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Sometimes The Best Part To Change Is You

Posted by on in Leadership
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“When we change one part of the chemical formula, we change the nature of the results” - Stephen R. Covey

Sometimes the best part to change is YOU.

Last week, my students and all other chemistry students at my high school, took the stoichiometry test (the “stork llama tree” test according to my iPhone’s voice recognition :) and, as it happens every year, many did not complete all of the calculations, thus the test, in the time allotted for it.

In our PLC meeting the next day, we (a pentagon of chemistry teachers) discussed how to handle this and opinions were divided. Two of us were willing to give students more time to finish. The other three chose to be hard asses. What I have decided to do, is to let my students finish the test, and if it took another hour to complete I was going to be a-okay with that. What can I say: I’m cool right?

Not quite. I used to be a hard ass too. Not because I wanted to, but because I thought that it was the right way to treat such situations. I was somehow able to convince myself that the kids who ran out of time did not study enough, practice enough, or simply did not do enough to “master” the concepts. This is what some of my colleagues are saying now. They are partially right. I’m sure there are kids who do not give a crap about chemistry.

But what about the kids, who in fact studied their butts off and still required more time? Or the ones who process slower? Or those with test anxiety? Or those who have been dealing with family and other issues we have not a clue about? Surely they are present in EVERY class. Surely there are kids who really try and still need more help. Do we put them in the same boat as those who don’t give a damn? I might have in the past. Now, I can’t. I won’t.

I made a girl cry a few years ago. I remember it, because I believe that moment is a piece of the never-ending impossible-to-completely-add-up sum of all things that cause me to grow as a teacher every day.

Olivia was one of several students who did not complete her stoichiometry test in the time allotted and, as the bell rang and students started filing out of the classroom, she stopped by my desk and asked if she can finish after school. I do not remember exactly what I said then, but it was something to the effect of: “If you practiced the problems enough and mastered the material, you would have finished on time.” Ugh… She pleaded and as I kept saying no, tears started collecting in her eyes… I should have said yes, but I couldn’t.

What the hell was wrong with me? Somewhere in between my conversation with Olivia and the talk I had with one of our Assistant Principals, I decided to give students more time. I felt bad that my rigidity led a conscientious student, who was social at times, to tears. Was I trying to prove a point and show her what the consequences of losing focus are? Clearly, I did not pay attention to the fact that she was a teen doing what teens do. Whatever it was - I acted like a flipping idiot.

I’m sorry Olivia. I always cared about you and my other students, but I was incapacitated in my ability to show it. A complete hard ass moron of a teacher who lost sight of the reason why he teaches. Maybe I was scared I will lose the control I never had. Please forgive me. I know now that I should have smiled, reassured you, and told you that you can finish the test after school. It was not about control. Teaching never is, no matter what they “teach” you in the “teaching” school.

We control very little, but we can grow our circle of influence by working on and changing ourselves. We can reflect on our wins and loses. Document the lightbulb moments. And then, we can choose to change.

I choose to change. I choose to grow. I choose to think before I act. I choose to do whatever I believe helps my students learn and succeed. I choose to free myself from the dogma of one-size-fits-all approaches. I choose to give my students more time on tests. I choose to let my students retake tests.  

Will some kids take advantage and cheat when given another opportunity to take/finish the test? Perhaps. But I choose to believe in people. I believe that people are good by nature, and so, if given the opportunity and trust, most students will do the right thing when the adults: the parents, the teachers, and the administrators believe in them, trust them, and communicate to them that they trust them and know that they are good people who want to do the right thing.

For me it boils down to this: I WANT MY STUDENTS TO LEARN, and it does not matter to me when they do it as long as they learn it. It's really that simple. I know there are many teachers out there who would say that such practices are not fair to those they deem “responsible” - students who complete assignments on time and learn what they're supposed to learn by the so-called due date.

