Monday, September 5, 2016

The Day Maria Saved Me from Myself

It was the late 1980s, and I was teaching United States History in a Texas high school. I had already taught middle school social studies in Tennessee for 8 years. Furthermore, I had completed 15+ graduate hours in history before I began teaching.
In spite of being a history major at the undergraduate level, I had never studied the history of Latin America. This changed when I took a graduate course in Latin American history. During this course, I completed a short research paper on Francisco (Pancho) Villa, which included his raid on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916.
Like too many male history teachers that I knew, I loved to tell the “blood and guts” stories in history. Before you get too angry, I know this statement verges on being a stereotype of male high school history teachers. However, I am referring only to the male history teachers that I knew at that time. I announced to my class that on the next day we would discuss Pancho Villa, and I would share information about his invasion of the United States and his raid on Columbus, New Mexico. I had never read of this event in any middle or high school American History textbook. In fact, Mexican History was seldom mentioned outside of a very brief reference to early colonial history of the Americans and the Zimmermann Telegram, and its impact on our entrance to World War I. Regardless, I had all of my “blood and guts” stories ready to go.
Then there was Maria.
She was a very quiet Hispanic young lady in my 9th grade history class who never said a word in our discussions. However, when I mentioned Pancho Villa her arm went up, she was waving her hand to get my attention, and she had a huge smile across her face. I was so shocked that all I could say was, “Maria!” She responded, “My mother told me that her father (Maria’s grandfather) rode with Pancho Villa.”
I am quite sure I turned pale and stood speechless for 30 seconds (an eternity for teachers). In spite of being caught off guard, I retreated to that classic teacher response, “Maria, go home tonight and ask your mother what her father told her about Pancho Villa, write down what she says, and you may share it with our class tomorrow.” She did exactly what I asked. It was not a very good report mainly because I did not give her any help, and she was in that world of using Spanish at home and English at school. What did I do with my “blood and guts” story of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico? I folded my notes on this raid, took them home, and never again used this story in class.
Why? First, I could not think of any educational value in using this story in my 9th grade United States history class. In the early 1900s, Pancho Villa was much like a “Robin Hood” to the poor in northern Mexico. Second, telling this story would simply crush the spirit of Maria, a precious young lady in my 9th grade class who only knew that her grandfather rode with Pancho Villa, an important person mentioned in history books.
I am not talking about being “politically correct” when deciding the stories to tell from American history. This story should not be told even in high school without providing students an understanding of the history of Mexico, which includes the Mexican Civil War, the poverty of the mainly native American citizens of northern Mexico, and the role of a very popular Pancho Villa, who was later assassinated. Furthermore, the President ordered the invasion of Mexico by the United States military under the command of John J. Pershing in an unsuccessful campaign against Pancho Villa. This single story of the attack by Pancho Villa on Columbus, New Mexico is too complex to drop in the lap of 9th graders without putting it in a historical context.
As a teacher may I never use my knowledge, power, or authority to crush the spirit of my students.
Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How to Begin the New School Year with a Positive Atmosphere: A Suggestion

Several years ago, I taught in a Texas high school that had the most negative and destructive atmosphere I have ever experienced. The year before I began teaching in the school, a black/white race fight had erupted over an interracial couple. The result was police in the hallways for several months. As I began teaching in this troubled school, I found that the only contact I had with parents was when their children faced severe discipline issues. Furthermore, regularly scheduled open houses were attended by only a handful of parents in a high school of over 1600 students.

My goal became to find a way to talk with parents when their children were successful rather than when they faced serious discipline issues. My first objective was to make certain my instructional strategies engaged the students. One thing I had learned about classroom management was to avoid dead time. I started class on the first day of school with or without textbooks. My first five days of class included high-interest topics in American History. At the end of the first five days, I gave a test, and many of the students did very well.

This background leads to the focus of my story—Tressa. A paper trail of discipline referral forms followed Tressa. Any rule that could be broken, she broke it. For example, over the public address intercom the principal told students they could not walk around the school barefoot. They must put on their shoes. So, what does Tressa do? She comes down the hall barefoot with her shoes over her shoulder.

However, after her first five days in my class, she made 100 on the test. I never told the students that I would call their parents if they had a high score on the first test—not cool with many high school students. I called Tressa’s mother and when she answered the phone, I said, “I am Mr. Simpson, your daughter’s teacher in American History. I just gave my first test, and Tressa scored 100. You have a very smart daughter. You push at home and I will pull at school, and she will have a good year in American History.”

There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line. I did not know if Tressa’s mother had passed out, died, or had a stroke! After a few moments she said, “You are the first teacher to ever call me and tell me anything my daughter has done that is right.” Do you want to know how many discipline issues I had with Tressa during that term in my class? Zero!

