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Questions Educators Should Ask Themselves About Their Teaching Lives

Posted by on in Education Policy
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AllElementary School Teaching: Not So Elementary…


It’s funny that we are called elementary school teachers, even though the word “elementary” is misleading and misunderstood.  Check out these synonyms for elementary: basic, simple, plain, straightforward, easy, uncomplicated, and fundamental.  I define it here because there has been too much harsh criticism directed at educators teaching on this level and in general.  I have taught in inner-city elementary schools (NYCDOE) since 1968, from kindergarten through sixth grade, so you can say that I also qualify as a middle school teacher.


The criticism bothers me, as it does many educators across the country.  I feel that we can handle the judgments hurled at us by various critics, authorities, education policy-makers, and education writers.  When you cruise the Internet you will see a dazzling array of issues discussed and tossed about, to the point where your head is spinning, inundated with a world that has lost itself within itself.  It seems as if the walls education has built around itself, the walls fortifying it against any intrusion, have disappeared.  When an organization or institution loses the way, there are redeeming forces that will bring it back home to itself.


Education, as most people realize nowadays, has lost its collective mind through the testing and test-prepping madness that pervades schools across the United States.  However, the good news is, the insanity generated by the NCLB Act appears to be diminishing, and the bigger question becomes: “What’s next?”  This question and the possible answers scare me—a lot.


I think that before we get into “What’s next?” we have to take a good, hard look at teaching, teachers, and learning on the elementary school level.  I decided to brainstorm questions to trigger a mindful, inquiry- and passion-based approach for the world of elementary education, and beyond, to middle and high school education and educators.


I hope the upcoming incomplete list of questions will make anyone connected to education stop and contemplate the issues, situations, and challenges teachers handle on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis.  The purpose is to share my ideas, thoughts, feelings, qualms, experiences, and insights via the brainstormed questions, to make you think about things, really to think twice, about what I have learned in difficult conditions as an inner-city elementary school teacher.


I spent those years making up stuff, original, innovative, progressive projects in reading, writing, thinking, creativity, poetry, emotional intelligence, character education and formation, values clarification, and vocabulary expansion and appreciation.  I believe that my past experiences as a teacher-developer-researcher-experimentalist, and that my knowledge, understanding, and perception of education, coming from the trenches and from inside kids’ minds, imaginations, hearts, and spirits, will benefit the many outsiders looking in who want to improve the schools, and help us to move on with greater insight, skill, and expertise.


Here is my “not-so-endless” list of questions that all educators (from elementary school to college), school and education leaders, parents, policy-makers, pundits, and journalists, should give lots of thought to, and see if their answers bring enlightenment and vision to a crumbling school system that needs a re-awakening, or possibly, an exorcist, to remove its demons and return the angels of light.




Note: Read, reflect, contemplate, and respond mentally, emotionally, and psychologically to these questions on teaching and teaching life.  Think about answers to a few questions at a time.   If you experience a “brain freeze” from too much cerebration, stop the brain-frying fun and relax until you’re ready to move on to the next set of questions.  Check out the stream of thoughts and feelings as you respond to the questions.  Reflect on where your brainstormed answers take you.  Are the questions relevant, practical, and meaningful for teaching/teachers and for use in the classroom?  If we stop asking questions about our teaching, why are we still teaching?  If we can’t educate our teachers, what is this saying about our education system overall?


