‘Tis the Season to be Stressed

IMG_0546Almost the end of the semester. For high school students, the run-up to the holidays is likely to be stressful, thanks to those dreaded final exams. Guest blogger Mike Etzkorn, a math teacher who leads McCutcheon High School’s Maverick Launch program, explains why the short-term stress brought on by finals can actually benefit students–and offers some tips to help students through this and other stressful experiences. Welcome, Mike, to In an American Classroom. 

‘Tis the season to be jolly; however, for so many of our students and children, ‘Tis the season to be stressed.  Finals week is almost upon us and with it comes stress for students. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of high school students relating to stress and has demonstrated that high school students are more stressed out now than ever before.  As of late, a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy has been expended within our educational system toward helping students learn how to cope and de-stress. These efforts are necessary and beneficial, but we also need to look at the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress.

Acute stress can actually have many benefits.  Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says that “low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.” Acute stress can temporarily improve memory and motivate productive behavior.  Dr. Shelton also says learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage, thus teaching resiliency and grit. It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, he reports as well.

I like to call this concept raising our stress threshold.  The analogy I use with my students is that stress is like a muscle.  Weightlifters will “max out” when lifting, which means they take their muscles to the top edge of their limit, causing their muscles to fail.  This is a very painful and uncomfortable experience. Their muscles burn, shake, and ultimately can’t handle any more weight. After a recovery period, the next time they lift, they are able to raise their maximum weight.  Acute stress is exactly like maxing out when weight lifting. When we experience acute stress, we are maxing out our stress threshold. This is an uncomfortable experience, but once we have pushed through the temporary stressor, we are able to tolerate more stress the next time.  

When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I can recall numerous all-nighters or tear-filled nights, experiencing my own personal stress threshold max.  My first experience with acute stress occurred during my freshman year history class with Mr. Crismer. Each quarter, we were assigned a nine-to-eleven-page research paper on a randomly assigned historical figure. We were required to have three sources, and in the days before the internet, we had to dive into the old-fashioned library catalog cards. If we were unlucky enough to get one of the more obscure historical figures, it sometimes took three different libraries to find those three sources.  We were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and all the work had to be completed outside of class time. Freshman year was the first time I pulled an all-nighter to complete an academic assignment, and it certainly was not the last. Through my first acute stress experience, I learned how to power through the stress to accomplish my goal.  This particular stressor (my paper) presented itself over a two-week period, with an end in sight, concluding with the completion of the project. 

Learning how to utilize acute stress to boost grit is a lesson every student needs to learn. Academic stressors, which are acute in nature but deployed in a safe, controlled environment, are beneficial and should not be removed or eliminated.  Instead, they should be utilized to teach our students the resiliency that is needed to succeed beyond the classroom.

Although the task of writing a history paper seemed insurmountable when I was a freshman, we all know that life has challenges that are far more overwhelming.  The lessons I learned in resiliency during my high school years helped me fight through a literal battle for my life: cancer. At age 24, I was diagnosed with chemoresistant metastatic cancer.  I spent nine months enduring surgery, traditional chemo, more surgeries, and high dose second line chemo. This nine-month experience not only took its toll on me physically but also mentally. Without my past stress experiences raising my stress threshold, I would not have been able to handle the challenges that presented themselves during that fight.  

As a parent of three adult children, I look back at whether or not I did enough to prepare my children for the stress of adult life.  I always had to ask myself: Did I push my children enough? Did I push them too hard? Did I help them navigate the stressors of adolescence so that their stress threshold was raised enough for them to have the grit necessary to succeed in life?  Were the tear-filled all-nighters worth it? Did the “No, you cannot quit the team, you will finish what you started. Suck it up buttercup!” speech teach them to fight through adversity? Even though the experiences were painful for them, and painful for me to watch, was it worth it?  As educators and parents, it is our responsibility not to remove the stressors from our students’ lives, but to help our students raise their stress threshold in a safe and controlled environment. So as we progress into finals week, let’s utilize this time to help prepare our students for what is to come after they leave the safety of education.  

Ways to help your student through the stress associated with Final Exams:

  • Remind them that their stress is temporary.  
  • Encourage them to put forth their best effort.  “If you do your best, you can walk away holding your head up high no matter the result.”
  • Help your student maintain a healthy balance between work and de-stress time.
  • Be supportive and encouraging, remind them that you are proud of how hard they are working.  
  • Remind your student that healthy eating and sleeping habits are just as important as studying.  
  • Urge your student to ask for help when they need it, share with them a time when you had to ask for help.


