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A Teacher's Story

Witnessing the positive results of one’s efforts in the classroom can be a huge blessing for any educator. We want to jump up and down! We want to share the joy! But sometimes we don’t know when and how to do that. The following stories are great examples. These educators (counselors, principal and teacher) knew they wanted to share their stories, but only when they realized they could publish them with Project Wisdom, did they find their vehicle. If you have some classroom joy to share, we would love to hear from you! Your story does not need to be specifically about Project Wisdom, but about anything that you believe would be encouraging to fellow educators. In the meantime, we hope these stories encourage you.

Kindness is Valued Here

By Katie Eller

Note: We recently reviewed this story, first published in 2012, and found that the message is as relevant to educators today as it was when it was first featured. Teacher Katie Eller offers encouragement to teachers who may be disheartened during their first years in the classroom.

During my first two years of teaching, I experienced it all: difficult colleagues, out-of-touch administrators, angry parents, testing pressure – and all I wanted to do was teach! I felt strongly about offering my students a quality education in a kind, respectful community of learners. It was heartbreaking to see that my ideals of teaching well and effectively were not always the "norm" among teachers. Due to multiple moves for my husband's occupation, I decided to "give education one more year." I told my husband that I only had one year left in me and if my experience did not prove that education could be a great field, I would need to find another way to support our home.

A “last-ditch effort” helps an educator hold on to her passion for teaching.

I'm entering my ninth year of teaching and this is why: I sat in a faculty meeting prior to the start of that third year. My principal took us through the staff handbook. I was already overwhelmed with new people, new curriculum, and a new grade level. When she came to the section about discipline and behavior, she read the words, "Restoring the relationship is the ultimate goal in addressing inappropriate behaviors." She went on to describe the kindness and respect with which she expected all teachers to treat students and each other. A quality relationship with students was her value and she was describing a small characteristic of the handbook that gave me the ultimate insight into my new campus: kindness is valued here. It wasn't just valued, but expected. In that role, I was grateful as I experienced tremendous professional growth simply by working with teachers who loved what they did and loved the students in their classrooms. It changed my life.

I have since moved to a new state and with the changes that came, albeit many great ones, I have carried with me the determination to treat students and teachers with the kindness that was emulated at my "last-ditch effort" in education. On each of my classroom walls, my students see posters that say: "Be kind. Work hard." We work together to live up to this and as I tell my students, it's my expectation for them, and it is the expectation for myself.

Katie Eller is a graduate of Baylor University and Duke University who has taught first, fourth, and fifth grades in public, private, and charter schools. She has conducted several trainings in literacy and reading curricula and served as a Curriculum Facilitator for the past 15 years. Katie was awarded an exemplary distinction on her Master's research project on Stories and Moral Imagination in the Middle Grades Language Arts Classroom.

The Promise of Summer

By Sarah Knutson

I worked far too hard to enter the teaching profession to ever realistically consider leaving. Still, there are days (years) when I have considered other jobs where I could make a solid income and avoid the stress and anxiety that teaching can cause.

Ready for the school year to end? One educator offers advice on recharging over the summer.


The year I was pregnant with my second child was one of those years. Everything seemed impossible that year. The students threw out new challenges. My administration asked me to accomplish new tasks. There were fears of what being a working mother of two would bring. I felt ready to leave.

But I knew I could not. What other job would let me do what I love (work with middle school students) and have guaranteed time off with my family? The promise of summer break, the fact that I don’t have to fight (as I once did) to get Christmas off, and that I can pick up my children before 6 p.m. were benefits that kept me going.

It was summer break that saved me that year. It allowed me the opportunity to reflect on what I could do to feel better about teaching. Today, summer break gives me the opportunity to travel, to exercise, and to practice self-care. It gives me the time to complete professional development and explore community-building classroom activities, to create and revise procedures and protocols that make sense for my students.

And I believe summer saves students, as well. At this year’s Open House, I had parents of 7th graders asking what their 8th graders can do over the summer to prepare for my class. My advice? To read books as a family. To relax and enjoy not having as many responsibilities, to take advantage of quiet mornings and long, warm evenings. My wish for students is for many summer days without technology, for long conversations, and memory making. Then, when we are together again, we can start with a bank of energy, with a willingness to focus and learn.

Summer break saved my teaching career, and I will remain ever grateful that I have a career with a release valve, with the built-in time to return to myself, my family, my life.

With degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State, and UC Davis, Sarah Knutson is a Young Adult Librarian turned middle school teacher. She will enter her ninth year of teaching this fall and still adores the magical world of middle school. When not teaching, Sarah is likely off on adventures with her husband, son, daughter, and dog.