1. What is really important in education today?

2.  Is the classroom your home-away-from-home?

3.  Do you like to look at clouds floating in a blue sky on a sunny day?

4.  Do you reflect about things, and, at times, laugh at yourself?

5.  Do you use humor to motivate your students?

6.  How carefully do you listen to students?

7.  What do you hear and see in the classroom?

8.  What are you thinking and feeling in school?

9.  Can you see yourself while you are teaching?

10. Are you a communicator?

11. What do your kids think about you?

12. What vibes do you project to your class?

13. Why would your students remember you?

14. How imaginative are you as a teacher?

15. Do you experiment with your lessons?

16. What new teaching ideas have you used recently?

17. How important are words to you?

18. Do you discuss and get into different words with your students?

19. Do words live alone or in groups in your mind?

20. Are words just black-on-white, or something else?

21. Are you getting better and growing as a teacher?

22. Are you reflecting about your lessons at the end of the day?

23. Can you be honest with yourself about your teaching?

24. Do you consider yourself a creative teacher?

25. Can teachers learn how to be creative?

26. How crucial is inner- or self-motivation to learning?

27. How vital is self-education in teaching and learning?

28. Where does self-discovery fit in with a child’s education?

29. How meaningful are self-knowledge and self-understanding in learning?

30. Do you teach kids about Emotional Intelligence?

31. How would you describe your classroom environment?

32. Are you a role model for your kids?

33. Are relaxation/stress-reduction techniques important for learning?

34. Do you analyze and discuss quotations with children?

35. Is Aesop’s Fables a valuable teaching tool today?

36. How vital is concentration to teaching and learning?

37. Do you use focusing activities to center your students?

38. Where does self-awareness fit into a student’s life?

39. Do you deal with the inner lives of children?

40. How’s your breathing when you teach?

41. Did you ever try a breath meditation with students?

42. Can music and singing help kids to relax?

43. Do you integrate meta-cognition in reading and writing lessons?

44. How essential is a creative imagination for teachers and students?

45. How far and deep does your creativity go?

46. Is inner space as infinite as outer space?

47. Do you think about your students after school?

48. Contemplation/meditation/mindfulness activities: effective or a waste of time?

49. Are your kids in present time during the class lessons?

50. How would you expand kids’ fragmented attention spans?

51. Do you teach to children’s shortened, broken attention spans?

52. How passionate and intrinsically motivated are you about teaching?

53. Are you in present time when teaching?

54. What is your intensity level when teaching?

55. Are you an “emotionally intelligent” teacher?

56. What feelings do students experience in a school day?

57. If you photographed yourself teaching, what snapshots would we see?

58. If your mind were x-rayed while teaching, what would we find?

59. Is the mind’s eye or inner eye part of your reading/writing lessons?

60. Is visualization a regular technique practiced in your classroom?

61. Can you give me five thoughts for five pennies?

