Category Archives: TWIT

This is Why I Teach: Powerful Goodbyes.

This has been a tough year for me, y’all.  

I found myself second guessing my decision to stay in the classroom just about every single week.  Little things left me frustrated even more than usual.  I felt angry a lot — and dissatisfied and discouraged and sad.  Moments of true inspiration were few and far between — both at school and in my professional life beyond school.  Nothing seemed to come easy.

And then, yesterday happened.

It was our last day of school and the eighth graders were having their graduation ceremony.  It’s a moment of celebration for them — another rite of passage marking the end of three years in our care.

As a sixth grade teacher, though, I never get the chance to attend the ceremony.  I’m busy with my students, celebrating in our own small way even though we will see one another again in just a few short weeks.

In some ways, missing out on the eighth grade ceremony bugs me.  

There are so many students that I want to say goodbye to — kids who I’ve mentored and coached and taught in both formal and informal ways.  The suggestion that the only teachers who should be present are those who taught our kids last — instead of those who have known our kids for the longest — just feels silly to me.

But the kids that I am the closest to always seem to find me — and no matter what I’m in the middle of, I drop everything to connect one last time.

That’s what happened in the middle of our sixth grade Quiz Bowl, when Jacob, James and Thomas* — triplets that I’ve grown connected to over the years —  showed up in the media center.

The minute I saw them, I knew that I was going to struggle to say goodbye.  Each of them has impressed me and made me smile time and again over the last three years.  They are creative and funny and competitive and kind — unique boys with great personalities and a willingness to listen and learn and take advice.  Given that they’ve stopped by darn near every day during their seventh and eighth grade years, I knew that they appreciated me — and I’ve certainly appreciated them.

We talked for a few minutes — but the words were hard for all of us to get out.  We found a way to smile for pictures — but it was in between wiping away more tears than any of us would be willing to admit. Watching them walk away for the last time felt like a loss.

But instead, that single moment was a huge win.  

Those tears — which came quickly and caught us off-guard — were proof that the time we spent together mattered.

And those tears reminded me that I’m not in this position for the pension or the summer vacation or because I am passionate about teaching science.  To be honest, the pension will be nice if I can live long enough to earn it, the summer vacation doesn’t exist given that I have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, and most of the kids in my class will forget most of the science I teach them before they even start seventh grade.

I teach because I love knowing that I can make a difference in the lives of kids.  There’s nothing more rewarding than that.  And powerful goodbyes on the last day of school are the evidence that I needed that the daily grind of teaching is totally worth it.

This is why I teach.


(*Not their real names, y’all. )

Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  Watching Kids Learn

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  They are Learning from Me

This is Why I Teach: Watching Kids Learn

Over the last few days in class, my students have been working on an activity designed to introduce them to the similarities and differences between elements, mixtures and compounds.  It’s pretty dry stuff, to be honest — and the chances are that no matter how successful you’ve been in your life, you probably couldn’t tell me much about the concepts that my kids are expected to master before the end of our matter unit.

That’s the worst part of teaching a subject like science.  

While sixth graders are naturally curious about the world around them and FULL of wonder questions worth studying, much of what we are required to teach — and what our students are required to learn — are handfuls of isolated concepts and vocabulary words that will be forgotten before we even begin our next unit.

But something happened today to remind me that teaching is remarkable even on the days when it can feel like a complete and total grind.

It started when a boy I’ll call Mike* — one of the happiest kids on our learning team — rolled into my room during our school-wide enrichment period.  I could tell that something was bothering him because he didn’t even say hello to me.  He just sat down behind a computer, opened up our elements, compounds and mixtures task, and stared at the screen.  He was stuck on the second task:  Brainstorm a list of three metaphors for elements, compounds and mixtures.  Explain the strengths and the weaknesses of your metaphors.

I wasn’t surprised that Mike was stuck.  Thinking metaphorically is a complicated task for many kids.  But I knew that being stuck was driving Mike — a confident, capable student used to succeeding at darn near everything — completely NUTS.  I could see him wrestling with his own ideas, with his confidence, and with what to do next.  Asking a question would be a vulnerable act for a kid not used to feeling vulnerable in school.  But NOT asking a question would mean earning a poor grade, something that Mike couldn’t handle either.

A few minutes later, he called me over for help.  “Mr. Ferriter,” he asked, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to come up with a metaphor for a science concept.  I’m not sure I know what you mean.  Can you help me?”

Together, he and I reviewed what metaphors were.  Then, we looked at several of the sample metaphors that other students had already generated for the class.  I could see Mike’s confidence building moment by moment — and knew that he’d “gotten it” a few minutes later when I asked him whether a Lego set would best represent a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture.  “Heterogeneous!” he answered correctly with a sense of both amazement and relief in his voice!

