5 Ways to Foster a Can-Do Attitude

It’s a fine, fine line between coddling a kid and being too hard on them.  At least I’ve always thought so.

When I first started, I was too caught up in getting my kids to like me, and not caught up enough in creating structure in my room.  While my heart was in the right place, it didn’t create the culture that I had hoped to.  In fact, it created something quite the opposite of what I wanted. It created a room where I was the sole authority figure, and it created a place where children were not resilient enough to help themselves.  What I realized, though, was that I could have created the classroom I envisioned, without having to worry about whether the kids liked me or not.

Instead, I’ve realized that it is important to foster a “can-do” attitude in students.  Not only will this help them to be independent and resilient problem-solvers, but it will also help them to respect you for that same independence, resilience, and structure that they so desperately crave.  Check out a couple ways I’ve fostered a can-do attitude in my classroom over the past few years.

photo (8)(1) Build routines.  Kids find safety in structure. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, if you give them structure, you’ll give them freedom.  They will find themselves able to make mistakes, not because they’re doing so frivolously; rather, they’ll make mistakes because they know they’re in a safe space.

(2) Make assessment transparent.  Assessment should be empowering, not defeating.  Helping kids see the path to learning through assessment helps them see that we’re providing feedback to help them, not hurt them.  Show them your intention and your rationale behind giving a “grade” or giving “feedback,” and they’ll be grateful for it.  Trust me.

(3) Teach strategies and learning practices.  While it’s tempting (and honestly, sometimes easier) to just show them how to get the right answer, teachers who do so are doing a disservice to students.  To empower kids, it’s important to give them the strategies and tools necessary to solve problems in the future, not just get the right answers on a test.  Strategies allow for the cross-cutting ability that fosters creativity and innovation in students, and after all, isn’t that what we want for them?

(4) Help them use each other.  Kids have the capacity to be each other’s most valuable resources, and denying them the chance to experience this isn’t helpful for them.  Refer them to buddies, encourage them to turn and talk (ALL THE TIME!), and create projects where they are simultaneously allowed to utilize their strengths, but also put some work into their challenges.

photo (7)(5) Let them know you don’t know everything.  It’s important to level the playing field in order to empower kids.  In the Modern Classroom, students are the primary producers of knowledge–not the teachers.  Because of this, Modern Teachers need to know how to teach kids to access resources on their own, instead of providing them resources.  This mentality is extremely empowering for kids and begins to teach them to advocate for themselves and their learning.  In fact, one of my favorite discussions to have as the year starts is to ask the children what they expect from me, as their teacher.  Having this discussion helps to, once again, level the playing the field, allowing students to feel like they have a stake in the classroom.

Of course, fostering a “can-do” attitude doesn’t stop here.  Keeping this going requires constantly monitoring attitudes and feelings and constantly reminding students about the routines and strategies you’ve built into your classroom.  Above all, though, it takes a modeling of this behavior by the teacher.  Our students watch our every move, and if we show that we think they “can,” then they most certainly “will.”

Why My Students Call Me “Paul”

I never asked to be called Mr. France. In fact, no one ever asked me if that’s what I wanted to be called, either.  Regardless, that’s the name by which I have been known for the past four years now, but it’s not necessarily the name by which I feel I should have been known for those four years.

Teachers won’t admit it, but they fear children. In fact, I remember my first year, fearing the children more than they feared me. Will they like me? I asked myself. Will I be able to keep control of them? Will they respect me?

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 10.34.43 PMLuckily, they did end up respecting me, but I don’t think it’s because they called me “Mr. France.”

This year, I decided I wanted to change things.  I decided that my students would no longer call me “Mr. France.” Instead, they’d call me Paul, and this decision was both intentional and purposeful.  In my opinion, being called by a title and a last name only exacerbated the stigma that comes with being a teacher, an antiquated standard that requires us to separate from our children and hold ourselves above them, all in an effort to harness a greater sense of respect from them.

What we don’t realize, though, is that by creating these rules and regulations around simple things like names, we are not actually gaining respect.  Rather, we are imposing restrictions to gain compliance, and this only places a wedge between our students and us.

At the end of the day, our students do not respect us due to the formality of our names.  Instead, our students respect us because of the relationships we forge with them.  Calling us by our first names does not threaten that relationship; in fact, calling us by our first names has the potential to strengthen it.  It represents a leveling of the playing field, and it becomes a symbol of mutual trust and respect.

In essence, our students’ respect comes as a result of the relationships we build because of the structure, support, and care that we provide every day.  Not to be redundant, but our names are nothing but nominal aspects of ourselves, and by breaking down the barrier between formality and colloquialism, we invite our students to connect with us on a personal level, trust us to do what’s best for them, and create an environment where connection is valued over status.