Go to the Parent Conference

This one is for parents: Why you should do this, even if all is well.

Face it: When Parent Conference Night rolls around, we’re all tired. I’m tired from a long day in the classroom; you’re tired from your day of work, too. Frantically eating dinner, remaining dressed up, and driving to the school (perhaps for the second or third time that day) may seem like a lot of effort for a minimal return.

But parents should always attend conferences—even if the teacher says they don’t need to. Here’s why:

For the teacher, you are more than a visible presence that night, more than a momentary reminder that your child’s progress in school matters to you. When you show up at conference time, I have you in the back of my mind all the rest of the year. By meeting you, I get a rounded picture of your child and develop a clear sense of obligation to you as a family. It isn’t that I don’t pay attention to the kids whose parents don’t come to conference. I do. In fact, the most frequent lament about conferences that I voice—and the one I hear the most often from other teachers—is that the parents who most need to come, don’t.

It isn’t that I cater to your child, either—because I don’t.

Here’s the secret not a lot of parents realize: Attendance at a parent conference—or an open house—is not a perfunctory exercise. Parents and teachers form relationships because of these interactions, and the parents who do attend conferences become a sort of litmus test for the ideas we invent, for the questions we have, for the quandaries we’re in. What would Sally’s parents or Joe’s parents think of this idea? This method? This idea for a field trip? This expectation? Could they be a resource? Would they chaperone? Is what I am expecting, reasonable?

Knowing you broadens my perspective. Your responses factor into my decision-making.

And just as I develop a rounded picture of your child when I meet you, you have a better picture of me when you come to the conference: not just what I look like (though that helps when you’re reading an email from me or speaking to me on the phone), but my demeanor, the intensity in my voice, my facial expression when I talk about your child. All of those little clues inform your response to me—and that could be important at some point during our year together.

Bottom line: when you come to the conference, you open up that line of communication between us. There’s a problem I should know about? Something’s come up? It’s easier to call me or email when you know who I am—and it’s easier for me to approach you if we’ve already met.

When you come to the conference, you learn the details behind the grade on the report card. Not just the standardized test scores, though you’ll learn those, too, and you’ll have an opportunity to have them explained. But you’ll also find out what you may not know: that your child is a good listener or a respectful group leader or needs help with understanding figurative language or doesn’t take notes or doesn’t take advantage of extra help or checks out more books from the library than anyone else in the class or went out of his way to help someone else. When you come to the conference, you’ll find out I know a lot about your child and I care about him, too.

Go to the parent conference so your child has concrete evidence that you care, so he or she knows that you will always go to the parent conference, good or bad. If you only go when there is a problem, that will communicate the wrong message. After the conference, let your child know how proud of him you are and how much you appreciate his teacher and the chance to meet with her. Make him think parent conferences are cool because parents and teachers get to talk together about the one person who is at the center of the universe: him. Make your child proud that you attend the conferences. As he grows older, there will be plenty of kids whose parents don’t, and you will want your child to think your attendance is cool, not dumb.

By going to the parent conference, you’re reaching out across the generations. Children watch everything their parents do. Because you went to school to meet their teachers, they will show up at their children’s conferences. It’s all about modeling.

It’s also a chance—and here’s a shameless plug for all the hard-working teachers I know—for a parent to thank the teacher for all he or she does–teachers need pats on the back, too, so a thank you is a boost, and a positive conference is just as important as a problem one, even if it does take up a few minutes when we’re all tired and ready to go home.

And let me add this before I move away from the subject: For the most part, I really enjoy parent conferences. When I open my classroom door and parents drop in, I feel like I am inviting them into my home. In some ways, I am. I spend more awake hours per week at school than at my home, and I do “clean house” for my visitors: I wipe down the tables, clean the boards, tidy up for the occasion. I stop short of cookies and tea (although that might not have been a bad idea for sweetening a couple of the conferences I’ve had in my career).

Many of the parents I see are like family. I’ve taught all of their children—or more than one of their children—and I’ve even taught some of them. Sometimes they’ll stick their heads in the door and wave at me even though I no longer have their children in my classes. If I’m not in conference with someone, they’ll come in to chat, bring me up to date on the kids who are now in college, or grad school, or having babies, or farming, or working in Indianapolis, or traveling somewhere in the world. That means a lot. I’ve invested time, energy, and yes, love in their children, and I really do want to know what is happening in their lives and how they’ve fared in the wider world.

So go to the conference–all the way through high school. Even if all you do is stick your head in the door and wave.

Balancing Act

Earlier in the week, we had sleet and freezing rain; falling temperatures in the early hours of the day created patches of ice on the roads and walks.  Driving to school that morning, I saw a small figure straddling the sidewalk a block ahead of me: a very tiny woman, I thought, trying to walk on the ice.  Her arms were extended parallel to the sidewalk, and they jerked alternately up and down, in the way of someone trying to maintain balance.  She wasn’t making much progress.

But as I drew closer, I realized that the little old woman I was seeing from behind was actually a very young girl.  Her pink cotton scarf was tied babushka fashion, and her snow jacket was too big. She wore a skirt that peeked out from under the jacket and hardly covered her knees. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles accentuated her thin legs. It was those rubber soles that were causing her to slip and slide.

She didn’t seem to be unnerved by the ice, although she was definitely scrambling—rapidly shifting her weight from leg to leg, stepping forward and sliding back and never gaining ground.  She couldn’t make headway—or maybe she wasn’t trying.  It seemed to me, the longer I watched from the car, that her repetitive motions were experimental, not frantic at all. Something in her attitude conveyed the impression that she was practicing at moments of unsteadiness, even finding pleasure in mastering the near-falls, the sudden shifts, and the involuntary responses of her body trying to right itself.  She was learning to walk on ice.

She looked up and ahead then, and my eyes followed an invisible line between the child and her parents—the mother with a bundled baby in her arms—who were waiting ahead at the corner.  They had turned around to watch their performer on the ice, so I could see that they were calling to her, but they were laughing and enjoying their child’s experiment with balance.  They didn’t seem to be in a hurry.  They weren’t nagging or impatient in their stance.  I slowed to a crawl so I could continue to watch the little girl. When I finally reached the corner, a four-way stop, I sought the mother’s eyes.  We both grinned.

It was the image of the child that arrested my own forward motion that morning, but it is the picture of the parents at the other end of the line that has stayed with me ever since. Often enough in life we encounter unexpected patches of ice, dangerous slicks that unbalance us—or threaten to—and send us sprawling to the ground.  A little practice with uncertainty and an occasional encounter with struggle serve children well. They need to have had some practice with adversity in order to keep their footing later in life should the ground below them turn treacherous.

It is a balancing act for parents, too, no matter how old or young their children are, a trick to know when to prevent experience, when to permit experiment, and when to intervene.  I remember my own children’s struggles as they grew in independence.  The first night away from home brought on a wave of homesickness for one of them.  She survived the night, however, and learned something of self-reliance. In junior high school, a skiing trip with a group of friends sounded exciting—but she had had no experience on the slopes.  She went on the trip, and she learned to ski: Her self-confidence soared.  A few years later, a camping expedition with her friends meant she’d climb Long’s Peak in Colorado.  I would not be there to hold her hand—or my breath.  But she went, and I cherish a photograph someone took of her: my daughter, standing victorious at the top.

There was adventure in all of these experiences—and the potential for danger.  To stand at a distance as one’s child—or one’s student—takes a run at the ice means holding the instinct for rescue in check in order to send a more important message. That invisible line between a watchful parent and an eager child vibrates with a message of faith, of belief in the child’s ability to succeed. The message these parents were sending to their daughter this morning as she walked along on the ice will prepare her to approach life with confidence, to engage in its struggles with spirit, to feel pride when she reaches solid ground, and to move forward always, embracing the world before her.

There’s a lesson in this balancing act—for the parents of our students and for us, the teachers at the front of the room. Instinct screams at us to protect our children and to make learning easy for our students. It is important to keep a watchful eye, but we can’t–and shouldn’t–prevent the learning that comes from an occasional fall. Our children will move with confidence when they know how to walk on ice.

Set the Stage for a Productive Parent Conference

P1000130If you have never experienced Parent Conferences—or even if you have—you might be nervous. As a new teacher, you know you’re under scrutiny, and every veteran teacher has at least one horror story about a conference gone awry. I know I do. Admittedly, the parent is there to find out about you as much as to find out about his/her child, but being prepared ahead of time will help you avoid sticky or empty conversations. Plus, what they’ll find out about you is that you’re a professional who really cares about their child.

Here are some ideas for keeping the conversation focused on the student’s needs and progress and for creating the partnering relationship with parents that is such an important component of student success.

1. Think about creating a handout (a chart, for example) that outlines your course or the work for the semester or your expectations. Write it in layman’s language, but keep it professional. Add a section at the bottom (or side-by-side with the units) explaining how parents can help with each topic or unit or project.

Parents can help in so many fundamental ways—even if it’s just nagging their kids about due dates. For example, parents can

  • Quiz students on spelling and/or vocabulary. Check that students have signed in to the electronic programs you use. Show the parents how to access the eBooks you use as well as programs such as Turn It In, Write to Learn, Vocabulary.com, Quizlet, Spelling City—etc. Tell the parents why you use this program—to many of them, these electronic tools are a big mystery.
  • Listen to their students’ speeches.
  • Help with math problems (if you use a different system than parents are accustomed to, be sure to tell the parents that!).
  • Drill students on the multiplication table and other foundational math skills.
  • Talk through a writing assignment and make an informal outline—a form of pre-writing that many kids need.
  • Ask students to read and then summarize orally what they’ve read.
  • Memorize the elements chart—even in high school parents can help with basic skills and processes.

2. If you post your assignments on your web page or on an electronic calendar, explain to the parents how to access that information (Be sure to keep it updated!). Your web page or other system may be far more elaborate than just a posting of assignments, but however simple or complex it may be, parents can easily check the student’s assignments if they know how to access the information.

3. If the parent says the student has trouble staying focused, suggest that the parent sit down with the child while he does his homework. Set a timer and take breaks. Reward the student when the work is done. Positive reinforcement is so much more effective than negative consequences at the end of the grading period.

Sometimes parents find it hard to sit down because they really can’t help—the assignment is beyond them or they, frankly, don’t find it interesting to watch their child do homework. Suggest they get their own project going and do their “homework” side-by-side with their child. Menu planning, sorting coupons, reading something for work the next day, catching up on correspondence, reading a novel: Whatever it is, they’ll be modeling the process of homework—and getting something done themselves!

4. If you have copies of projects that students have done in the past, show these as examples of what your expectations are. (Take the names off.)

  • Preview areas where the individual student (whose parents you are talking to) might struggle as you move forward with instruction.
  • Show parents samples of their own student’s work. That will help to keep the discussion focused on what the individual student is having trouble with or needs to do.  If you don’t already keep classroom portfolios, assemble an informal collection before conferences. Have students insert the latest test, their best work, and an assignment they had trouble with.
  • Show the parent something you’ve graded so they see the kinds of things you’re looking for—and so you can point out the problem areas concretely.

5. Explain the on-site tutoring resources available to all students. In some schools, teachers provide tutoring in math and English labs during their extra duty hour. Sometimes, a teacher provides extra help routinely during the prep hour or after school.

Let parents know when you, personally, are available to students outside of class time. Can the students email you at home? If so, what’s the cut-off time? You do have a life and you do go to bed!

Give the parent a business card with your prep time and contact information–so they don’t call when you can’t talk to them. Explain that they need to call or email you for information. If you promise to call them on a regular basis or whenever, say, Susie forgets her homework, you’ll have just one more thing to remember. Of course you’ll call if there’s an emergency or an incident or something urgent, but don’t promise to call or email on a regular basis. Let them do that part.

6. Create some space early in the conversation for the parent to ask questions or to tell you what they are concerned about. In other words, don’t talk non-stop and never let them get a word in edge-wise. That will just be off-putting. What you are aiming for is a dialogue, and all of these suggestions are really possible entry points for that conversation, or responses to questions, or strategies for dealing with problems.

If the line at your door is long and you think the night (or afternoon) will never end, remember this: The students whose parents take an interest in school are the lucky ones. They are the students most likely to succeed.

I used to enjoy parent conferences—I really did. I felt like I was welcoming friends into my own home. (That not an exaggeration. We spend enough time at school that our classroom qualifies as a second home!) As the years went by, I really was greeting old friends—I’d had my current students’ older siblings by then, and eventually, I’d had my students’ pP1000133arents even (!). I’d been partnering with these folks for a long, long time and they knew that I really cared about their children’s progress.

We show parents that when we meet them as professionals—warmly, genuinely, and with partnership in mind.

Happy conferencing—you’re a pro!






How Children Succeed

I saw her in the high school library on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of the day. She was bent over her books, head in hands, her long black hair a kind of curtain around the pages that were open on the table.