62. What happens inside if you say your name silently to yourself over and over again?

63. What happens inside if you whisper your name out loud over and over again?

64. Did you ever see a blue apple?  Now you have…

65. What is your response to literature?

66. Are you a leisure-time and lifelong reader?

67. How important is inner concentration to learning?

68. Are you a self-educated teacher?

69. Where does self-communication fit in with your teaching, reading, writing, and learning?

70. How do you pump up your kids—and yourself—to handle any task/assignment?

71. What is your stress level like at the end of a school day?

72. Can you still teach if you have problems outside the classroom?

73. Do you feel lonely or loneliness at times while teaching?

74. What are five truths you have learned thus far about teaching?

75. Is teaching poetry part of your lesson plans?

76. How can poetry help kids in their academic and daily lives?

77. Open-mindedness: Is this a skill you teach your kids?

78. Tolerance and understanding: Are these skills you teach your kids?

79. How meaningful is solitude in your everyday life?

80. What is your sanctuary away from work?

81. Would you go on a retreat with colleagues?

82. How critical are you of your teaching?

83. Can you take criticism about your teaching?

84. When teaching, teach: What is the statement’s meaning?

85. Will you stop a class lesson if you feel students are not “present” and focusing?

86. What are the prerequisite fundamental skills for learning and learning how to learn?

87. Can reading comprehension be made painless?

88. Why is student writing all about experimenting?

89. Should educators teach to students’ creativity and creative worlds?

90. Would you call yourself an “uncreative teacher”?

91. Did you have creative teachers when you were in school?

92. What can creative teachers teach kids—and you?

93. Are an imaginary inner eye, voice, and ear part of teaching the reading process?

94. What is the imaginary TV screen in the mind?

95. What is magical, mysterious, and strange about the reading process?

96. Is reading a three-dimensional, holographic, virtual reality?

97. How can kids become avatars when reading fiction/non-fiction?

98. If kids become avatars when reading history/non-fiction, will new worlds materialize?

99. How relevant are feelings in the reading process?

100. What is an affective response to literature?

101. Can self-assessments in reading and writing help your students?

102. Do you talk about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to kids?

103. Can you recall your worst moment in the classroom?

104. Can you face your mistakes in teaching and change them?

105. How do you handle negative feelings and thoughts from teaching?

106. What does this saying mean to you: I teach, therefore, I am?

107. Do you ask your kids a lot of questions in your lessons?

108. Can questions/questioning change student learning and behavior?

109. Do you show your feelings in the classroom?

110. Are you open, honest, and real with your kids?

111. Do you push and challenge students beyond their comfort zones?

112. Can you think of one student whose life you changed forever?

113. How much do you read everyday outside the classroom?

114. How would you describe your lessons about freedom and being free?

115. “Inner peace”: Is it part of your lesson plans?