What can you have students do in your classroom that will give you the opportunity to call, email, or send a positive note to the parents of your students? Take a little time at the beginning of the school year to make these positive contacts with the parents, and I believe you will see a positive difference in your students’ attitude toward classroom assignments and their classroom behavior.

Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The New Normal and the Children in Your Classroom

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Is this the new normal? Have we already reached the point where another mass shooting doesn’t bother us? Will we just continue as normal and hope that we will never be in the cross-hairs of another mass murderer who has some perverted view of his religion?

Are our children aware of this “new normal” as they try to balance their views of good and evil in our world? Are they aware that in several terrorist killings children have been targeted, and in school shootings perpetrated by students, they are often the only target? They are more aware than most of us could ever imagine.

As our children prepare to start back to school in a few weeks in the midst of this "new normal," have we stopped to consider their greatest need this fall? Several of our local school districts are beginning new programs of integrating technology into the classroom. Teachers and students are excited about the possibilities of using all technology devices from cell phones to laptops as part of teaching and learning. However, I am convinced that our children have an even greater need.

As the 2016 Fall Semester begins, I believe the greatest need of our children is to feel safe. I would contend that children who have uncertainty and fear always in the back of their minds cannot maintain their focus on instruction. I know what’s going through your mind. You are dumping another non-academic task on my plate of requirements. Leave me alone and let me teach my subject. I wish the life of a teacher and child was that simple, but it’s not.

After the 9/11 attack on New York City, the United States Department of Education released Suggestions for Educators: Meeting the Needs of Students, a document dealing with the role of the teacher in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. I want to share a few of the suggestions from this document.

  • Listen to your students and watch their behavior. Sometimes the quietest child may be the most frightened. Some children may daydream or have trouble concentrating on their schoolwork. Some may act out.
  • Take time to reassure your students that their homes and schools are likely to be safe places. Show them that their school is functioning normally. Remind them that they are your children, and the most important task you have is to keep them safe.
  • Help students discuss the known facts and separate fact from rumor. Avoid speculating or exaggerating graphic details. Try not to be an alarmist.
  • Incidents have occurred since 9/11 where children of Middle Eastern decent have been threatened or taunted. This is an excellent opportunity to help children understand that most individuals who are from other countries are good people who live in and love the United States as much as they do and that one should make judgments on an individual basis.
  • Maintain structure and stability through the daily schedule and engage in classroom activities that do not focus on the recent attacks. Children are comforted by their normal routine, and “back-to-normal” activities will help them.
  • Remember that the images on television are frightening, even to adults. Reduce or eliminate the presence of television and cell phones in the classroom, where students may view pictures of the attack. Don’t take up the cell phones. Both children and their parents need to be reassured that everyone is safe.
  • Remember that high school students are also afraid, but they do not express their fear in the same way. Let them know that being afraid is normal, and it does not mean they are weak. However, as a teacher you may also be afraid, but you must project a calm demeanor in front of your children.
Please remember that children often forget what you say, but they never forget how you made them feel. 

As you begin this new academic year, may it be the most rewarding year in your professional life.

Bless you my children,
Dr. Terry L. Simpson

Other Helpful Resources

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Out of Many, One

Several weeks ago, we celebrated another Memorial Day in this country.  My wife, Deborah, and I place great meaning on this holiday--it is much more than the official beginning of summer.  Both of our fathers and several uncles served in the military during World War II.  Many historians along with others who study American culture contend that the population of the United States was more unified during World War II than at any other time in our history.
Then came the cold reality of the day in which we live—the massacre in Orlando, Florida.  We experienced what our security forces fear the most, a home-grown terrorist.  The feelings of unity evaporated in the senseless slaughter of 49 souls.
With this event, the negative tone and wild accusations of the presidential race, and the inability of Congress to work together for the good of all, it seems as if we are being ripped apart void of any solvent that could hold us together.
As a teacher, I often try to determine the essential characteristics/cultural traits/attitudes that are missing in society--knowing that it’s imperative these missing traits are somehow instilled in the next generation.  For the past few years, one question continuously comes to my mind.  How can we unite the diverse population of our country?
Several years ago, Arthur Schlesinger wrote The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, which was sharply criticized by his friends on the political left.  However, I believe Schlesinger was correct when he identified the nation’s schools as the critical institution that must assimilate our diverse population into one nation.  I want to share two paragraphs in this book with you.
A century after Tocqueville, another foreign visitor, Gunnar Myrdal of Sweden, found the essence of the “solvent power” in what he called “the American Creed.”  Americans “of all national origins, regions, creeds, and colors,” Myrdal wrote in 1944, hold in common “the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals” of any country in the West: the ideals of the essential dignity and equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity.

