June, July, August

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Dear Mr. Ricks,

What did you do with your summers?  Did you spend them working in a garden, or reading books, or traveling?  As a student, I don’t think I ever thought of what you did with your summers.  In fact, I think that maybe you just stayed in your classroom and called for take out meals.  Or maybe you simply disappeared for three months and returned in September.  I only ever saw you in class and, for all I knew, that’s the only place in which you existed!

As of this writing, there are 9 1/2 days of school left for the students at my school.  I have to be there for another two days to finish up paperwork and close out my room.  I’m moving classrooms, so some of that time will be spent hauling my mounds of stuff from one room to another.  Not a chore I’m looking forward to.  I’m thinking of bribing one or two students to come back and help me.

My summers are usually filled with lots of house cleaning (OK, maybe not lots), a week at the beach, visiting friends and relatives, and being a lazy bum the rest of the time.  In the past I have also tutored students who needed extra practice to pass a standardized test or to be more prepared for an upcoming class.  Sometimes I have taken on a summer job to supplement my income.  Usually my summers fly right by.

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As I approach my half century anniversary on this earth I find it so much more important to make my summer about rejuvenation and re-energizing. This year, a friend and I will be going on a week long religious retreat to a beautiful lake where we will meditate and commune with nature.  I’ll have my usual week at the beach, which is spent with my toes either in the surf and sand, or in the hot tub and spa bathtub.

I can’t seem to let go of my instinct to help children learn, though.  I have a young relative with special needs and I plan on doing what I can to prepare him for kindergarten.  He has an inquisitive mind and is curious by nature.  I want to nurture that attitude so that he finds fun in learning.

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Well, Mr. Ricks, I hope other teachers use these summer months wisely.  I hope their plans include some fun and some rejuvenation.  Watch over all of the teachers out there this summer and, if you happen to have the time, put in a good word for me with the Big Guy.

Love Always,


Prom Season

Dear Mr. Ricks, Cinderella Project gowns 2

I guess with teaching elementary school, you didn’t get to see this part of a student’s life.  In high school, students have prom, buy yearbooks and class rings, and participate in other activities that can cost a lot. Right now, a yearbook at my high school costs roughly $85.  And that is without all of the bells and whistles such as initials and plastic cover.  The price of a class ring can range from $100 up to several hundred.  I won’t even go into the outrageous cost of prom, where students purchase dresses, pay for hair styles, and eat dinners at fancy restaurants. Imagine a student on free or reduced lunches whose family barely scrapes by on minimum wage jobs looking at $500 prom dresses!  This season can be quite expensive, even impossible for some.  It breaks my heart.

There are ways to help students like mine who just can’t afford all of the hoopla of prom and graduation.  One super big help is the local Cinderella project.  This is a program started in 2003 to help students who have difficulty affording the very expensive prom attire needed to attend prom in style.  Area businesses such as Staunton Mall, Shields Storage, and Cow Palace Auctions donate space and manpower to set up a shop in the Staunton Mall where students can find attire, makeup, and get fashion advice from folks donating their time and talents.

“Students go to guidance and ask for an invitation to the project. They come to the project and are assisted by a volunteer in trying on clothes and getting the items they need for prom and sometimes graduation if we have items for graduation at no cost to the recipients. They keep the outfits they receive. Students are anonymous except for first names and schools.   Last year the project served 108 students from the Valley. The project has grown every year that it has been in existence.” (Augusta Free Press, March 2014)

I’d also like to mention Jostens, who gifted a cap, gown, and diploma cover for a student with financial difficulties.  He gets to look just like everyone else at graduation.  His mother and father get to see him walk across the stage, just like everyone else.

I can’t tell you, Mr. Ricks, how great it makes me feel, that my students get to participate in these events. With the help of organizations like Cinderella Project and companies like Jostens, my students will take away great memories that will bring them smiles for years to come.  I’ll have great memories of them, as well!  This makes teaching a little bit easier!

Love, Me

What I Say When People Ask Me What I Teach

Dear Mr. Ricks,

I’m sure it was easy for you when people asked you this question. You simply had to say you taught sixth grade.  It was especially easy for you since you taught that for about a hundred years.  Ok, I exaggerate. But it was a long time. People who teach math, or English, or science, or Latin can all easily answer the question, “What do you teach?” Most times I am at a loss as to how to answer this question.