“How are you doing?” I asked, interrupting her study. “It’s so good to see you!”

She lifted her head, brushed back her hair. “Mrs. Powley!”  Then she smiled and answered the question. “I’m fine—but kind of stressed now, to be honest. My classes…” Her voice trailed off.

“What are you taking?”

“Pre-cal, College Comp. Chemistry, Government. You know.”

Yes, I do know.  Kids are sometimes surprised that senior year is stressful. So many of them confuse arriving at senior year with finishing senior year and have the mistaken notion that the last year of high school will be a slide. A lot of them give up when the pressure becomes intense.

But not her.

“I thought you were going to have early dismissal this year,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I do. But I only work three afternoons a week—40 hours, but only 3 afternoons.”

“Forty hours?”

“I work all day Saturday and Sunday.”  Her parents own one of the small Hispanic grocery stores in the area. I got the sense—last year when she was in my American lit class and from this conversation in October—that her family is working hard to make a go of it. “If I go home,” she continued, “I get distracted. If I stay here, I get my work done. I’ve got to.”

She wants to go to college. She’s not a A student.

I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Paul Tough’s riveting new book, How Children Succeed. It confirms everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by  instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources. It’s about character.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

Character counts.

A few years ago, Paul Tough wrote Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC. It was while he was researching that book that he became interested in issues of success and failure. Research shows, he found, that character is a better predictor of success in college than GPA scores. In his book, Tough identifies a handful of character strengths that can be taught in school if they haven’t been cultivated at home.

Most of Tough’s book is focused on the children of poverty. He summarizes a number of studies conducted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and even an economist that point to character strengths such as determination, resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, and what Tough calls “grit” as being the reasons some kids, against all odds, succeed. But where does it comes from, this thing we call “character”?

To begin with, children who are nurtured when they are young are more likely to develop these character strengths than the children who are not. Why?

There is a physiological explanation. The conditions of poverty, under which twenty to twenty-five percent of our children live—conditions of family dysfunction like violence, anxiety, abandonment, alcoholism, abuse, frequent relocations—cause stress for kids. The stress of living in poverty causes changes in kids’ cognitive functioning—and that means these kids can’t sit still, can’t pay attention, can’t control their emotions. They do poorly in school. “When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings,” writes Tough, “it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”

The preventative—and the antidote—is a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult. Ideally, in childhood, with a mother—but not necessarily a birth mother. Tough makes the point that it is the rearing mother that has the impact, so a child raised by grandparents, by an adoptive family, by another relative who gives the child the love and guidance and support she or he needs can become a young person with these crucial character strengths. The role of the mother—whoever she or he is—is to soothe, guide, counsel, and support the child in learning to deal with adversity. She’s the teacher, if you will, of a home school course in stress management.

That might lead you to think that it is only the children of poverty who lose out on early character training, not the children of privilege. But Tough points out, in observations based upon the reflections of teachers and principals as well as research he cites, that parents who rush in to rescue their children whenever they are in a tight spot—those we call “helicopter parents”–are just as likely to be disabling their children as the neglectful parent living in poverty. Increasingly, even at the college level, teachers know the kind of parent I mean: those who contest every poor score their child receives or seek accommodations no other student will have. (Surely there is a retest? Surely the extenuating circumstances I am telling you about excuse the fact that he didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t come in for help, didn’t study? Surely he can do a make-up because his outside commitments—sports or 4H or whatever—had him just too busy for your test?)  Or, parents whose relationships with their children are “distant,” but whose expectations are nonetheless high—sometimes impossibly high.

By never allowing their children to learn how to manage a disappointment or a setback, these parents, too, are handicapping their children. If a child is never allowed to fail, he or she will lack resilience—the ability to bounce back after a defeat. My grandmother used to say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She had a point.

But it won’t work to throw up our hands in despair and write off such children. We can’t just chalk up their failures to “lack of parental support” or “helicopter” parenting and be done with the matter. Tough goes on to say that the character traits he enumerates and explains in his book can be taught in school. Using examples of whole-school programs, classroom initiatives, and extra-curricular clubs (such as a chess club in an impoverished school community that has led to amazing accomplishments for some middle school students), Tough shows how teachers and principals can make a difference, can instill those character traits even in students who have lost out at home. Furthermore, character can be shaped, the examples show—even as late as during the teenage years. It’s not ideal, it’s not easy, it’s not the same—but it can happen.

What it takes is a mentor, a teacher, who believes in that student, teaches that student well, expects the best—and gets the best. Remember that Tough specified a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult, a specification that has implications for turning these kids around even as late as high school. It could be a pastor, a 4H leader, a surrogate mother—but because kids go to school, it is often a teacher. Every good teacher I know has had at least one student like this, often many more: a student in whom the teacher invested an amazing amount of time and energy and effort, one they know they reached, one they know they turned around, one who will forever be changed.


Back to my girl in the library: I remembered how, last year in late May, when she came in after school to make up a quiz, she stayed after that and asked me for help with vocabulary. She wanted to learn more roots. I gave her one of my books and a huge list of Greek and Latin roots and their derivatives.

Who knows where her determination, her discipline comes from? I think she must have the kind of continuing parental support that breeds success. Consider the work ethic of her family. She herself works 40 hours. It seems too much for a 17-year old. But in this case, she’s the lucky one.

So in the library that day last October, I told her not to worry. “Keep on like this and you will be fine. Determination and self-discipline are what make for success in college. You’ve got what it takes.”

And she does.

Pomp and Circumstance

05-21-09-mccutcheon-end-of-year-and-graduation-033In an American high school like mine, which is not so different from most, students come in all shapes and sizes with backgrounds so varied you are surprised they were raised in the same country, let alone the same community. They range widely in their abilities, their interests, their experiences, and their aspirations. Some have parental support so intense we call their mothers and fathers “helicopter parents”; others have no support at all. Some are from robust, supportive, intact families; others have survived dysfunction that boggles the mind—alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, divorce, and abandonment. Some are rich; others, dirt poor. They may speak perfect English, bad English, or no English at all. They may have traveled the world or seen only the corners of Tippecanoe County. They are the sons and daughters of bankers, business owners, teachers, farmers, industrial workers, lawyers, tradesmen and women, city engineers and school janitors. They live in trailers, apartments, bungalows, farm houses, and mansions on the prairie. Some even live in cars.

Black and white, Hispanic and Asian, a few Native Americans. They are from here—from three different middle schools—and from everywhere, individuals (over the years) from as far away as Libya, Afghanistan, France, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Ukraine, Iraq, Peru, Brazil, Belgium, and many more countries around the globe. They are Christian, Muslim, and Jew; straight and gay; rich and poor, tall and short; fat and thin; handsome and plain.

For some, it has been a straight line from those first “lost in the halls” days as freshmen to academic distinction and class leadership.

For others, it has been a struggle to reach the stage.

Some have moved nearly anonymously from first year to last; others are personalities, standouts whom everyone knows.

But we weave them together as a class so that by the end of their time with us, when they graduate, they are whole cloth, dressed alike in their red and gold graduation robes, momentarily still on the stage in front of us. We are their admiring parents, extended family, friends of all ages, and their teachers, whose investment in their success is deeper than they’ll ever know.

Most will continue their education—here at Purdue or other at other Indiana colleges, some in vocational schools, a few at colleges out-of-state. Some will enter the military; some, the workforce. But for just this minute, there they all are, a tableau on the stage, a pleasing assembly whose accomplishments make us proud.

The Pledge of Allegiance. The introductions of the School Board of Trustees and the school administrators. A speech from the Teacher of the Year. This year it is an English Department colleague who speaks. His topic, an important one in this time of economic uncertainty and overemphasis on testing, is this: “What is an education for?” Not, he argues, to get jobs, but rather, to know what it is to be human.

The Faculty Scholarship, always a surprise announcement at graduation, is awarded each year to a student or students whose work ethic, demeanor, and personal integrity represent the values we as a faculty share. My colleague announces the recipients, and the two, blushing and excited, but even so, poised, come down from their seats in the bleachers to receive giant foam board replicas of checks—and the real ones, too—in front of everyone here in Elliott Hall, Purdue’s immense (and packed) auditorium.

Five valedictory addresses this year: One makes me and the teachers around me tear up. Juan was born in Mexico. From the very beginning of his education in America, he has been one of those “straight line” kids. In his speech, he thanks his parents, in English and in Spanish, for bringing him to this country and giving him the opportunity they hadn’t had. He has worked hard, he says, to make his parents proud.

Who wouldn’t cry?

