The Power of Notes

I have a very simple, tried-and-true, stand-by counseling technique that I believe could benefit and improve the practice of all educators — not just school counselors.  It is a quick, easy, and effective tool that often takes only a few moments to use with a long lasting impact.  It is a practice that creates connections, is student-centered, and promotes well-being in the classroom.  It is a tool I turn to over and over again and am continually shocked, amazed, and surprised with the outcome.  What is this magic tool?  A note.

Dr. Linda Metcalf writes of uses notes in her counseling practice to connect with students, remind them of their goals, and to celebrate successes. When I first learned of this tool to support counseling, it naturally stuck in my mind.  Personally I have always enjoyed writing and sending hand-written notes.  These might be to give thanks, to celebrate, or to simply say “I’m thinking of you.”  In my personal life, I have always received positive feedback about how meaningful notes are and how they make an individual feel.  Therefore, when I learned this could become part of my professional practice, I was an immediate believer.  If a note has such an impact to someone who does not necessarily “need” support, how much more of an impact could it have then on a student who is working through a problem, issue, or stressful event.  I was excited to see if this was a meaningful and authentic tool to add to my counseling tool-box.

The first time I wrote a note to a student, I was unsure how it would be received.  I was working with a student who lacked a positive school affiliation.  He had bought into the belief that he was not smart, a troublemaker, and that no teacher liked him.  After meeting a few times together (and feeling like our sessions were not moving forward), I decided to write him a note.  It was simple.  I took construction paper, some markers, and sat at my desk.  In the note, I greeted him, told him good morning, and that I was very excited to have him at school that day.  I wrote that I could not wait to see him after lunch and hear how his morning had gone.  Then, I went to his classroom and placed the note on his desk in an inconspicuous place.

That morning, during passing periods, I noticed that this student was smiling more and seemed a little more happy.  At lunch, he was engaged with friends and joined in a game.  At our session that afternoon, he did not mention the note but he did seem (for the first time) to be excited to connect with me and create a plan for how to complete some missing assignments.  It was the first time that he fully bought into our counseling session and advocated for his own needs instead of believing what others thought of him.

Since this experience years ago, I have regularly used the note as part of my counseling practice.

If a student is struggling to separate from parents and caregivers in the morning, I write a note saying how glad I am they are at school and how proud I am of them for joining their learning community without fear.  

If a student is new to our school and trying to transition in, I write a note acknowledging the fear and bravery that comes from entering a community where no one knows you.  

If a student is working through a death or divorce, I write a note commending the student on his/her ability to be at school, learning, thinking, and participating when her/his mind might not feel like it.

 If a student has been working on changing a behavior from an undesirable one to a more pro-social one, I write a note praising the student on a time I “caught” them in the desirable behavior and stating I am eager to see the momentum continue.  

At times, a student will come by and say “thank you” for the note.  Most often, they do not.  I do see little changes, though, whether it be in a smile, a change in behavior, stopping to say hi more often, or a little more buy-in during future interactions.  I do often hear from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders that when the student read the note, there was a genuine smile on the student’s face.  And, every once in a blue moon, a student writes me a note back!  For me, that is enough to keep writing notes and believing in the power of them to positively impact students.  In fact, the note is one of the most used tools in my counseling tool-box.IMG_0380

Is there a student you think could benefit from a personalized note?  Have you used notes in your educational practice before?  Are there other ways you think a note could benefit the school community?

What You Have to do in Education

I am currently embedded in a culture where tutoring is a commonplace activity. The school day ends and teachers head to the homes of students to provide tutoring support.  This happens at all grades, across all subjects, and with all levels of academic support.  It is also a serious thorn in my side.  Why?

In counseling, I am consulted by teachers, parents, and administration on a regular basis.  Stakeholders are seeking out advice, strategies, and interventions to support students across all domains — academic, social, behavioral, and emotional.  It is one of my roles to coach, collaborate with, and offer support to adults so they, in turn, can support students.  So, imagine my frustration — when offering strategies, interventions, and solution focused strategies — to hear the stakeholder reply, “I don’t have time.  I have to go tutor.”  