And that’s the kind of environment I want to be in.

Unexpected Behaviors

I was sitting at the library yesterday, reading Play With Me to one of my students, when all of a sudden, another came up to me.

“Paul,” she said, and tapped me on the arm.

I did my best to keep my gaze on the book, as I did not want to reinforce or give attention to her interrupting behavior.

“Paul,” she said again, continuing to tap me.

Within a few seconds, he bright eyes came into my periphery, her smile beaming across her face.

I turned to her, reflecting her smile.  “Hi, sweetie. I wasn’t responding to you because I wasn’t expecting you to come up and say my name so many times.  I was reading a story with [Natalie], and I wanted to finish before talking with you.  Would you like to finish this book with us first?”

“Oh, sure!” she said in her perky tone.

In that moment, this child learned two things: (1) Interrupting isn’t a preferred behavior, and (2) Interrupting is not going to get a problem solved faster.  But I didn’t do it by raising my voice, I didn’t do it by saying “don’t interrupt me,” and I didn’t do it by making her feel bad.  Instead, I framed it through the lens of “expected behaviors.”  Eventually, I got to her question, but not until I had finished the story with [Natalie] first.

10448666_10202894955912099_3454987711805408728_oExpected and Unexpected Behaviors

This is something I learned the past two years in Chicago with the help of the school psychologist and social worker when working with a student with significant behavioral needs.  The terms “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors helped make his behavior choices concrete, while also giving me framework to apply to all settings.  There are “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors in all contexts and situations; it’s just a matter of identifying those behaviors.

So yesterday morning, as the topic for our morning meeting, we made a list of “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors for the morning meeting.  While we did this, we role-played, had some laughs, and discussed how some of the unexpected behaviors make us feel.  At one point, as all of the kids were talking and reflecting, I let out a high-pitched scream, rattling the windows and probably their eardrums, too.

All of the children erupted in giggles.

“Interesting,” I said.  “Do you see what happens when someone does something ‘unexpected?'”

“It made us giggle!” one of the kids said.

Teaching kids how to behave is really difficult.  The last thing teachers want to do is be authoritarian figures in the classroom, but authority is a part of our jobs.  So how do we strike that balance between being a dictator and being a leader?  Well, I don’t think I’ve fully figured that out yet, but I will say that being open with students and telling them how you feel about their unexpected behaviors is a great first step.

26 Lessons I Wish I Could Teach My Students

It was May 7, towards the end of first grade, I believe, and my friend was turning 7.  I remember it vividly.  He walked in with a smile on his face and came to sit at the small table near the back of the room.

“Happy Birthday!” the teacher said.

I echoed these sentiments, and then right after, he excitedly told me it was his “golden” birthday.


Circa 1990. Check out those shorts.

Well, of course, I immediately wanted my birthday to be golden, too. I soon fantasized about a party, littered in sparkly and shiny colors, with all of my friends wearing gold things, a yellow birthday cake with sparklers spouting joy atop a cloud of sunflower frosting.

Clearly, my grandiose child expectations have not been manifested, and I’ll admit, I’m a little disappointed.  I’m not quite sure why I’m putting so much weight into being away from all of my comfort people for my golden birthday and all of the festivities that would have most likely ensued.  After all, it is just another day.  I suppose, though, when our realities do not meet our expectations, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

But maybe, as we grow older, those birthday parties–all the golden frills and the colorful bows–become less important.  Instead, it’s the lessons we’ve learned and the trail we’ve blazed that make those gifts rather meaningless, even if our loved ones aren’t around to shower us with gifts.  Hell, maybe those people are the gifts themselves.  After all, without them, the lessons wouldn’t be there either, and as a result, we would be nothing.

So here are 26 gifts, in honor of 26 golden years, that have been given to me over time–ones that I could only ever wish to teach to my students.


1. In darkness there is light, and in light there is darkness.  It is what we choose to look for that guides us. So be grateful for the bad, because the bad helps us to appreciate the good.


2. Allow yourself to feel.  Lean into all of your emotions–even the bad ones–and really let yourself feel them.  Without doing so, you don’t allow yourself the beauty of recovery.

3. Tell yourself the hard stuff so someone else doesn’t have to.

4. Tell yourself you’re doing the best you can.  And believe it.  Because you are.  You always are.

5. Find your life.  Go on the adventures that scare the crap out of you.  They most certainly won’t be looking for you.


6. Honesty and transparency are the best ways to maintain positive relationships, and one cannot be loved if one cannot be seen honestly and truthfully.  All of us are perfectly imperfect.