116. What happens inside yourself if you keep repeating the word “peace”?

117. What happens inside yourself if you keep repeating the word “hate”?

118. Educating kids’ hearts, minds, and spirits: Is it in your lesson plans?

119. What is the art of teaching?

120. What is the art of learning?

121. What is the art of reading?

122. What is the mind’s magic reading theater?

123. What is the mind’s magic writing theater?

124. How open is your mind when teaching?

125. Are you critical of your students’ work and behavior?

126. Is self-efficacy a key to your students’ learning and education?

127. Can you create a passion for reading, writing, and learning?

128. How is teaching good for your mental health and well being?

129. Imagine, yeah, imagine: What is the statement’s meaning in learning?

130. Are changing in any way as a teacher?

131. How does reading affect the mind and imagination?

132. How carefully do you listen to what you read?

133. Are you what you read?

134. Is teaching about internal worlds relevant in your lessons?

135. What is an “internal education”?

136. What would happen if your students spent a day photographing their worlds/lives?

137. Is a picture worth a thousand words in your world?

138. Which picture, painting, photograph, cartoon, or illustration is worth a thousand words?

139. Positive or negative reinforcement or both: Use it, abuse it, or lose it with your students?

140. Are you creative when it comes to problem solving in the classroom?

141. How are “bullies” dealt with in your classroom?

142. How can you teach your kids to enjoy themselves in thought?

143. Which education courses were missing in your college courses?

144. What education courses would you like to take over again?

145. Can you go beyond your comfort zone in teaching?

146. What is your definition of perfect concentration?

147. Can meditation create inner and outer peace in students?

148. What is an energy booster for your kids?

149. Can you sit in a room doing absolutely nothing for thirty minutes?

150. Can you describe the pictures you see in your mind now?

151. Can you name three thoughts going around your mind now?’

152. What are you feeling now?

153. When do your students really get to you?

154. Can people outside education really understand teaching?

155. How much empathy and compassion do you have for your students?

156. Were you a “good student” in school?

157. Reflect on your teaching life: mind-pictures, feelings, and thoughts?

158. What is your definition of the “good teaching life”?

159. Are you a creative thinker?

160. To dream or not to dream: Can it become a discussion in your classroom?

161. Ask your students outrageous and absurd questions: Will they learn and have fun?

162. Absurdity, ridiculousness, and silliness in teaching: good, bad, ugly, or dumb?

163. When did you finally feel that you were a “teacher”?

164. Are you taking your kids on real and unreal journeys in lessons?

165. Are you going on side-trips, detours, and digressions when you teach?

166. Should creativity be taught from elementary through high school?

167. Is there an art to being a strong discussion leader?

168. Is creativity or being creative fun?

169. How is the imagination like a self-amusement park in your head?

170. Do you enjoy yourself in thought?

171. Is there such a thing as effortless thinking?

172. How can poetry make the unimaginable imaginable?

173. Can you build self-awareness in your students?

173. Can you build self-esteem and self-efficacy in your students?

174. Where can you find inspiration for your teaching?

175. Do worry and anxiety affect your teaching life?

176. Does anger affect your attitude toward teaching and your students?

177. What is the magic of teaching?

178. Do your students have unlimited potential to learn?

179. Can you describe a great moment in your teaching life?

180. Can you describe an unforgettable mind-picture you have about teaching?

181. If you photographed your students reading independently, what snapshots would we see?

182. What are reading’s little miracles?

183. Do you try to paint pictures with words in your lessons?

184. Do you love the class you’re with?

185. Do you brainstorm ideas with your kids?

186. How do you motivate students to write?

187. How do you empower children to motivate themselves to read and learn?

188. Can character education and values be taught through writing?

189. Why teach values like honesty and trustworthiness in a corrupted world?

190. Would your students enjoy your lessons more if you taught them on television?

191. Is a teacher an entertainer or performer?

192. How much fear and anxiety are connected to literacy and learning?

193. Do you make history come-to-life when you teach this subject?

194. How cool, calm, and collected are you when teaching?

195. What is your secret for making friends with your class?

196. How much patience do you have with your kids?

197. How is creative thinking connected to critical thinking?

198. What have you taught yourself about teaching while teaching?

199. Is a good book really that hard to find?

200. Did you ever read the poems of Langston Hughes to children?

201. Have you ever read poems by Native Americans to your class?

202. Did you ever hear of the poet Kenneth Koch?

203. Have you ever read the poems of Harry Behn to kids?

204. Do kids’ inner/outer lives affect their learning and your teaching?

205. How do you wake up and shake up your kids during the school year?

206. How do you teach journal, personal, or memoir writing?

207. Can writing be therapeutic and healing for students?

208. What is your instant fix to clear students’ minds so they are ready to learn?

