's Okay to Burn the Brownies


Learning really is about burning the brownies. It's about being short on ingredients and problem-solving. It's about realizing that maybe your problem solving didn't work, and that's okay. Ultimately, when those brownies don't come out the way you hoped, it's about putting on that apron and trying again...

For the last several months, my thirteen-year-old daughter has been watching cooking shows -- Chopped Junior, Cupcake Wars, Master Chef Junior...bascially anything involving cooking. She's even been practicing her British accent in case she's ever selected to go on an international cooking show. Clearly, she's begun to develop a very strong interest in the culinary arts. However, it wasn't until yesterday that she actually picked up the "apron" and put it on.

As I was sitting at my son's baseball game, my daughter and I shared a series of texts:

This conversation speaks volumes about learning. It's become a bit cliche, "FAIL" - "we need to let kids fail", and the list goes on. But it's true. The part we are missing from education really is that First Attempt In Learning. Kids need to be willing to take risks, not be afraid of failing and to try new things - - things that they are genuinely interested in.

 I've attempted this own kind of learning in my classroom - my students have been working on "Genius Hour" or passion-based projects (check out Joy Kirr's livebinder for more info) over the course of the year and cannot wait to see what my students' final work looks like. Will they all have amazing projects and presentations? Probably not...but they all have had the opportunity the successes and the failures, and have gone through the process of putting on that "apron".

By the way, here's the last few messages of our conversation. Next time I'll be sure to have eggs.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Full and Empty At the Same Time

Can you be EMPTY and FULL at the same time?

There are two kinds of tears as a teacher; those that hurt because you care and those that feel good because you care.  Somedays I feel like my heart is full because I feel like I care so much about these kids…not too much…just so much. The crazy thing is when they walk out my door, I never stop caring. I recently had a colleague tell me that maybe you care too much about kids. Is it possible to care too much? How does one even respond to that?

There were two moments just recently, that capture how the heart can become full and empty all within a few hours and how you can experience the hurt and care kind of tears. As a teacher, even the smallest of messages can make a lasting impact on you.

The FULL Moment

You never forget your first classroom. My first year of teaching was spent in a fifth grade classroom in an inner city almost twenty years ago. I’ve often wondered what’s happened to these kids – kids that attended my wedding, kids that I saw experience holding a crayfish for the first time, kids I saw pick me as their quarterback at recess, a kid who turned a blueberry into a character I’ll never forget, a kid who was taken out of my classroom by child services, kids I saw laugh, cry, and grow, and kids I will never forget.

Because of social media, I’ve been able to reconnect with two students from that class. A few days ago I connected with a third. I hadn’t spoken with this student in almost 20 years when I saw a message come through on Facebook at the end of the school day. Her message brought me to tears:

“I learned so much by all of your projects and different ways you would teach just for us to make school so exciting. I want to thank you so much because, believe it or not, the way you were with us taught me how to teach today. I am a teacher as well, and I love it because of how you were. Thanks so much for changing kids’ lives…because trust me, if you changed mine, you’re changing many others.”

Gotta love those “care” tears.

The EMPTY Moment

It’s funny how life works. One moment you’re feeling amazing and the very next moment your heart is breaking and those “hurt” tears hit you right in the gut.

That evening I was scrolling through Facebook liking pictures –  smiling at how so many of my former students have grown up - I laughed when I read the post about Rosie’s two year old son who refuses to keep his clothes on, smiled at Bree’s (now a teacher in Memphis) post about being a foster mom to puppies, and was wowed by Jay’s son’s collection of over 800 Hot Wheels he collected for a holiday drive.

I scrolled down further and saw the three letters on one ever wants to see… “RIP”.  A former student of mine, who I had just connected with three weeks ago, had died.  Too young, too soon, why, - these thoughts went through my head followed by the memories of him in my sixth grade classroom. I’ll never forget that kid’s smile – it could light up a room.

I commented on the post and got a reply from another former student that shared the same classroom with him and me:

"Mr. Storm, I thought of you right away. My friendship with Ivan started in your classroom. We would spend countless hours on your couch...I credit that entire crew (and you of course) for helping me to come out of my shell and just overall enjoy life more. I'll never forgot all of us made us and I was so embarassed and awkwar but thank God for Ivan's hilarious personality to shield my awkwardness. Such great memories...I just truly cannot fathom that he is gone. Hope you're okay.

Those tears hurt.

I recently had a colleague tell me that maybe you care too much about kids. Is it possible to care too much? How does one even respond to that?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Positivity Challenge

Stay positive...and be kind to each other.

Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot
Hansa Proverb

Our school was inspired by Jamie McSparin of Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Missouri  to take the Positivity Challenge and show just how awesome our school is! Teachers selected a few students to thank and we explained to them how much they mean to us. The hardest part for the teachers was picking a student - every teacher that responded to the challenge said they could have picked all of their students! We're blessed to teach such amazing students. Thank you to all of the amazing students we teach daily -- enjoy the video and see some of the amazing kids we teach.

We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.

Stay positive...and be kind to each other.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

It Gives Me Hope

"It gives me hope."


Words will not do this justice, but I feel it necessary to share what I saw a group of middle school students do this past Veteran's Day. Sometimes things happen in our world that make us ponder what we are doing as Americans, yet, there are moments, real moments, those genuine unplanned moments, that make you realize we are all in this together and we live in a pretty awesome place.  

I want to share what happened in our school's cafeteria on November 11th, Veteran's Day, during our 7th grade lunch - a cafeteria full of almost 300 twelve and thirteen year olds; a cafeteria not much different than most middle school cafeterias. However, on this November day, in this modest and humble town of Quakertown, hope was felt.

