My speech to myself to start the 2017-18 school year. #goals

Today I was leaving Target walking towards my car.  20 feet in front of me a mother was loading bags into her car with a baby on her hip.  The baby saw me walking towards my car nearby and started smiling and waving at me catching his moms attention.  She looked up and smiled to.  I could not help but smile and love the human connection in that moment.  My spirit was lifted for hours to come.  This interaction with a stranger reminded me of a quote from the Oprah show in 2000 that I’ve never forgotten.  Take a few minutes to watch this with me.  “Does your face light up?” – Toni Morrison on the Oprah show in 2000.

Oprah said “The common denominator in the human experience is that everybody just wants to be appreciated or validated”  This was clarified for her when Toni Morrison said on her show It’s interesting to see when a kid walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up?  That’s what they are looking for…..Let your face speak what is in your heart.

Around the same time as this video some news program showed this story of a school that put up the name of every student in their high school on a wall.  They gave every staff member (teachers and non-teachers) stickers and told them to put a sticker next to every student in the school who they knew something about (favorite sport, number of siblings…..) outside of the classroom.  The teachers did so. When the staff looked at the charts of names, many students had 10, 20, 30 stickers. There were also many that only had one or 2 stickers.  What they all noticed was that there was also a large number of students with no stickers.  The staff then challenged themselves to get to know these students. The story talked about how this transformed the school when they started seeing their hidden students.

The combination of these 2 events on TV changed how I approached my students 10-15 years ago.  I committed to working hard to really see every student in my classroom.  To get to  know them.  I also committed to making sure that my face, my non-verbals communicated that I cared about them.  I am not sure why, but I had the idea of wanting to greet students everyday at the door with ‘bright eyes’ – meaning my eyes were turned on with excitement – regardless of how I was feeling on the inside.

The last 2 years I have not been as good at what I was so intentional about years ago in my career.  This fall I want to get back to the things I know improve relationships with my students.  Here is my plan based on what you just read.

  • name tentI will do all the things I normally do at the start of the year to get to know my students.  I will use my name tents with feedback week 1.  I will have my students write their mathematical autobiographies.  (This is my day 1 homework assignment – I read them some exemplars before assigning  linked here:Day 1 assignment Math Autobiography).  I will do my Desmos name project & story week 1 (details in future blog).  I will save all these things to read again a month or 2 later when I know students better.
  • I will ask a question on exit tickets, Desmos activity builder and/or assessments that help me know my students better.  What do they value?  When do they feel successful?  What are their concerns? What assests do my students already have that I can build off of?….I will study my students.  This is an intentional act every week.
  • I will work to get to know my students communities and cultures.  This is an all year goal.
  • I will stand at the door between classes every day.  I will greet students.  I will look them in the eye, smile, high-five, greet with their preferred name – even on days when I do not feel like it?  I will ‘light up my face’, in the words of Toni Morrison.  I will let my face speak what is in my heart.
  • And maybe most importantly, to make sure I do not miss any students, I will go back to a habit I had for many years and have but aside the past few years.  I will write the name of every student on my school calendar.  I will make an appointment to have a 1 on 1 connection with every student.   namesEach day I  write the names of 2 students on my calendar that I will have a soul connection with that day.  On the day each students name appears on my calendar I will reread the things they wrote at the beginning of the year (name tents/autobiographies/story of name).  When I greet them at the door, I will have a conversation with them about something they value.  I may ask them a specific question about something they like.  I may tell them something I heard another teacher/student say about them.  I may tell them what I appreciate about them, but I will make sure they know that I see them.  My goal is that I will work to not have a single student that can hide day in and day out in my classroom.  I start this routine about 3-4 weeks into school and it lasts all year.  Once I’ve gone through all students, I start over.  I do just 2 students a day, because that is what my busy teacher mind can add to its workload each day.  Some days I miss one of the 2 and do 3 the next day.  This is not about quantity, this is about quality connections with each and every student.  This does not replace talking to other students, it simply assures I don’t overlook anyone.  It also forces me to go back and reread what my students wrote at the start of the year.  If I don’t know enough from these readings, it forces me to figure out ways to learn more.  I can’t tell you how much this simple, though intentional act, when I’ve been consistent with it, has changed the culture of my classroom.  In 2017-18, I commit to doing it again.
  • If you want to use the calendars I use, I have a one-page per quarter sheet that I leave out on my desk.  You can find the word document I use linked HERE: 2017-18-mps-blank-calendar (note this is set up to match my district’s calendar)

This post would not be complete if I did not tell you how I remember to do what I hope to do each day.  I have lots of goals for my 2017-18 classroom.  Some are similar to previous years and some are new.  For every goal I post a picture to remind me of what I want to do better each year.  I have a set of 31 daily reminders with photos I blogged about HERE – one for each day of the month & repeat.  I also have five to ten – 8.5×11 inch color photos I put up – 1 or 2 or each goal for the year.  These pictures may not mean anything to anyone else but they mean something to me.  Here are a few I will use each year.

In an effort to remind myself to light up my face when I see my students I am putting up this photo from this weekend of my nephews waving goodbye to me.my nephews(that is me in my blue car)  I don’t have children, but am lucky enough to live close to 3 nephews and a niece.  (Side note:  Currently my niece and nephews are ages 2, 3, 5 and 8 – four consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence – this math-teacher aunt is LOVING it).  I often visit and/or babysit my nephews.  When I arrive they greet me with Joy!  ‘Sara is here!’   They immediately have something to say or tell me.  When I leave they will wave, again with joy.  I want to exhibit the same joy they give me with my students.

chairsAnother photo I am posting this year is a picture of chairs.  michael mohamed tweetBeing new to a school, it has been my goal to get matching chairs in my classroom.  I don’t wish that anymore after seeing Michael Mohammed’s tweet with this picture.  I am using my mismatched chairs and this photo to remind me that each of my students are unique.  Each of my students bring assets into the classroom.  (I am on a mission to see assets – not deficits in students) In order to know how to meet their needs and to make them feel valued and appreciated – I must get to know my students.  I must study them, like I study math.  I must immerse myself in their cultures and communities.

These 2 photos are not connected directly to this post, but they are on my wall by my desk.  I thought I’d share these 2 with you as well.  I have more photos, but this will suffice for now.  chaosThis is a photo someone took sitting behind someone on a plane.  To me it represents how I DO NOT want to teach.  I do not want my students mathematical brains to look as disorganized as these computer files.  I want to teach connected concepts and skills.

I also loved this tweet from Kent Haines 2 years ago.kent hainesand have kept the accompanying photo by my desk for the last year.  As I plan lessons I keep a lens to how my students will use what we do in my classroom when they leave me.frency

If you want copies of my photos – you can find them in this word doc:  Pictures for my 2017-18 teacher goals

Do you have a photo you keep by your desk to remind you of something?  If so, send it my way via email: saravdw@gmail.com or tweet me @saravdwerf or comment below.



This blog post is part of the start of this year’s #MTBoS blogging initiative called #sundayfunday  (also #pushsend) that includes a new theme each week to blog about.  This week – submissions are due August 6th, 2017 the theme is #goals.  I have 71 (yikes) blogs started on the backside of my blog.  I’ve never joined in on a blogging initiative, but am going to try each week to use the theme as impetus to finish one of the many blog ideas i’ve already started.  I encourage you to join me too.  For more information check out THIS link.  Follow hashtags #mtbos #pushsend #sundayfunday on twitter.  I also highly recommend following Julie Reulbach on twitter to keep up with all the new blog posts and for information on the new theme each week.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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