The schools teach the principles of the Creed, Myrdal said; the churches preach them; the courts hand down judgments in their terms.  Myrdal showed why the Creed held out hope even for those most brutally excluded by the white majority, the Creed acting as the spur forever goading white Americans to live up to their proclaimed principles, the Creed  providing the legal structure that gives the wronged the means of fighting for their rights. 

“America,” Myrdal said, “is continuously struggling for its soul.”  (p. 33).

My dear friends, as our country becomes more diverse each day, we cannot unite its people around one religion, one race, or even one moral code.  But we still have a chance to unite this country around the great ideals we have held, though not perfectly, since the founding of this nation.  So my fellow teachers, gear up!  It seems we have been given a short reprieve from the consuming emphasis on standardized test scores.  Let’s unite the next generation around these ideals.
Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson
Schlesinger, A.M. (1998). The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Letter to Our Graduating Seniors-2016

May 17, 2016
Final Letter to Graduating Seniors
I love graduation at Maryville College.  I love the ceremony and traditions which have unique meaning for our graduating seniors.  A number of years ago, I started writing a letter to our teacher licensure students which I always give them on Wednesday evening during their final exam before graduation on the following Sunday.

May 11, 2016
From the desk of Dr. Terry L. Simpson…
Since you have now completed your last final exam at Maryville College, may you have a wonderful celebration with those who care deeply about you and your future.  We have worked hard together to make you the best teacher that you can possibly be, but it is now squarely on your shoulders.  We have equipped you to be a leader and not a follower.

When you finally receive your official Maryville College degree, please remember that no one owes you anything.  Rather, you are obligated.  You are one of the 10% of the world’s population with a college degree.  You are obligated to make a positive difference in the world around you.  You are obligated to be unconditionally dedicated to our children.  A wise teacher once said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  
When you are named “Teacher of the Year,” you must call Dr. Orren, Dr. Lucas, Dr. Mertz or me before you call your mother!
Finally, for the last time, “Bless you my children.”

Monday, April 11, 2016

2016 Challenge to the Maryville College Initiates into Kappa Delta PI

I want you to look closely at this group of students—top academic performers in majors across the various academic divisions on this campus with an average GPA of 3.71.  You have the potential to be successful in the profession of your choosing.  As highly motivated students, you have freely chosen to dedicate your professional lives to the education of our children.

The political pundits claim that our brightest students do not become teachers.  I don’t think so!  Maybe they should visit our campus and talk to our teacher licensure students.

The naysayers argue that today’s students are self-centered and concerned only with the material things they will acquire in life.  I don’t think so!  They should ask these students about their values and goals.

The doomsday prophets lament about the failure of our schools, especially our public schools.  I don’t think so!  These men and women will be professionally successful wherever they teach, and their students will be academically successful.

A few months back we reached a point in this country that should have caused alarm, but it did not. For the first time in our nation, the majority of American children live in poverty.  Considering this information we must remember, your role as a teacher is even more critical.  Research has consistently demonstrated that children from poor families must have effective and creative teachers or they will fail.

In spite of this need for teachers, we know that our schools lose a significant number of our brightest and most creative teachers within the first three years of their teaching experience.  Don’t forget that our schools desperately need you.  They need your knowledge, your creativity, and most of all your idealism. 

However, I must remind you that many schools have a very powerful, self- appointed committee—the Water Bucket Brigade.  It is the task of this brigade, much like pouring water on a campfire, to stamp out the fires of enthusiasm in new teachers.  They want to destroy your idealism in the name of their real life “realism” and “I don’t care anymore” attitudes. However, they understand neither idealism nor realism. 

Don’t let anyone, including burned out colleagues, destroy your idealism.  The most destructive room in the school building is the teachers’ lounge!  Avoid this room. Without high ideals and striving for perfection, a society is doomed to mediocrity and eventual failure.  I am here to reaffirm your idealism.  You must never quit. You will earn the respect of those in you community; you will make a difference in the lives of children; you will have a positive and lasting influence on American society. And, when you are named teacher of the year, you must call us before you call your mother.

Several months ago, I viewed an interview with a former Tennessee Commissioner of Education.  She spoke of a meeting that she had with a group of very successful entrepreneurs each of whom had risen from poverty to success.  She said that each of the entrepreneurs could immediately tell you the teacher that made the difference in his or her life.

I am finishing my 26th year at Maryville College and 43rd year as a teacher, and at this point in my life, I often reflect on my success and failure.  I am old enough to have that privilege and you have to listen.

Although I have no idea how it will happen, in my faith community we believe that we will give a final account of how we lived during this brief time on earth.  The Holy Scripture that I read has a letter from the Apostle Paul to Christians at Thessalonica.  Paul had taught and poured his soul into the lives these individuals.  He wrote, “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation?  Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming?  For you are my glory and joy.”