7. Dream big, but don’t fantasize too much.  Your reality will almost never meet your expectations.  And this isn’t always a bad thing.

8. Children are incredible human beings, and we don’t give them nearly enough credit.  You can take care of them by helping them see themselves in the world.  If this isn’t happening, they won’t learn anything.

9. You can never do anything by yourself.  Your experiences are shaped by your environment, and the people in our lives are naturally a part of that environment. Be grateful, and show that gratitude whenever you can.


10. Sh** happens, and then you get over it. If someone lies to you or hurts you, it’s on them, and their guilt will be longer lasting than your pain or disappointment.


11. People do what they want to do.  It’s better to assume the best and read their actions at face value. Likewise, people don’t do what they don’t want to do.  Don’t feel bad accepting help.  Just shut up and say thank you.

12. Be grateful for the villains in your story.  They challenged your morals and helped you to see a part of yourself you didn’t know existed.  But never forget that you, too, had a hand in creating those villains.

13. Conflict arises from fear and misunderstanding.  This can be shattered with the courage to be vulnerable and daring to let yourself be seen as is.


14. Actions speak louder than words. Way louder.  Lead by example, and show more than you tell.


15. It is statistically impossible to please everyone.  Stand up for what you think is right for the world, even if a crowd of people is telling you to stand down.  You’re the one who needs to live with your decisions, and if you can sleep at night, you’re doing alright.  Unless you’re a sociopath, of course.

16. People project their problems, their fears, and their insecurities onto others.  It’s best to not take everything so personally.

17. As a result, “be kinder than necessary, for everyone is fighting their own personal battle.”


18. Empathy starts from within.  You need to know and love yourself before you can truly know and love someone else.


19. Learning allows us not only to get to know the world better, but it allows us to get to know ourselves better, too.

20. Structure can be limiting, but it can also be liberating.


21. We are eternally stuck in the present, so we might as well not fight it.  Dwelling on the past is neither healthy nor helpful, and worrying about the future robs the present of its beauty.


22. It’s always going to feel like the next best thing is out there waiting for you.  But we don’t need a “next” best thing, when we have the best thing right in front of us.

23. There is peace, presence, and happiness that comes from letting go.  Letting go of something and watching it come back to you is more gratifying than holding on to it at all costs.

24. Love is not an expectation or a mandate; love is an appreciation of someone or something as is. No exceptions.

25. We are merely a manifestation of our previous experiences, both the ones labeled as good and as bad.  It is essential to love all of those parts of ourselves–and of others.


26. Love yourself.  Always.  All of these things are way easier said than done, but getting to this last one is the most important.  It’s something that we all continue to struggle with on a daily basis, and that’s okay.  However, it’s important to remember that you are the only thing you will bring into every phase of your life, and an appreciation for yourself is the only thing that is truly yours.


It’s the only thing that can never be taken from you.

The First Day of School

The beginning and the end of something always seem to be the most significant–the most palpable. They’re like bookends, and the simple fact that nothing precedes a beginning and likewise, that nothing succeeds an ending, makes these two things unique and remarkable.

Maybe this is why I always used to yearn for the first day of school.  

photo (4) It was the space in between two sets of books, and it always felt just like that–like space.  Summer never seemed to be short enough, and I anxiously counted down the weeks until I was eventually able to go back to school.  I find myself the same way now over the summer.  I enjoy my time off, and I enjoy being able to take on other projects.  I still, though, find myself anxiously counting down the days and weeks until I can be a teacher again.

The first day of school is always high energy, like a firework in hot July, bursting out from a remarkably small space, bright with possibility, illuminating the sky above and the ground below.  Kids and parents bustle nervously and excitedly into their classrooms, while an awkward tension fills the air.  Everyone continues onward, anxiously waiting for a break in the tension.

I remember the end of my first class’s loop (A loop is a 2-year class.) so vividly, like it was yesterday.  All of the teachers crowded around the bus turn-around, waving goodbye to students hanging out windows.  Just minutes before, we had all been inside the classroom, enjoying our last few minutes together, exchanging meaningful sentiments and promises to keep in touch, and at that instantaneous moment in time, I was somehow watching them leave.  It made the moment significant, it made the moment meaningful, and it made the moment feel like it was longer-lasting, but simultaneously much more fleeting, than all of the moments that led up to it, even though all of those preceding moments amassed to something much greater than that current moment itself in number and size.