209. Lessons about common sense: Why?

210. Have you ever used or practiced meditation or stress-reduction techniques?

211. What are your limitations as a teacher?

212. Do you try to get your kids to question everything?

213. The good, the bad, and the ugly: Lessons in your classroom?

214. What have you learned from the book you are currently reading?

215. Are you a “reader”?

216. Are you a “writer”?

217. Are you a “thinker”?

218. Are you good at thinking-on-your-feet?

219. If your teaching mind were x-rayed, what would we see?

220. Know thyself, teacher: How important is it?

221. The Teachers Courageous Group: Is it needed?

222. Why are teachers heroes?

223. Do you ever give up on kids in your classes?

224. What child challenged you the most so far in your teaching life?

225. What child changed you the most so far in your teaching life?

226. How does expanding the minds of kids help your teaching?

227. Do you look in the mirror, on occasion, to see who you are?

228. Are you, you, when teaching your students?

229. Self-examination: Is it worth it?

230. How can teaching empower you?

231. Are your mind and imagination always working while teaching?

232. How can teaching cause burnout?

233. Will you search for answers to issues in your teaching life?

234. Can you open kids up to all worlds: both inner and outer?

235. Every student has a “story”: Are you a believer?

236. Teach your classes about beauty: Why?

237. What would an abstract drawing of your class look like?

238. Would, or have you, used U-tube in your teaching?

239. Do you use a class website to expand and enrich your lessons?

240. How would you create an ideal peaceful classroom environment?

241. Can students help other students to learn?

242. What is a cross-fertilization of ideas?

243. Do you encourage thinking outside the box?

244. What is “lateral” or sideways thinking?

245. How can self-discovery affect self-motivation and self-education?

246. How would you create a peaceful school?

247. Have you ever kept a teaching or class journal?

248. How much thinking/thought goes into your lessons/teaching?

249. Can you teach kids how to choose books for their outside reading?

250. How is a communicative, collaborative, cooperative class created?

251. What is it like to have all your students focused at the same time?

252. What are you thinking and feeling as you start the school day?

253. The more books kids read, the more they enjoy reading: True or false?

254. How can inner concentration re-create your students’ imaginations?

255. Where will creative thinking lead or take your class?

256. Where will expanded critical thinking lead your students?

257. Why is it important for teachers to know themselves?

258. Why is it important for students to know themselves?

259. What little everyday joys do you discuss with kids?

260. When you think of the word “mistakes,” what words come to mind?

261. What do you visualize if sunflowers meet clouds?

262. What do you visualize if a rainbow meets thunder?

263. What would a life of contemplation be like?

264. How would you define a teacher-contemplator?

265. What stress or stressor is always with you in school?

266. Where will your teaching journey take you?

267. What “unknowns” do you try to reveal in class lessons?

268. Do you talk about kids’ fantasies and fantasizing in writing/reading lessons?

269. How is reading connected to writing?

270. How do you connect writing to reading?

271. How would you describe “deep reading”?

272. How can deep concentration create intrinsic motivation?

273. Why is writing a magical process?

274. Why is reading a magical process?

275. Can word-storming lessons expand vocabulary and make it fun?

276. What is the connection between concentrating and feeling?

277. Is all teaching and learning about self-education?

278. Why is creativity a powerful, empowering light?

279. What subjects would you like to re-learn?

280. How can you jumpstart a bored, apathetic class’s enthusiasm?

281. What have you learned about children through listening and observation?

282. How do you feed your mind, imagination, heart, and spirit?

283. What words come to mind when you think of the word “nothing”?

284. What would happen if something met nothing?

285. How do you create something from nothing?

286. What is your technique for freeing students’ minds and imaginations?

287. What are the benefits of a free, open mind?

288. What are the benefits of mindfulness and self-reflection?

289. What “places” do your mind and imagination take you?

290. Are you afraid of making mistakes in your teaching?

291. What “little miracles” do you see in your students’ learning?

292. How does “picture-storming” help re-create a child’s uncreated imagination?

293. Are you a sensitive, empathetic, compassionate teacher?

294. Do you write-to-release when you’re down and blue?

295. How well do you handle and control your emotions in the classroom?

296. Can you change a student’s bad head or attitude in your class?

297. How is “flow”—energized focus and full involvement—created in your classroom?

298. Can you lighten up if you get too serious, intense, and stressed in the classroom?

299. Would you set aside five minutes each school day to be alone with your thoughts/feelings?

300. Why is it necessary to stop, feel, and experience yourself in and out of school?

301. Do you use “sentence-storming” to trigger creative writing?

302. Have you ever tried absurd sentences to trigger the imagination in reading/writing?

303. “Concentrate on your concentration”: Can you help yourself get clarity while teaching?