Words of Wisdom Stay with a Young Marine

by Dianne Cicchetti

Prior to my current job as a career liaison at a local high school, I worked for twenty-two years at Hillside Middle School in Naugatuck, Connecticut as a school counselor. For twelve of those years, I was in charge of scheduling Project Wisdom. The students enthusiastically participated in and supported the program. The faculty wholeheartedly endorsed it and viewed it as a huge success. Faculty and students enjoyed and benefited from reading the daily messages. So for a solid twelve years, we were all greatly inspired by what was read.

From middle school to Afghanistan, a young man remembers words of inspiration and wisdom.

But the success of this program in Naugatuck is not the whole story that I would like to tell.

This is the story.

Recently, our retired principal ran into one of our former students, a young man who had returned from Afghanistan after two deployments while serving as a Marine. This young Marine was excited to see his principal and had a nice conversation with him. He told his former principal that when he meets up with friends from middle school, they often talk about the “good old days,” the time they spent at Hillside, and the fond memories they had of those halcyon years.

During the course of the conversation, he also mentioned Project Wisdom. One special memory he shared was of the messages he heard each morning throughout his years in middle school. As he put it, “After listening for three years, the messages stuck with me in a significant way.” He said he often thought of the inspirational and meaningful words he heard during the daily broadcast in middle school. He revealed that, in particular, those words had helped him through the difficult days of being at war.

This young man’s testimony fulfilled a hope I held during all those years as we offered students the opportunity to both read and to listen to inspirational (and sometimes humorous) words from many wise and thoughtful individuals. I hoped that if not all the students were being impacted, at least some would be touched and influenced by the wisdom and inspiration we offered them each day. Knowing there is one story such as this young Marine’s gives me the assurance that there must surely be more. Little did I imagine that a young man hearing our daily broadcast would one day grow up, serve his country as a Marine in a war torn region of the world, and find comfort and solace in the words he heard so many years before.

Thank you for this, not just for this young soldier, but for the thousands of students throughout the country who have been touched and exposed to the diverse contributors who shared their meaningful and often profound thoughts, beliefs and words.

Dianne Cicchetti, a retired school counselor, works as a career liaison at the CareerCenter at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. She has been in charge of the center for the past five years.

I am Jonathan

By Joel Blaylock

Jonathan had real trouble making friends. He had moved a lot throughout his school career, and because he was always the new kid at school, everyone was always asking him, "Who are you?" Jonathan was discouraged and at times felt that all might be lost. But then, he made a decision, a very wise decision. He was determined to be remembered instead of being the kid who was always asked, "Who are you?"

A discouraged student finds success with some extra help from his school counselor.

He knew he had better work fast, so he developed a plan. He would learn the name of everyone at his school. When he saw them, he could then do more than just say, "Hi!" He could call them by name. So he asked Ms. Blake, the counselor, if he could see photos of all the kids and if she would help him learn their names. She agreed. Together, they made a chart and every day at recess she helped him practice learning the names of his classmates.

Just before the holiday break, Jonathan put his plan into action. At the school pep rally, he named more than half of the kids in attendance. When the break came, the kids in his class sent him a card. "Thanks for learning our names," it said, "That shows you really care. We will never forget you. Your friends forever."

One caring adult on campus gave special time to a boy who felt discouraged, a boy who wanted to take charge of his life and overcome negative circumstances. Without the help of Ms. Blake, it may have been impossible for Jonathon to implement his plan and turn things toward the better. But this brave boy found a way to make new friends, and together with Ms. Blake, helped build a stronger school community. Everyone benefitted. Ms. Blake did what all good educators do. She gave a student the support and the tools he needed to make his experience at school a rewarding one.

Joel Blaylock began his career working with homeless youth on Music Row in Nashville. Seeing a great need, he became a licensed drug and alcohol counselor for youth. After serving as a house parent for kids without parents in California, he returned to Texas to serve as a school counselor in Bonham. He has two sons, one is a motorcycle police officer and the other is a cardiac catheterization nurse. He has two rescue dogs named Olivia and Pistol Pete.

Sowing the Seeds of Success

by Tammy Ragan

Have you ever had a student in your class (or during an activity) who everyone warned you about? The one who isn't the school role model? The one who "never finishes anything"? The one with "the mouth"? I had one of those students in my first year at a new school in which I was teaching. He tried out for the musical, and, not knowing any of the students well and being desperate to fill the roles, I cast him. Soon I was pulled aside by many veteran teachers who, while trying to be helpful, suggested that I cast him in a lesser role as he would probably drop out or become academically ineligible.

One teacher, one student, and one musical add up to success.

Well, I stuck with him. It wasn't easy! I made a well-worn path between my room and the rooms of the teachers for whom he had outstanding assignments. Sometimes I had to remind him of rehearsal with phone calls and reminders from fellow students. Sometimes there were minor power skirmishes. In end, he stuck with me too.

After the final performance, he sat on the edge of the stage and said to me, "You know, Mrs. Ragan, this is the first thing I've never quit". My response to him was, "Feels good, doesn't it? And now that you know you can do it, go out and do it again."

His life has had its ups and downs. However, he enlisted in the service, learned career skills, is married, and has a family. Not bad for "the school quitter.” We never know what seeds we sow or when the teachable moment will occur. We're told that if we make a difference for one, we make a difference for all. New Year's never happens in January for me. New Year’s for me is the start of a new school year when all is fresh, all is new, and the opportunities abound! Love your challenges, lean on your colleagues, and learn through the eyes of your students.

May this school year be your best yet!

Tammy Ragan is in her 34th year of teaching music. After 17 years at CGB Public Schools in west central Minnesota, she finds herself a rookie once again at the Clearbrook-Gonvick School system in northwest Minnesota. Tammy is married and has four children, three of whom are teachers or teachers in training.

A Ray of Hope

By Christopher Weinman

On Chicago's west side lies a neighborhood where drugs and violence are an everyday occurrence and poverty is common among everyone in the community. The most affected by these conditions are the children. In an often dark world, the schools become a ray of hope, a safe haven, a home away from home. It is at school where these children can learn and grow in a safe and caring environment, as every child should be allowed to do.

A counselor working on Chicago’s west side understands how Project Wisdom and its Words of Wisdom will help students see a brighter future.

One of those schools is Lawndale Community Academy, where I am the school counselor. As an urban educator, I am not ignorant to the fact that these students’ reality is far different than many across the cities and suburbs. Life lessons are often taught on the streets, and within the neighborhood, not in the classroom. Role models are few and far between and educating these children on the content of their character is both incredibly challenging and remarkably rewarding when done correctly. This is why I chose to work in an urban school system. However, this is also where the true problems arise. As a school counselor, finding the social-emotional resources and or curriculum that is both relevant and relatable to these children’s lives often proves to be extremely difficult.

As a counselor, with the benefit of Project Wisdom, I have the ability to dramatically alter how these children see themselves and the world in which they live outside the classroom and far beyond the streets of their neighborhood. Utilizing Project Wisdom on a daily basis opens the door to learning about individuals who faced extreme challenges and overcame obstacles. These same individuals, both famous and ordinary, achieved success and often times their stories are mesmerizing. The knowledge of these individuals and their journey toward success is so beautifully exemplified in the lessons that Project Wisdom offers.

As an educator, all the lessons I have taught pale in comparison to the ones students can learn from these role models, which is what I believe Project Wisdom does so well. Through these daily readings and lesson plans, my students will be afforded the opportunity to hear the stories of exemplary individuals, and in the end, realize that even the simplest words of wisdom can carry you through the longest days of your life.

Christopher Weinman is a school counselor in Chicago Public Schools. He taught in Special Education for twelve years, where he worked with blind and visually impaired students. He has a Master's degree in Special Education from Michigan State University and a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia College Chicago as well as his Professional Educator License in School Counseling. He has been a public educator for more than 15 years.

A Message Received

by Brad Herling

I have read Project Wisdom messages to my students for many years in my role as principal. Every Monday morning I would open the school day with a message over the intercom. Of course I closed each message with the scripted finish: Make it a great day…or not. The choice is yours. I received nice feedback from these messages. Teachers would say that students, used to the message, would mouth the words to this closing as I said them. Parents often told me that their children would repeat the message at home or parents in the building during announcements would say how nice the messages were.

What one educator says about the Teacher's Story:

"Thanks for 'making it real'. I like hearing how real people respond and react - rather than theories about how one could or should."

Cheryl, Elementary Teacher - North Carolina

One day I received an email from a former student that told how powerful these simple messages could be. Carolyn wrote that she was in her second year at Johns Hopkins as a Neuroscience/Biology double major with minors in music and creative writing. She said that there had been many stressful times, but she always remembered me ending the morning announcements by saying, "Make it a great day or not…The choice is yours".

She completed the email to me by writing, "I never realized it at the time, but that was the first phrase I said in my head nearly every single morning when I woke up before sunrise in high school, and all through the adjustment to college. One morning last summer, I was thinking about the Organic Chemistry exam I had that day, when I caught myself saying it again. I just wanted to let you know how much that has stuck with me, and how much of a motivator it really is. Whenever I don't want to get out of bed in the morning or I feel like I can't face all the things I have to do that day, I repeat that to myself, and I realize how much your attitude can change the day, and how much we really can affect how each day turns out for us and for others. I just wanted to say thanks so much for saying that every morning on the announcements. It may seem small but it has carried me well through these years.”

Brad Herling has worked in Howard County Public Schools in Maryland for 37 years, the last 15 as principal. He began his career as a special education teacher. He is currently the principal at Centennial Lane Elementary School. Mr. Herling and his wife have two daughters and four grandsons.

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