You HAVE to go tutor?  You HAVE to go?  


You choose to go.

Do you know what you have to do??

  1. Get to know your students and build authentic, genuine relationships with them.
  2. Act as a facilitator of learning while providing engaging, meaningful, relevant lessons to students.
  3. Provide feedback that helps a student understand where they are as a learner and provides an idea of what they could do to improve their learning practice.
  4. Engage with students in the classroom by being up, inquiring with them, modeling learning, and dialoguing to help them make meaning of their inquiries.
  5. Provide differentiated instruction and assessments to meet the needs of all learners in your community.
  6. Look at students holistically and support their social, emotional, and behavioral needs along with academic.
  7. Spend time planning, marking, moderating, and collaborating to ensure that student lessons are meaningful, engaging, and differentiated as well as goal-oriented and objective driven.
  8. Demonstrate compassion and empathy to all students, treating them with respect and dignity.
  9. Put students at the center of every decision, conversation, choice.
  10. Involve parents in the educational process sharing both areas of strength and areas for growth.
  11. Be human.  Admit when you make a mistake.  Laugh at yourself.  Share something about your life.  Why?  (See number 1).
  12. Give time.  Lots and lots of time.  More time than you often want but time your students deserve.

I think this list is only the tip of the iceberg.  There are so many things you have to do as an educator.  Sometimes, these things often take time, energy, investment, and commitment outside of the contract hours.  Sometimes, adding these things into our days seem like our often meager pay is being spread even more thin.  Sometimes, doing these things is not lucrative like private tutoring is.

However, do you know what the catch 22 is?  The more you make time for the “haves” of education, the more simple your life often becomes.  Why?  Students feel valued. Students by in.  Students pro-social behaviors increase and undesirable behaviors decline.  Academics typically improve and your attitude toward students becomes more compassionate and positive.  In fact, call me controversial but I posit that if you practice all these “haves” off on a regular basis, your tutoring job might have just become obsolete.

In your experience, what are some other “haves” in education.  What should be included on this list?

Reactions vs Responses

In my daily counseling practice, I have a mantra that I repeat over and over again.

“Respond.  Don’t react.”  

Being a counselor in an elementary international setting with over 1,100 students on my caseload, a lot comes my way.  No matter how planned and organized I am, the day comes at me how it wants (sorry plans).  This can cause stress, frustration, and what I refer to as counseling triage — what needs done NOW vs what can be put on the back burner?  In times of stress or busyness, it is easy to react to a situation rather than respond.

What is the difference?  A reaction is jumping into something — a conversation, a reply, an email, an interaction — based on emotion and the need to “get something done now.”  A response is a well thought out reply to a situation that is student centered, solution focused, and based in rational, logical, reflective thinking.  Responding is not about one person having the power but rather about mutual understanding of an issue.  A response builds and keeps trust and does not demean the situation or the individual(s) involved. Responding creates win-win situations and opportunities for individuals to grow, develop, and change.

Reacting allows you to move through “issues” in a quicker manner and check more things off your to do list since you are able to say or do the first thing that comes to your mind without much intention behind it.  However, reactions are typically visceral responses often based around negative emotions you might be feeling.  This means that often people receiving the reaction end up with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, broken trust, and bad lingering feelings long after the interaction is over.  Reactions are also quick fixes that may work for the counselor but do not necessarily lead to long term change and resolution for the other parties involved since someone is having a issue decided for them instead of making meaning him/herself.  Let’s be honest … reacting is WAY more easy and WAY more natural than responding — but not the ideal interaction.

So how does one choose to respond instead of react?  Anytime I am confronted with an issue — no matter formally or informally — I automatically make myself pause.  In that moment of space, I ask myself, “When this interaction is over and future counselor self is reflecting on this interaction, how do I want to feel or think about how it was addressed?”  Now … I know that seems like a long thought to have and it is!  However, by stopping to ask myself this question I have just allowed time to think prior to responding to the issue at hand.  By looking at the situation in a “back to the future” style, I think about how I will feel if I respond to the situation instead of react.  

Will future counselor self feel proud of the response?  

Will future counselor self feel like all parties were listened to and their voices heard?

Will future counselor self reflect that all parties involved were treated with dignity and respect?  

Will future counselor self feel like she solved the problem for a student (staff member, parent, stakeholder) or will she reflect that she helped guide the individual toward his/her own resolution?

For example, say I just sat down at my desk to catch up on emails and case notes in the only 30 minutes I have free in a day. Now a staff member walks in my office wanting to consult about a student, what do I do?  I might be filled with irritation that the staff member did not schedule ahead.  I might be frustrated that my only half hour to complete this portion of  work is now going to be filled by something else.  But, I stop, pause, and think about how I want to look back on this situation.  Would I like to feel like I burned a bridge by telling the staff member I am too busy to consult?  Would I like to feel like I pushed aside my task to consult but then felt bitter later when I was finally catching up on emails and the other staff member had long headed home?  Or would I like to feel like it was a win-win situation for both parties by stating that I am actually unavailable at this time but would be happy to meet after school, once students had left so let’s get something on the calendar?

Asking myself to reflect on the situation as if it has already happened allows me to take the initial emotional reaction that I may have to a situation and approach it in a more meaningful, productive way.  Using this approach in counseling also models for students that sometimes the best way to approach situations is with a stop, think, reflect model.  I can inform students that I am going to allow a few moments of silence to think about how to best respond to a situation.  I inform them it is important to me to think about how future self will feel when this interaction is done.  Then I can tell them this process is called responding to a situation.  Just jumping in and solving it would be easy but that would be a reaction.  Students pick up on the pause, think, reflect model and then can choose to apply it as situations come their way.

So, when situations come your way, stop, pause, and in that space ask yourself, “How does future self want to feel when they reflect on this interaction?”  In that brief question, you have just decided to not react but respond.  Easy, eh?!?

My Magic Question

I have a magic question.  It is simple yet powerful.  It is empowering and not degrading. It is:

“In the future, what would I see different?”

I use this question all day, in all situations, with all ages of students.  If I am speaking with a student about an undesirable behavior I have observed — I ask this question.  If I see a student who has forgotten or is struggling with a school routine or expectation — I ask this question.  If I am dialoguing with children who are stuck in conflict or trying to make sense of the choices they made — I ask this question.

This question is magic because it …

  1. Moves the conversation from an authoritative lecture to an supportive learning opportunity
  2. Empowers students to be thinkers and use their voice
  3. Creates a natural opportunity for student reflection and proposed action
  4. Creates a sense of student buy-in where the student can actually follow through on the “difference” they name
  5. Shows the student you don’t define her/him by his/her current choice/action but rather …
  6. … Shows the student you believe they are capable of changing behaviors and making positive choices
  7. Allows students to practice problem solving skills and become solution-focused

This question has not failed me.  Sure, sometimes students stop and hesitate before answering.  However, I like to believe it is because they are genuinely surprised that someone would ask and then they are thinking of an honest, thoughtful response.  I love the way that when I ask this question, a sense of worry visibly disappears from student faces.  They know that this is not a punitive conversation where they will end up “in trouble.”  Rather, it seems that when students hear this question, they realize that I am supporting them in their behavior and action development. It is always inspiring to hear the response of a student who clearly has a plan to choose a different plan of action in the future.  It is also liberating to spend more time listening than talking.

So, go ahead.  Steal my magic question.  I dare you.

Student Centered Educators

As an educator, every action taken, every decision made, every choice being weighed should be in a student’s best interest.  By always keeping students at the center, an educator is most likely to create a purposeful, meaningful, and authentic learning environment that serves all students — not just a handful.  Over the years, I have noticed a variety of practices that clearly indicate an educator is making decisions to promote student centered teaching and learning. Here are a few of my anecdotal observations of student centered practices:

1. Teacher is never behind a desk.  A student centered teacher is actively engaged with his/her classroom.  This means being up, moving, checking in, asking about new learnings, dialoguing, providing new strategies.  Sitting at a desk when students are in class only benefits the teacher — not students.

2. Planning is done in advance with learning goals, objectives, and assessments in mind.  The plan is differentiated and based on learning styles and learning needs. “Planning” that occurs day of and is done via Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers is a clear indicator that a student’s needs are not at the center.  A one-size-fits-some worksheet is easy for the teacher but not necessarily best for promoting purposeful learning among students.

3. Educators develop themselves professionally on their own time, on their own accord, often on their own expense.  Student centered educators are always seeking to better their practice knowing that keeping current on essential practices, new innovations, and changes in pedagogical thinking ultimately impacts and benefits their students. Student learners are always the focus when new educator learning is taking place.  A non-student centered teacher’s PD occurs one hour a week at school mandated staff meetings.

4. Classroom doors are kept wide open.  Student centered educators welcome other educators in — at any time — to be observed by peers who can then provide feedback, reflections, and suggestions around teaching practice and methods.  This open door policy keeps teachers always growing, developing, and reflecting, which hopefully can stop stagnation of practice. This always benefits students.

5. Reflection is part of the daily teaching practice.  A relevant, student centered educator is reflective in nature so as to always question what went well and what needs to look different in the future.  Student feedback is used as part of the reflection process so that the student’s voice is a driving force of tweaking or adjusting current practices. Anytime a student voice is considered for future development of self, this is a clear indicator that the educator is student centered.  By skipping reflection, an educator most likely assumes that what he/she is currently doing is working just fine. In all actuality it may be working at the benefit of one or two students but most likely not the entire learning community.

6. More time is spent listening than talking.  A student centered educator recognizes that the model of a teacher talking to students is antiquated and not student centered.  Listening — really listening — to students helps educators tap into what students are saying but more importantly, what they are not saying.  This creates a space for student centered educators to assess needs and support thinking and learning.  Listening to student voice is a great tool to drive one’s work.

7. Students are approached holistically — not just assessed academically.  Student centered teachers are constantly looking to serve the academic, social-emotional, behavioral, and developmental needs of their students.  They seek to understand the big picture of each individual student and meet the student where they are across all facets of learning.  A student centered educator knows that you cannot separate academic success from other life circumstances.  Each child is a system and you have to make little tweaks along the way in order for systemic change to fully occur.

8. Students are empowered to do their own thinking.  Rather than tell students what and how to think or what to memorize, student centered educators provide opportunities for students to explore, inquire, and make meaning.  Students are encouraged to think and think deeply.  A student possibly learning something new or innovating on their own (without the teacher telling them the information), is invigorating and exciting to a student centered educator — not intimidating. The educator will support the learning process, necessary skills, and provide encouragement. They will not be providing prescribed thinking for the students.

9. Play is recognized as a learning tool — not a waste of time.  No matter the age or grade, student centered educators engage students in play so as to learn and construct meaning.  Student centered educators recognize the power of play to inquire, connect, and unpack learning opportunities for students.  Even though play can be messy, unstructured, and chaotic (read: more challenging to monitor, facilitate, and assess on the teacher’s part), it is a powerful tool for growth and critical thinking. So, though it might be stressful, a good educator recognizes that play is healthy for student development and learning (= student centered).

10. Mistakes are acknowledged and admitted to students.  Recognizing and naming when you make a mistake or an error is a huge trait of being student centered. Removing the misperception that you have to be perfect is a gift that a student centered educator can give students.  Help students view mistakes as learning opportunities instead of opportunites for shame and embarrassment.  Model the practice of admitting when you erred and see the students follow suit.

These are just a handful of indicators that an educator is always thinking of students first.  By no means is this a complete list.  It is just a starting point to question if — at the end of the day — am I working to put students first?  What other traits are indicators of a student centered educator?  What else would you add to the list?