304. Should educators spend more time teaching students about concentration?

305. Is concentration connected to self-education and self-motivation?

306. How does concentration energize you and re-charge the brain?

307. Why does time fade away when you are concentrating deeply?

308. How deep and far do you travel in your teaching?

309. Have you ever asked your students to contemplate snow and rain falling?

310. Have you ever asked children to set aside five minutes each day for solitude/space?

311. How can inner concentration lead students to their creativity?

312. How cool and calm are you when concentrating?

313. What funny mind-pictures can you visualize from your past classes?

314. Would you ask kids to visualize and focus on peace for sixty seconds once a day?

315. Why is poetry writing/reading about deeper and deeper concentration?

316. Have you ever asked kids to reflect and contemplate to solve problems?

317. How would contemplation and meditation help in conflict resolution?

318. How does inner/outer concentration affect kids’ perception?

319. How much effort and energy should students put into their reading?

320. What is the connection between contemplation and asking questions?

321. How does meditation “stop or suspend time”?

322. What does this statement mean: Practice contemplation and it will find you?

323. How does contemplation bring beauty to life?

324. How does contemplation make life more meaningful?

325. Does contemplation or meditation create a mellow, relaxed, easy-going person?

326. Can concentration affect a student’s self-control?

327. What is your strength: inner or outer concentration?

328. What do you experience when focusing on a sunset and a sunrise?

329. How do you change outer concentration with inner contemplation?

330. Do you have the power to change your thoughts and feelings?

331. Can you teach your students how to change thoughts and feelings?


Elementary education is not so elementary.  Look at its intricacies and complexities: creative imagination, attention spans, sensitivity, empathy, visualization, passion, compassion, intensity, engagement, poetry, stress-reduction, self-communication, meaningfulness, solitude/loneliness, fundamental 21st century learning skills, creative teaching, reading, writing, communicating, experimentation, thinking/feeling, reflection, intrinsic motivation, self-education, self-discovery, EI, concentration, self-awareness, inner lives, internal education, self-evaluation, openness, honesty, criticism, open-mindedness, releasing, venting, self-efficacy, self-esteem, “self-words,” mind-pictures, contemplation, practice, reinforcement, concentration exercises, creative and critical thinking, problem-solving, conflict resolution, absurdity, emotions and learning, values clarification, response to literature, questions/questioning, searching/seeking answers, peace, tolerance, “correspondences,” character education/formation, mistakes, miracles, “flow,” perception, identity, truth, experience…and the list goes on and on…


How many questions and topics can you add to these lists?


What is in your mind?

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Jeffrey Pflaum has been an inner-city elementary school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, for thirty-four years (NYCDOE, retired in 2002). He worked as a creative writing, whole language, social studies, gifted/talented, physical education, and mentor teacher in grades K – 6 and special education. Pflaum coached middle school boys and girls basketball teams and one of his players became coach of the Pace University team. Tennis was also taught on the elementary school level to lower grade kids as part of the NY Junior Tennis League Program founded by Arthur Ashe. Pflaum considers himself a teacher-developer-researcher experimentalist who created successful education projects in emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning, reading, writing, poetry, thinking, creativity, vocabulary expansion, concentration, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills. He has written articles for professional newspapers and publications about his curricula. Various programs appeared on web sites such as ERIC and CASEL/Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (“Experiences, Reflections, and Insights”). One program was featured at the International National Council of Teachers of English at NYU as one of the best examples of English Language Arts in the NYC Public Schools, K – 12. His students’ poetry and prose have been published in college, writers’, gifted secondary, and children’s literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and by major commercial book publishers; read on public radio (Poetry-In-The-Morning, WNYE-FM, sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative/NYC); and, won honors and awards from PBS, Channel Thirteen/NYC. One student, Noel “Speedy” Mercado, became a top NYC disc jockey on WKTU-FM. Pflaum published an inspirational book about adolescent reading lives titled MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS: HOW TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN LEAD THE WAY (Rowman & Littlefield Education). For book reviews, go to http://www.examiner.com/review/motivating-your-kids-to-read to see Kecia Burcham's response to the book, and also, The Teachers College Record for Karen Polk's insightful article. For Karen Polk's review (8/24/12), from the Teachers College Record, google "MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS - Teachers College Record." Go to www.JeffreyPflaum.com for more articles on "Contemplation Writing," Meditative Writing Ideas, Internet radio interviews, published student poetry, and newspaper articles about his book on motivating adolescent readers and Inner Cities Arts Project. His recent interviews on Contemplation Writing can be found at these "Pure Imagination" links: http://prn.fm/2012/07/14/pure-imagination-071312 and Pure Imagination - 07/13/12 | Progressive Radio Network. A second interview on "Connect With Julianna" (Toginet Radio Network) about "Contemplation" or "Music" Writing can be found at these links: http://bit.ly/iTFbk7 and http://bit.ly/t5FA0W; or, Connect with Creative Educator and Author, Jeffrey Pflaum. Pflaum is currently a regular blogger on The BAM Radio Network's blog, ED Words, where posts about a plethora of his projects can be found at: www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/blogger/listings/jeffpaul.

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