I walked back inside the building that day feeling lonelier than I had ever felt in my life.  The 24 kiddos that constantly surrounded–the ones that constantly needed me–were gone.  They no longer needed me, and they were no longer going to be hanging on my arms and asking me a million questions. And so, naturally, I anticipated the next year.  I anticipated recreating the same relationships, the same sentiments, and the same learning experiences, so I could develop just as strong a bond with my new class.

This anticipation, however, can be some what debilitating for a teacher.  At least for me.

We over-plan, we anticipate every little moment, every little outcome, and every success and shortcoming, but it still never works out the way we plan.  When my next group came, of course, it wasn’t quite like I expected.  They filed in rather quietly, clearly scared to be starting fourth grade, and anxious about stepping out of line.  I had my whole day rigidly planned, as I usually do in the beginning of the school year, anticipating all of the tasks we’d complete.  I was anxious to recreate the strong relationships I had with my last class; I was anxious to feel the same things I felt when I bonded with my first group of fourth- and fifth-graders.

photo (5)Within minutes, I soon realized that what I had anticipated and what I was trying to replicate from my first experience was impossible to achieve.  This was a new group of children, with new experiences, with different wants and needs, and placed in a context that was radically different than the group two years prior, even if it was in the same physical space.

It was in that moment of realization that I let go of my last group, and I began to embrace the uniqueness of a new experience.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I embraced the uncertainty, held on for dear life, and trusted that my good intentions and the utter possibility that innately lies within a child would be enough fuel to keep our class and our love for learning going through two great years.

When finding something new–when starting a new phase–it’s essential to give the old away, but not necessarily in a bad way.  While it’s important that we’ve internalized lessons from the past, it’s even more important that we try not to recreate them or anticipate their resurgence; instead, we use them to help them mold the future into something greater than we’ve ever had before. I love the first day of school because it allows us to achieve just that.  It allows us to find faith in the possibility of something new.  It allows us a clean slate, one on which we are allowed to write a new story that reflects on the past but doesn’t necessarily cling to it.

It allows us to breathe in the possibility and hope that comes with something new… and exhale the comfort and peace that comes from doing so.

I Felt the Earth Move

“So did you sleep through the earthquake?” my phone read this morning at 6:47 AM.  

Honestly, I had completely forgotten about it, and my friend’s text message reminded me that I had, in fact, experienced a rather small earthquake in the middle of the night last night.  My body shook back and forth on top of my mattress, and I heard the building rattle ever-so slightly, wondering when it would pass.  In my sleepy and slumbery state, I didn’t really feel alarmed.  In fact, I thought it was kind of a routine event.

But this morning I realized, well, if my friend knew about it all the way from Chicago, then it must have been kind of a big deal.  I immediately Googled “san francisco earthquake” and the latest news came up. Turns out it was the biggest earthquake to hit the Bay Area since I was a baby, and it was not something “routine,” at least for the Napa area.  Water mains broke, many were injured, and in some cases, buildings collapsed and fires were started.

photo (2)It makes you rethink things a bit, you know, when the earth moves beneath you.

I’ve been worried about a lot of things lately, hypersensitive and hyperaware of my every move and the moves of those around me.  I’ve become so invested in all of the newness from the past months, that I’m finding myself clinging to lots of little things in an effort to feel some safety and security. It’s important, however, for me to remember that things will be shaky at times, and that the ground will figuratively, and literally, move beneath me.  In moments like those, security, safety, and fun are not a reality, and there really is nothing I can do except ride it out and hope for the best.

But it’s hard not to get caught up in the microcosm that is our personal lives. We become so invested in our jobs, in important people, and we become so hyperaware of our own feelings and emotions, that we forget there is more to life than hiccups in relationships and bumps in the road at work.  And when the earth moves underneath us, it’s there to remind us how grounded we once were, and how grateful we should be when things are at a standstill.

It’s a reminder that security need not lie in the external, but that security and safety lie within our perspective on the world, our resilience, and our ability to know that no matter what, in this moment, we are okay.

And that should be enough. Here’s to “riding it out.”

Wisdom . Uncertainty . Imperfection

photo (11)

We assume that,
Within wisdom,
Lies strength and certainty,
and within certainty
Lies a sense of perfection.

But this isn’t always the case.

The road to wisdom
Is shaky and uncertain,
and I am extremely grateful
That I am still traveling down that road.

On that road
I’m learning to trust,
I’m learning how to be strong
in the face of uncertainty,
and I’m learning how to proceed
and how to persevere–
despite fear.

Better yet
I’m learning how to embrace that fear,
and I’m learning how
To forgive myself for my shortcomings.

Best of all, though–
I’m learning a ton.

And that is invaluable.