Then, the Awarding of the Diplomas. One by one, the students’ names are called and each makes the walk, stopping halfway to shake the principal’s hand and receive his or her diploma—a blank, actually. After the ceremony, teachers will perform one last service: We’ll congregate with the students in a room under the auditorium and give them the actual document. Withholding the diplomas this way prevents hijinks on stage and guarantees that all outstanding fees are paid before the diploma itself is handed over. What we see is stagecraft, and for the most part, the students play their part as instructed. But, like a slip peeking out below the hem of a dress, a student’s individuality is glimpsed in the pace of his walk, the manner of extending her hand, a furtive or full-on smile at the audience, the reaction when air horns and whistles and shouts of “Woot! Woot!” erupt in the audience. A couple of cut-ups dance their way across the stage. Roaring applause affirms the accomplishments of the young man in the wheelchair and the special students who are accompanied in their walk.

When the last Z has crossed the stage, we look at the whole again, not just at the individual making the journey, and see that the group has reassembled without our realizing it. They are a tableau again—but just for a few more minutes while the principal speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging the personality of this class as a whole—go-getters, step-up-to-the-plate kids. Then, the magic words, directed to the students themselves: “You may move your tassels to the left.”

The tableau breaks. The spell is broken. A hat sails through the air, though tossing hats has been forbidden.

Graduation this year is a spectacular finish—for the graduates, of course, who leave the stage smiling broadly and then gather outside with their families and friends for photographs, handshakes, hugs, and happy tears—but for me, too. For all of us who have invested ourselves, day after day, week after week, month after month, in these kids. They are our legacy and they make all of us proud.

Farewell for the Teacher

Removing posters from the walls, stashing books behind cupboard doors, sweeping clear the desk: This is a ritual for the teacher at the end of the school year. But it is not the only one. June brings graduation, and for many students at my high school in rural Indiana, that means a party. These “open houses” are almost all the same: a card basket, a buffet, a sheet cake, and prettily decorated tables set up in the garage or on the back deck. Prominent in all this is another table, sometimes called (even by the kids), “the shrine.” This one is laden with the evidence of a life in school: trophies, awards, scrapbooks, old term papers, and glossy photographs of the graduate in every grade. In some cases, DVDs of graduation, held just that day or the day before, play in the background.

The setting is ordinary only to someone who has attended too many of these parties to count—like me, their teacher. But the fact is, I look forward to these celebrations. Graduation is a marker event for me, too, and the parties are an opportunity to honor my students, for whom graduation is, after all, the biggest achievement of their short lives. I love my students, and at graduation, I have my own emotions to deal with: joy, relief, sometimes regret, and always, when the graduates walk across the stage and out of my daily life, a profound sense of loss.

So every year at this time, I drive the back roads, routes that I ordinarily don’t traverse, to attend one open house after another. Farmers come up behind me in their pick-ups, exasperated, I am sure, because my driving is erratic. I slow down and speed up unpredictably as I scan the mailboxes for names and numbers like 7342 S 750 W, addresses that reflect the rural grid instead of platted city streets. Usually someone has tied balloons to the mailbox or planted a sign: “Jessica’s Open House!” or “Katie’s Party!” or “Brad’s Graduation Bash!”

I attend these parties every year even though no one quite knows what to do with me once I’m in the door. I’m not family, yet my influence has been more profound in some cases than even a close relative’s. I’m not a buddy, but sometimes my opinion has been more crucial than a friend’s. They are not my children, but their importance in my life is incalculable.

The graduates greet me at the end of the driveway or on the porch with open arms and lively voices: “Oh! You came! Thank you!” We hug exuberantly. I remember something funny from class and talk to them about their plans for next year. I usually don’t eat, not because the food isn’t tempting, but because quite often, the students forget to offer me anything. Though they are happy to see me, my presence throws them off stride. I am out of my usual context.

Sometimes they will say, “Oh, you have to go to so many parties you must already have eaten!” and in this way keep me from the potato salad, the pulled pork, the coleslaw, and the cake. I make it a point then to view their collection of memorabilia and to compliment their parents on their son’s or daughter’s accomplishments. Sometimes I chat with other guests, but most often, I leave after only a few minutes. I am at loose ends here. Used to directing the scene, suddenly I am part of the background.

When I leave, there being nothing else to say, nothing more to do, I close the door gently behind me. In this way, I move from the present into the past for this group of graduates, and they for me.

Attending these parties is the equivalent of crossing the stage. I am free now to turn my attention to the summer and to whatever is on the horizon, to rest up for next year. But I drive away slowly. I feel like my classroom looks: stripped of posters, empty of books, barren. I’ll miss these kids.