Mike spent the rest of the day brainstorming metaphors — and it was so much fun to watch.  When he found a good one, he’d come up and quiz ME:  “So how about this one, Mr. Ferriter:  How is a screwdriver like an element?” or “Why is a raindrop in a thunderstorm a BAD metaphor for a mixture?”

My favorite moment:  Finding several new metaphors written in Mike’s handwriting on our classroom brainstorming list at the end of the day.  “Mike — have you been writing on my board?” I asked.  His answer:  A HUGE smile that warmed every corner of my heart.

Stew in that story for a minute, would you?  Can you see the beauty in it? 

I had the chance to help a boy who was wrestling with his self-confidence today.  I had the chance to prove to him that he COULD work through a challenging task and succeed no matter how hard it seemed.  I had the chance to witness the moment where the concept clicked AND the pure joy that came along with learning something new.  I had the chance to see him refining his understandings through repeated practice and playing with ideas in a way that he hadn’t ever played with them before.

THOSE are the moments that I live for, all y’all.  

I don’t teach because I’m passionate about compounds, mixtures and elements.  I don’t teach because I’m convinced that every kid has to leave our schools with a strong understanding of the chemical and physical properties of matter.  I don’t teach because I believe that mastery of scientific concepts is essential for success in tomorrow’s world.

I teach because there’s nothing like watching kids learn something new and knowing that you played some small role in helping them to get there.




*Blogger’s Note: Not his real name.


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: The #SugarKills Gang

This is Why I Teach: They Care Enough to Make Cards

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter


Saying Goodbye to the #sugarkills Gang

Three years ago, the kids in my sixth grade classroom were wrestling with the implications of the New York City soda ban.  While they understood the notion that consuming too much sugar was dangerous for individuals and damaging to an economy due to ridiculous medical expenses, they weren’t certain that letting the government control what people can eat was a good idea at all.

So I pitched a simple idea:  Why don’t we start blogging about the amount of sugar in the foods that people eat on a regular basis?  Raising awareness is a way of taking action, too — and it’s something that we can do from our classroom.  That was the genesis of #sugarkills — the most successful classroom blog that I’ve ever had.

Dozens of kids started coming to my room at lunchtime to write and we quickly built a pretty impressive audience.  We wrote comparison posts, gave readers recommendations, and began to distinguish between natural and added sugars in our writing.  We started a war on Girl Scouts, argued for readers to make healthier choices, and helped struggling writers to make contributions to the conversations we were starting.  Through it all, my kids felt like they were making a difference in the world — and that sense of empowerment and agency felt good.

When the year ended, the core of my #sugarkills team — Daniel, Ried, Joel, Dylan, Christian and Conor — stopped by my room to make plans for continuing our blog.  They were adamant that the blog couldn’t be given to a new group of students because it belonged to them.  The hitch was that we had no time during the day for the boys to work on our blog and they were too busy after school to turn #sugarkills into a club.

“Can we come up to work during our lunch period?” they asked.

And they did, churning out almost 70 posts over the course of just a few short months.  Imagine that, would you?  How many seventh grade boys do you know who are willingly giving up their lunch period and recess time to work on a classroom blog?


Those same boys were jazzed at the beginning of this year when they found out that our school had a built-in enrichment period because it meant that they could continue to write for #sugarkills without having to miss their lunch periods — and continue to write for #sugarkills is exactly what they did.

Ried has been churning out pretty remarkable content pieces like this one clarifying the different numbers that health organizations put out around sugar consumption.  Joel likes to look at the medical impact that sugar has on people — and he often teams with Christian to write the kinds of pieces that make up the bulk of our posts.  Daniel has written and rewritten the most popular bit on our entire blog.  He’s also the unofficial proofreader of the bunch, polishing bits until they shine.  And Conor and Dylan add their voice most often by creating really cool graphics for our site (see here and here).

The boys have also taken on a leadership role in training their replacements!

They have faithfully served as official and unofficial mentors for a whole new crew of #sugarkills writers.  They’ve taught kids how to make posts, to insert slides, to check our statistics and to respond to commenters.  Most importantly, they have proven day after day that blogging can be cool.  As a result, there are several hard-core sixth graders who stand ready to take over when Daniel, Joel, Ried, Conor, Dylan and Christian move on to high school.

And that move is coming all too quickly:  Tuesday is their last day in our school.  So I wanted to say goodbye.  Publicly.  Here on my own blog.  

I’m going to miss you, boys.  You’ve made me proud time and time again.  Thank you for proving that middle school boys can be powerful and intelligent and committed to making a difference in the world.  You’ve been an inspiration to me and to dozens of other students who have followed your lead and written for our blog.

Goodbye and good luck,
Mr. F


Related Radical Reads:

Introducing Our Newest Cause – #sugarkills

Daniel Learned that He Had Power Yesterday

Daniel Learned All About Audiences Yesterday

This is Why I Teach: They Care Enough to Make Cards!

It’s no secret to regular Radical readers that I often get worn down by the grind of teaching.  Wrap the public criticism piled on teachers at every turn up with the crappy policies that have stripped the joy out of the public school classroom and you have a profession that leaves me wondering more and more every year.

But there IS joy in teaching — and this week, it came in the form of a pile of birthday cards from my students:


Such a small thing, right?  But to me, it meant everything.  

The kids thanked me and teased me and joked about my hairline and the fact that I’m apparently older than dirt.  Some snuck the cards into my room and left them for me to discover on my desk.  Others came in groups of two or three to share creations that they had worked on together.

They worked on their cards during homeroom, during our schoolwide enrichment block and during their classes.  My guess is that they missed a ton of content, distracted by the simple act of celebrating one of their teachers.

I missed a ton of content, too:  At the end of the day, I ignored the four thousand email messages sitting in my inbox and smiled my way through a pile of special memories from a group of kids that I care about.

While those memories won’t pay the bills or take away the sting of criticism that I feel every time I read the paper or listen to the radio, they do serve as a tangible reminder that this profession really IS rewarding.

This is why I teach.


Related Radical Reads:

Teaching is a Grind

The Straw

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter


This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter

Years ago, I was in my first season as the head coach of the boys basketball team at my middle school.  The girls coach came to me just before the last game and told me that our school’s tradition was to call eighth grade players and their parents to the floor at halftime to recognize them for the contributions that they had made to our teams.  “I give each of my girls a rose as a way of saying thank you,” she said.  “Do you want me to pick some up for you?”

Figuring that my boys wouldn’t see roses in the same positive light as her girls, I decided to start my own tradition:  Giving each eighth grade player an Eisenhower silver dollar as a keepsake and reminder of his time on my team.  “These silver dollars,” I explained, “connect us to one another.  Ten years from now, you will find them in your box of special things or the drawer beside your bed and you will think of the time that we spent together and you will smile.”

I knew instantly that the coins mattered to my kids.

In the moment — on the floor in front of their friends and family — they couldn’t take their eyes off of them.  They turned them over and over in their hands; they jumped when their coins dropped — afraid that they had somehow cheapened the gift; they kept them on the bench for the entire second half, passing them off for safekeeping whenever they subbed into the game; and they spent the next three weeks showing them to me whenever we passed in the halls.

Since then, I’ve given out hundreds of silver dollars.

Sometimes the moment is formal — an end of the season pot luck dinner, a team Honors assembly, a gathering to celebrate the work of an individual or a group of students.  Other times, the moment is informal — in my classroom after a student has done something to make me proud, in the hall on the last day of school, in the lunchroom after cafeteria duty ends.  EVERY time, the moment matters — to both me and to the students that I’m recognizing.

A reminder of just how powerful those moments can be landed in my email inbox this week.  Check this out:

Hey Mr. Ferriter, 

I went to Salem Middle a long time ago.  You may remember me vaguely.  I was a manager for soccer during my sixth grade year when you were the coach.  Your last season of coaching was during my seventh grade year, when I was cut during tryouts.  My final year at Salem, I played on the team.  I am about to graduate from Panther Creek and move on to college at NC State, and I am writing to you today to let you know that even though I haven’t seen you in four years, you’ve made an impact on my life.

I will never forget my last day of eighth grade at Salem.  I wrote a letter to you about a week before, thanking you for the lessons you had taught me when I was a manager in sixth grade….You called me out of class to speak with me about the letter.  I remember how you apologized for cutting me during my 7th grade year and you kept praising me for not the soccer player I had become, but for the man I had become.  

I also remember crying in front of you, and trust me those were tears of joy.  I also remember you giving me advice about high school, and about staying the man I had become.  At the end of our talk, you handed me a silver dollar, since you had given one to every player during the year that I was cut.  You told me that even though I may have not deserved to be on the team for my soccer abilities, that I completely deserved it for the person that I was.

I wanted to let you know that I still have my silver dollar.  I see it often, and whenever I do, I automatically think of you.  I think of our talk, and the kind words and advice you had given me…

I just wanted to say thank you!  Even though you only coached me for one year, I am extremely grateful for the coach that you were.  You never taught me as a teacher, but as a coach, you have had a tremendous impact on my life.

And I know you are wondering, and the answer is yes:  I will most definitely be bringing my silver dollar with me to NC State!




Amazing, right?  Needless to say, I’ll keep that email forever.  It’s a small bit of proof that my work hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

What people don’t understand about teachers and coaches is that we aren’t driven by content or conference championships or big fat paychecks or summers off.  We are driven by the notion that we might just make a difference in the lives of a handful of kids over the course of our careers.  And the best part of our gig is that each new day is FILLED with moments that have the potential to be powerful.

We just have to keep our eyes — or maybe our hearts — open in order to find them.

This is why I teach.


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: Inspiring Jake

This is Why I Teach: They Don’t Judge Me by a Test

This is Why I Teach: They are Learning From Me