Most times I say that I work with students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders.  Sometimes I say I am a learning specialist. Other times I resort to the old fashioned “I work in special education.” None of these answers really accurately define what I teach.  What I teach is not a language, not one particular skill, nor is it a variety of skills in one definitive area.  In fact, I don’t teach something, I teach someone.  I teach students.

I have heard many times, over the years, what people think I do in my little resource room.  Some think I help kids with homework.  Some think I sit and give answers to students whom I think are not smart enough to come up with answers of their own.  And there are still others who try to tell me what I should do, even though they have never been in my room to see what I actually do.  Here is what I do.

I help a student get their learners permit by studying for the test.  I listen to a student who is panicked about something and just needs someone to listen.  I help a student who has had multiple absences find the missing work and complete it.  I help a kid with their Algebra when they need some extra help outside of school.  I tutor a student who must take an SOL test 6 times just to reach the score he needs.  I coordinate with outside agencies to help students get training and services to become a skilled worker after high school.  I set up meetings with employers for students looking for a career. I buy clothes appropriate for job interviews and take students to the interview.  I buy a student a bow tie so he will look dashing at the National Honor Society induction ceremony. I visit homes to convey messages to parents.

Sometimes I am not just working with the student, but with their family as well.  I help families understand how their child is learning, or why they are not.  I alert parents to issues that may come up at home because of something a student was involved in at school. I celebrate with parents whose child took an SOL test six times just to reach the score he needed. I have carried many relationships with families beyond the graduation date of their child.

So, in the future, when someone asks me what I teach, I will invite them to come to my little resource room and watch me for a day.  Maybe they will understand that I don’t teach a subject.  I teach students. I create possibilities and help students see these possibilities. I build a path so students can choose to move from “I can’t” to “I can.”

Crying On the Inside

sad teenager

Dear Mr. Ricks,

Did you ever have students who seemed to be sad all of the time? Maybe they kept to themselves, or maybe they never spoke in class, or maybe they just seemed to be far away in their mind sometimes. This could be a student who makes very poor grades, struggling to just pass classes. Maybe it’s a kid who never asks questions and always seems lost. Maybe it’s one of the smartest kids in class who always turns work in on time and makes A’s on all of the tests.

Some of these kids are crying on the inside. People may not notice it, the quiet kid who looks at the floor when they are walking and sits alone at the lunch table. They have storms brewing in their minds and hearts. Most cannot figure out how to manage those storms and some may need serious help to get through the storm. Some of those storms never end.

We are only teachers, you and I, but we wear many hats. Sometimes we wear the counselor’s hat, having to be the tugboat guiding a student toward the safety of the harbor where the light is shining brighter. Sometimes we are merely the lifeboat, sustaining a student while the storm rages.

It’s easy when the students are enjoying their learning, are visibly growing into a more educated soul with clear goals for the future. The hard part comes when it’s a kid who is crying on the inside.  Mr. Ricks, sometimes teaching isn’t easy.


Love, me

The Bane of My Existance

computer testingDear Mr. Ricks,

Remember those SRA tests we had to take in elementary school?  I seem to remember one of those standardized tests telling me I should be a plumber or mechanic.  Now I wish I had chosen one of those careers because they make exceedingly more money that I do.  Anyway, I don’t remember those tests very well.  I don’t remember feeling anxious about taking them or you spending days telling us how important they were.  I don’t remember losing sleep over them or not getting a diploma because I didn’t get the right score on one of them.  No, standardized testing in my day was not an earth shattering experience.

Unfortunately for kids these days, they certainly are more life changing than they used to be.  Virginia uses something called Standards of Learning tests.  The acronym stands for something else to some kids. (SOL, s*#& outta luck). Other states have something similar, I’m sure, and I’ll bet they have the same effect on students like mine all over this country.

See, Mr. Ricks, most of my students have a hard time with these tests. Most of them have either a learning disability, are on the autism spectrum, or have attention difficulties that keeps them from learning and retaining a semester’s worth of tidbits of information. Some of my students even have anxiety disorders, so these tests put those kids into such a tailspin that we have to teach them to use a happy place to go to in their minds.  I frequently use that happy place method during these testing times.

Right now we are in the midst of these tests.  I have celebrated every passing score and mourned each “failure.”  No matter how much I tell these kids that they are more than a test score, the school system tells them that they are not.  A kid who fails these tests gets a “thank you very much for coming to school” certificate instead of a diploma.  Why don’t we just call it a “you aren’t worth the paper this is written on” certificate instead?  It says the same thing.  If you don’t pass, you aren’t going anywhere in your life.

Mr. Ricks, I have students who have dreams of being a musician, or a medical researcher, or a Navy Seal. Why should we squash those dreams with tests that don’t come close to measuring motivation, vision, or just plain old chutzpah? My students are more than the sum of these test scores.  They are young people with motivation, vision, and dreams of being a contributing member of a community some day.  No test score should deny them that opportunity.

Thanks for listening to my rant, Mr. Ricks.  You are my inspiration.


I Love My Job


Dear Mr. Ricks,

How many people can say they love what they do?  I may complain about difficult parents, unconcerned administrators, whiny kids, and gossipy coworkers. I have moments when I just want to throw in the towel and retire early!  I hear myself saying, “Just four more years, and then I can get out of this rat race!” I am definitely at fault of poo-pooing the dreaded data collection and standardized testing we are piling on more and more.

But then I go to work and see a student, who just yesterday couldn’t put two words together to make a sentence, create a poem with great feeling and style. I see a kid who hates Algebra with a passion pass a quiz with flying colors.  I see a young man get jilted when bringing flowers to a girl and another rather quiet young man tell the first that there are other girls out there who would appreciate the flowers.I see smiles on faces of students performing on stage or out on the track.  I see a student make a bad choice about behavior and come back from suspension with a little better appreciation for learning.

My job isn’t just teaching a student how to write a sentence or how to interpret a piece of poetry. I am preparing these young people for life. This is a fantastic journey they are on and I am their tour guide!  I show them where they can go, who they can be, and provide some helpful information along the way. Instead of being anxious for the time to fly by so I can retire, I ought to be excited about each year I have left where I can make a difference with just one more child.

Mr. Ricks, you taught me more than reading and writing and mathematics.  You taught me about life.  I hope I can be as memorable to my students as you are to me.

The Student and His Offering

Mark 12:41-44New International Version (NIV)

The Widow’s Offering

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

“Billy” is one of my hard working students.  Not necessarily in school.  He sometimes gets quite lazy with his school work.  No, his work ethic lies in his work on the job.  “Billy” has a low paying job that doesn’t get a whole lot of recognition.  He works at it like he is the CEO of a large corporation and what he does makes or breaks the company.  Several people I know have seen him on the job and have commented that he is always polite, he is never sitting around gossiping, and he gets the job done better than most.  His coworkers love him.

However, “Billy” doesn’t earn a lot of money and his family doesn’t have much to start with.  What he earns on the job usually goes to the family.  He is always concerned with getting the most hours he can.

Well, long story longer, “Billy” was hard at work one day when one of his former teachers came in the business.  After a chat, the teacher went to check out and leave.  When he asked for his bill he was told that it was taken care of.  “Billy” had paid the bill from his own money.  The teacher asked “Billy” why he did that.  “Billy” simply said, “It’s that time of year, isn’t it.”

Mr. Ricks, this is the kind of kid that gets overlooked in public education.  He’s a kid that would fall through the cracks.  I will make it my personal goal to keep this kid afloat as long as I can.  He deserves no less.

Dear Mr. Ricks,

I realize that it may seem strange writing to you.  I know that you are in Heaven looking down, watching me.  I feel, somehow, that writing to you will help me and may help someone else who is reading.  I’ll keep you updated about my classes, my students, and my experiences as a high school special educator.

Love, Me

Mr. Bobby Ricks was my sixth grade teacher.  He was a great teacher who did more than teach me about math and reading.  He taught me about life.  I guess he was the reason I became a teacher in the first place. So, writing to him is kind of letting him know how things are turning out.  Thanks, Mr. Ricks, just for being you!