Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Coach Ellis: Family

This blog is in honor of my dear friend and colleague Mark Ellis.  Often unsung heroes go unrecognized in public education and I want to recognize Mark for the inspirational educator he is.  He is a peer mentor to so many of us as he exudes what it is to be a quality high school teacher.  The beloved poet Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Mark makes fellow teachers and students feel like they can accomplish anything that they set out to do.   

Coach Ellis:  FAMILY

Two weeks ago marked the sixth annual Mr. WHS fundraiser at Westborough High School.  And as usual it was a wonderful community event that was extremely successful.

I remember six years ago when Mark approached me about working with him on a school fundraiser idea he had.  He wanted to raise money for the HUDDLE athletic software program for WHS football; he also wanted to offer some financial support to the Westborough Food Pantry.

I thought to myself, Sure, what are we talking ? A car wash?  A bake sale?  And then Mark said, What about bringing our own Mr. WHS fundraiser to WHS?  This event would be similar to the ones that surrounding towns were holding.  I thought, producing a Mr. WHS fundraiser is not a one hour or one day commitment.  This is a multiple months  commitment.  But then again, Mark doesn't do anything on a small scale.  When he commits, he goes all in.  And for those of you who have worked with Mark, you know that he is a teacher with whom you want to collaborate.  When working with Mark, you know you will work hard, do your best, and have a good time in the process.

As one former Mr. WHS contestant recently shared with me:  "Coach Ellis not only helped start an amazing event for the Westborough community, but also gave the Mr. WHS participants a unique experience.  Rehearsal was something our group looked forward to because of the atmosphere Coach Ellis provided."


Mark and I have worked together for over 17 years at WHS; he is a Physical Education/Wellness teacher and I am an English/Journalism teacher.  We connected years ago when I wrote a poem for the WHS varsity football team Mark coached for years.  I had a bunch of his football players in my classes and he and I would communicate frequently to ensure his players/my students were accessing the curriculum. Not only did Mark want his players to do well academically, he wanted them to succeed on and off the field.

"As a teacher he made it very clear that he cared deeply about his students, which made him a very approachable faculty member.  His classes were always upbeat and catered to all levels of competitiveness, which is my reason for enjoying them so much," remarked one of his students.


And so began an awesome four year run of directing and producing Mr. WHS with Mark, his wife Karrah, and several other WHS teachers (shout out to Celluch, Reed, and Cullen).  Mark has an amazing way of bringing people together from all walks of life and creating a healthy, functional family of choice.  He demands your full effort and skills in working with him, because he knows the awesome responsibility it is to mentor teenagers.  He knows how critical it is to balance expectations and boundaries with a sense of humor, compassion, and empathy.  He knows because he has been teaching and coaching teenagers for two decades.

Another former Mr. WHS student commented:  "Mr. Ellis became much more than a coach or a professor.  He helped bring together high school students from all different backgrounds and organizations, into an incredible and universally loved program. He was a mentor and someone who would support anyone should they need it, and ultimately created an incredible experience for WHS."

A few weeks before the show, we would hold evening rehearsals after sports practices.  Mark and Karrah would bring their children Jarrett (age 5 at the time) and Emma (three at the time).  I would bring my son Seamus (who was 7 at the time) and my daughter Molly (who was three at the time).  All four children would play together and learn the dance moves that the teenagers were learning for Mr. WHS.  Our students loved getting to know our children; and they were role models for our kids.  And the idea of family was emphasized as there was a mutual exchange and understanding of respect, trust, integrity, humility, and sportsmanship.

At the end of each Mr. WHS practice, Mark would bring closure through a group cheer.  I knew he would do it at the end of his sports practices.  So it was pretty cool to witness and to experience Mark yell in the WHS auditorium, "Bring it in. On three:  FAMILY." And then the group of teenagers in unison would yell FAMILY!  The school spirit Mark would generate was contagious.

Mark believes in all kids...on any given day you can see students from all walks of life giving him a high five in the hallway saying, "Hey, Coach!"  He dedicates time during his P.E. classes to creating solid relationships with his students--and as you know--P.E. teachers have a lot of students in their classes--way more than the average classroom teacher.  He teaches the Advanced Placement students and he teaches the Adaptive P.E. students; Mark believe in equity for all students.

Mark also believes that students have the capabilities to be leaders.  Years ago he created a student athlete leadership two-day workshop that has serviced hundreds of students from surrounding towns. The leadership workshop wasn't about how to become a captain of your sports team--it was about becoming a leader even if you weren't captain of your sports team.

Working with Mark has been an honor and a privilege.  I am a better teacher because of Mark.  He also has become what I call my work brother.  Our families respect and adore one another.  And here I go back to the importance of human connection--that is why we are here--to be better and to do better for ourselves, our families, and for our students.  The service we provide our students is invaluable in supporting their success--Mark is one of the teachers who provides this invaluable service to our teenagers.