But the truth of the matter is that many factors that influence learning are hidden from us teachers. We have no idea about them, because of the lack of disclosure on the part of the students, who often do not want special treatment, or do not trust the adults enough to tell them. And if there cannot be trust between teacher and his students, meaningful relationships cannot form, and students who could be motivated to learn by the existence of this relationship will not. So we must build relationships and show we care.

Because there are times that the only way a kid can learn is when she is certain that the teacher cares.

I used to think that caring was about making sure that I show my students what the “real” world is like. I think that meant me holding them to the same standards adults are held. Students aren't, nor should they be expected to be developmentally ready to be adults. They are learning what that means and developing when they are in school, so why should we hold them to the adult standard? Where is the learning in that?

And so, I learned to meet my students where they’re at. Maybe deep within I still am a hard ass, but I fight and defeat him every time he’d have me stray from my new path. I am increasingly finding myself leaning toward more liberal philosophies of teaching. I am consciously shifting away from the old-school ways of doing things and toward what I know in my mind to be the “right path.”

IT’S BECAUSE I WANT MY STUDENTS TO LEARN. No matter when. No matter how. I want them to learn. I want to believe that I am implementing teaching practices that encourage and motivate growth rather than punish and annihilate hope. Life has given me a second chance to change and be a better teacher. Who am I to deny my students second chances? Why would I? They are teenagers, life right in front of them, who one day will make decisions on my behalf. I can mis-educate, under-educate, or choose to help them truly educate themselves. IT’S AN EASY CHOICE.

I know change is hard. I know, because I have been teaching for 13 years and it took years of soul-searching and growth for me. But I am changing. Got my head screwed on straight now (at least in the teaching department). I realized that as my students and the times change I have to change with them or become obsolete. I guess I always knew, but I was too much of a hard ass.

We all have to change with the times. Because sometimes it’s the best part to change.


Are you changing? Are you the Bringer of Hope or the Destroyer of Dreams? Ask yourself that and then decide what to do. And if you do it for your students, you will come to realize that you are doing it for yourself too. Please share this article with other teachers. If you enjoyed it, you can sign up for my Newsletter and I will send you new articles as I publish them. Remember: You have the power. Use it.

PS. A “stork llama tree” would be one scary-weird looking organism. I know. I asked a biology teacher.

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I founded Focus 2 Achieve to provide innovative classroom tools that empower teachers and help students achieve more success. In my first life, I am a husband, a father, and a teacher. In my second life, I spend time discovering what "really works" aka "best practices" in education, problem-solving, and creating products for teachers and students. I recently wrote a book titled "Crush School: Every Student's Guide To Killing It In The Classroom." It is a book designed for Students that uses brain research and brain based learning strategies to help student become better learners. The book can be used by Teachers to help students learn more effectively, and Parents to help their children become more aware of how they learn. 


I have a BS in Earth and Environmental Sciences and an MA in Teaching. I teach high school Chemistry and Principles of Engineering and my professional interests focus on discovering and learning how the human mind learns and acquires lasting knowledge and skills, so that I can help my (and other) students learn more effectively and achieve greater academic success.


I am also a fan of the Jedi order (and use DA FORCE frequently), ninjas (both masked and unmasked), and the superhero in all of us. Oh, and I am on a Quest to Change the World, because I can. I believe we all can.

  • Guest
    Craig Schlichting Wednesday, 29 June 2016

    I love this blog....it really speaks to a number of things I believe in and want to help others understand. I am going to share this blog post with my staff. Unfortunately, I know some will not agree with your perspective because they believe strongly in responsibility and accountability. I believe the learning is the most important thing.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Oskar Cymerman | @focus2achieve
    Oskar Cymerman | @focus2achieve Wednesday, 29 June 2016

    Thank you Craig. It's a process. As you read in the blog I was just like the teachers you mention. They care about students and have a teaching philosophy that goes with that. Unfortunately, you can't change them. They have to do that for themselves. Please share the article with them. I think it will open the door to a discussion on 21st century teaching. Maybe the article written by a teacher and not an administrator will speak to them? We can only hope. I am happy to connect with another MN educator who puts kids first :)

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