As our 7th graders were settling  into eating their lunches and starting to talk with their friends in the cafeteria, a few yards away an assembly was ending in our auditorium. Veterans had gathered to hear community members, politicians, and other veterans speak and recognize their many sacrifices and service. The ceremony ended and the Veterans began to appear at the entrance to the cafeteria and began walking through the cafeteria towards the library for a luncheon. What happened next was awesome.


There was a buzz of excitement in the cafeteria and the 7th graders started to clap and move towards the Veterans. They formed a line and began to cheer, clap, and shake hands with the Veterans. I could hear "thank-you's", see kids taking their phones out to snap selfies with the vets- and I even saw one of my students helping a vet to snap a selfie on his phone, handing them letters, and giving high fives. I also saw so many genuine smiles from both the students and Veterans - and I even saw tears from both as well. This moment continued until every Veteran, well over 75 of them -  men and women from every branch of the service paraded through our cafeteria.

As the last of the Veterans made their way through, a gentleman who appeared to be in his late 50's approached me. His eyes appeared glassy and I  could see tears on his cheeks. As he began to speak I could feel myself fighting back tears. He smiled at me and took my hand and said, "I woke up this morning and put on the TV. I watched the news and just felt awful. I knew what today was but I wasn't feeling too good about things. Then this all happened, and I'll tell you what, looking at these kids, talking with these gives me hope."

As I got back to my room after lunch, I noticed two girls who were visibly upset. I asked them what was wrong and one of the girls replied, "It's just...just that was so awesome. We take so much for granted and if it weren't for all those Veterans, we wouldn't have what we have," and the other girl replied, " I handed one of the Veteran's a letter I had written and he started crying and so did I...he told me he was so happy".

It's moments like this that make me realize as long as there is kindness, there is always hope.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Good Grief Charlie Brown Teacher

The first day of school is what sets the tone for the rest of the year. Did it start something like this?

Make It Count

As a kid growing up, I remember those days in the classroom. I can almost picture the spot on my desk where the drool would puddle up, as I "listened" to the teacher explain for twenty-five minutes who she was, what her classroom rules consisted of - all thirty of them  what her expectations were for us, what would happen if we didn't follow them, how all of our assignments counted -some more than others, wah, wah, wah, wah...the crazy thing is those Charlie Brown days are still occurring in today's classrooms.

Those Charlie Brown days can't exist in our classrooms today. I'll be the first to admit, and it's only taken 18 years, that the procedures, the rules, the million things about me can wait. - we only get ONE first day, ONE day to make that first impression and ONE day to show the kid what we are.

Life is Just A Bunch of Jellybeans

This year my first day was not about rules...not about was about time. It was about the time we would be spending together, the time we would be doing amazing things, the time we would spend  learning about each other and learning about the world we live in.

Did I know their names? No. Did I know their stories? No. Did they know me or my stories? No. That would all come. Right now, day one, I wanted them to know that I valued them, I valued their time, and I valued what was to come with our time together.

I gave each student a jellybean and told them to eat it. I asked them what they tasted - not the flavor, but the taste. Some mentioned their beans were "sweet", "nasty", "gross", "good", etc. I told them that each of these tastes was really a metaphor (quick review of that for kids who didn't know) - it was a metaphor for the moments they've had before this class. They're gone now - we can't bring them back, but we can still taste them, still remember them.

I talked with them about how we would be making good tasting memories. I shared how excited I was that each of them was here, that they all mattered to this classroom, and that we were going to do some really incredible things this year. We watched The Time You Have and I handed each kid a jellybean and a baggie. They placed the bean in their baggie and I had them put them in their locker. I told them we'd be pulling them out the last week of school. I told them to remember that jellybean was there and to remember who gave it to them.

That jellybean was there as a reminder. If they were having a bad day, all they needed to do was pull out the bean and remember why they were here and that they would always have someone there for them.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

What's So Scary?

This quote was on my board at the start of the school year.

I'm scared.

Yeah...there, I said it.
Deep down inside it's probably something all of you teachers think.

What is it that makes me say this? Let me try and explain.

I'm starting my 18th year of teaching, it's only the beginning of August and that feeling is creeping in. I roll over in the middle of the night and my mind races. I start thinking of my classroom and what it's going to look like - what's going to wow the kids this year? I'm streaming a show on Netflix and I start thinking of the lessons that I'm going to be doing this year - are the kids going to be engaged every single day?

But what I really can't stop thinking about, what makes me lose the most sleep, what makes me the most anxious, nervous, the kids.

Last school year I made the move from 6th to 7th grade. I had been a 6th grade teacher for sixteen years and it was really all I knew and when I was told I'd be teaching 7th grade, there was much trepidation. Switching grade levels is something that's hard to explain to a person outside of the classroom, but I'd compare it to relocating to another state to do your job - same job, but there's just a different way of doing it.

Despite the move, the past school year turned out to be one of the best all-around teaching years of my career. I loved every minute of it. Moving up with the kids and being able to see them grow over two years was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. I developed relationships with those kids that will last a lifetime.

I approached each day with enthusiasm and excitement and continuously told the kids, "I only have 170 (whatever number we were at) days left with you! We have to make them count". This challenged me to make each day meaningful - to make each day something the kids would at least have the opportunity to remember. I knew I'd get to do 7th grade all over again, but these kids only had one shot at it. It turned out to be an incredible year. How do I know this - it ended with smiles and tears.

So what's so scary?

Knowing I have to be better than I was last year for these kids. I only have 185 days with them and I have to make each one count.