Unfortunately, next school year Mark won't be teaching at WHS.  For those of you who have developed wonderful relationships with colleagues, you know how hard it is to say good-bye.  For me writing is one way I express myself. So, Coach--one last time at WHS--"Bring it in.  FAMILY on three. One...two...three..FAMILY!"

Monday, June 5, 2017

Food Stories and Teaching

The following vignettes have a theme of food--you'll find some to be of a serious nature and others to be lighter in content.


In my earlier years, I would bake my students cookies and brownies.  Yes, bringing in food can be construed as a form of bribery, but if you know me--it truly was out of kindness.  I have learned kindness can be a wonderful motivator for my students.  And now that I am a mother of two and don't have time to bake, I occasionally bring in munchkins.

Anyway I digress, so one day years ago, I passed out some homemade brownies at the beginning of class in attempt to keep my students engaged in a grammar lesson.  A bunch of girls were giggling in the back as they ate their brownies and some other students were glancing around nervously.  I was oblivious to any behind the scenes nonsense and began teaching.  A few moments later, the assistant principal was knocking at my classroom door.  He called out the three giggling girls to take their backpacks and leave the room with him.

Come to find out they had been identified the class period beforehand as getting high in the girls' bathroom.  And then of course they came to my class with the munchies.  And here I was passing out brownies!  Sigh, I didn't know!


When I was in high school, I remember learning about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but it was until I started teaching that I understood the application of the Hierarchy of Needs.  If you need a refresher, please click on the link below.

The reason why I share about the Hierarchy is because if I have students sitting in front of me who haven't eaten--and I don't mean skipped breakfast because they woke up late--I mean haven't had a warm, nutritious meal in days, how can I expect them to activate their brains to learn whatever is the lesson of the day?  Yes, some students may muddle through while hungry, but they are not accessing their true potential.  Thankfully years ago, I worked with some fabulous guidance counselors (thanks Kim, Gina, Barry, and Bill!) early in my career who were able to provide me with information about certain students' life situations.  This collaboration enabled me to figure out that if I wanted the best from my students, I needed to create opportunities for my students to access food.

Yes, some of our students qualified for free or reduced breakfast and lunch, but have you ever seen how much a teenager can eat and drink throughout the day?  I shared a classroom with my colleague Sarah; we would keep a drawer full of granola bars and other snacks and discreetly let our students who were in need that they had free access to the drawer.  The difference we saw in our students' physical and psychological demeanor was transformational.  They knew they would have some of their nutritional needs met as well as the emotional safety of knowing they would always have access to some food.  And cognitively, they could now access their learning.

I know a lot of teachers who provide their students with food and other necessary resources for learning.  Yes, we do it because we know students learn more when their brains are fed, and we do it because it is the humane, loving thing to do.


And for those of you who didn't read an earlier blog of mine, there's the jelly doughnut story:

I have grown as a teacher because I have learned:

To duck quickly when a student throws a jelly doughnut at you. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. You may be thinking at least it wasn't a chair or another form of a weapon (don't worry, those things were thrown at me later in my teaching career.) Anyway, a freshman girl who had some anger management issues threw the doughnut at me when I told her she couldn't eat it in the classroom. Now mind you, it wasn't my classroom. As a rookie teacher, I had to travel around the school to five different classrooms. The classroom I was in where I dodged the doughnut was the classroom of a very bitter and cynical teacher. I personally didn't mind if students had a snack or a drink in class; however, this teacher did and made it very clear to me that she would have me reprimanded if she found food in her classroom. So when I pleaded with my student that it wasn't my policy, but we had to respect the classroom teacher's policy, the student scowled and threw the doughnut at me. As I ducked, it hit the blackboard and as if in slow motion, splattered and dripped down the blackboard. For a split second, I admired my quick reflexes to duck, but then I was horrified at the thought of the bitter teacher seeing the remnants of the doughnut on her blackboard. Oh and yes, I was also upset that my student made a bad choice and therefore, I directed her to the principal's office.


Lastly, I want to talk about tea. If I was your teacher, you know my drink of choice is tea--hot tea, iced tea, green tea, black tea, flavored tea...nothing added to it--just water and a tea bag.  I grew up loving tea because my mother and her best friend would always meet up for tea; and as a child I would observe their loving friendship as they drank their hot tea.  As a teacher, tea serves as a comfort, an inspiration, and a conversational starter and a connector.  Often students will see me with my Honey Dew, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, or travel mug filled with tea in the morning.   I have had many a student start a conversation with me about how they drink tea when they aren't feeling well or how refreshing an iced tea is on a hot day.  Or a student will mention that his grandmother, favorite aunt, or dad drinks tea.  Some of my greatest teacher gifts I have received is a gift card to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, so I can buy a hot tea!  What I love is receiving a text from a former student who says he/she was drinking a cup of tea and thought of our class and/or something he/she has learned in our class.  


I once read the three things people from different culture can connect over are:  food, music and dance. I have found this idea to be so true with the culture of teenagers.  I shared about food today--I'll save my music and dance stories for another blog. :)