Just thinking about giving a final account of my life gives me great pause.  When I contemplate on my many failures, I can only appeal for mercy and forgiveness.  This is the very reason I refrain from judging others.  This may seem selfish, but I am too concerned about my own accountability to worry about others.

 However, when I think of you and the time we have spent pouring our souls into your development as teachers of our children, with boldness and confidence on that day of final accounting I will present you to our Lord.  For you are my hope, my joy and my crown of exultation. 

In this my 26th year at Maryville College, I never cease to be amazed at the quality of students who enter our teacher education program.  I surely have the best job on this planet.  I consider it an honor and privilege to work with you.  You make us very proud.

Bless you my children.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Civility in Civic Discourse

So many political commentators have registered their moral outrage at the civic discourse in the presidential primaries over the past six months that I fear you may exit this blog as soon as you read this first sentence.  Please give me a chance to share to the future and the essential role of our schools so that we can move beyond this current political climate. 
After reading numerous comments by editors and listening to an endless number of political commentators, one could easily conclude that this crude discourse in the presidential race is different from the more acceptable civic discourse in the past.  This conclusion would be erroneous.  While I was completing my doctorate at Texas A&M University-Commerce, I taught as an adjunct American history instructor at Collin County Community College.  One of my favorite stories from 19th Century America is the election of Andrew Jackson as president.  Jackson married the love of his life, Rachel Donelson, before he ran for president.  Rachel had married Lewis Robards when she was 18, but her relatives accused Robards of abuse. Rachel later thought she and Robards were legally divorced; however, this divorce had not taken place.  Jackson’s political opponents seized on this issue and unleased a vicious moral attack on Jackson but especially on Rachel.  Their language was vulgar and straight from the moral sewer.  Rachel was so crushed by these moral attacks that she died after the election but before Jackson was inaugurated as president.  Some of Jackson’s closest friends and advisors feared that he would resign before serving a day as president.  As you know, he did serve, but never forgave his political opponents for the death of Rachel. This is one example of dirty politics among many that could be cited from past presidential elections in the United States.  
However, I do not share this example in order to condone the quality of the debates in the current presidential race.  After each debate the political commentators from the news media try to tell us who won.  It seems to boil down to which candidate had the best one-line zinger to which the other candidate(s) failed to respond.  A one-line zinger should have little or nothing to do with winning a debate. 
Many high school students and most college freshmen are introduced (it is to be hoped) to logical fallacies as they study argumentative writing and debating.  Logical fallacies are common errors on reasoning that will undermine the logic of one’s argument.  As I share four fallacies, think back over the presidential debates thus far and see if you can recall examples of each.   
First, ad hominem fallacy is an attack on the character (looks, personality, or attitude) of a person rather than his/her opinions or arguments of the topic being debated.  Did not many of the debates begin with this very fallacy? 
Second, genetic fallacy is the claim that an idea, product, or person must be untrustworthy because of its (his/her) racial, geographic, or ethnic origin. How many of the verbal exchanges between candidates have centered around this very fallacy? 
Third, hasty generalization is that one’s conclusion is based on insufficient or biased evidence.  In other words, one is rushing to a conclusion before one has all the relevant facts.  However, in our current presidential debates, facts don’t seem to matter anymore.   
Fourth, the straw man fallacy oversimplifies an opponent’s viewpoint and then attacks that shallow argument.  What grade would you give most of the candidates in these debates thus far?  My grade would be an “F”. 
At this point in the history of the United States, it is imperative that we seriously engage in moral and civic discourse regarding the complex issues we face as a nation.  Nonetheless, I am weary of listening to the vulgar language of our politicians.  Moreover, I do not want my grandchildren to hear it.  Neither do I want them to aspire to political leadership if they have to pattern their behavior after our current presidential candidates.  I am weary of attempting to listen to political pundits as they try to yell louder than the other pundits in their group.  Being louder than everyone around you and constantly interrupting others as they speak should not mean you win.  It simply means you are rude and obnoxious.  The current political climate is bringing out the evil angels rather than the better angels in each of us.  
It is up to our schools to produce a new generation of citizens that demands something better from our political leaders.  Since we are backing away from a total emphasis on standard test scores in our schools (thank God), may we turn our attention to civility in civic discourse.  I call upon Governor Haslam, the Tennessee Legislature, Education Commissioner McQueen, the Tennessee State Department of Education, local school boards, directors of education, principals, and teachers to commit to this goal.  If we do not teach our children how to participate in a democracy in a civil manner, who will be their teachers?
Reference:  Simpson, T.L.  “Model for Integrating Moral Discourse into the Classroom.”
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Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson