The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rachel’s Challenge

In October, my school participated in a Rachel’s Challenge assembly. If you don’t know who Rachel Scott is, she was the first student shot and killed at Columbine. The assembly exposed students to Rachel’s story and was very emotional for many. The main point of Rachel’s philosophy on life is outlined in her five step challenges. Our students embraced Rachel’s Challenge with amazingly open arms. After the assembly, leaving very few with dry eyes (including people who already knew Rachel’s amazing story), students were invited to show their acceptance of Rachel’s Challenge by signing a banner.

Part of Rachel’s legacy was the extensive amount of personal journaling that she did. Her journals have proven to be extremely inspiring to many people because of her commitment to living up to her own challenge. As a way to continue to promote Rachel’s philosophies, our students were invited to sign up for free journals to write their own thoughts and feelings in.

The response was overwhelming. When the first round of journals went out, over 200 students received one and immediately began writing. Our amazing Media Specialist took it upon herself to purchase all of the journals. And she didn’t just provide the students with run-of-the-mill journals. She went out of her way to find fun, decorative journals that the students could pick from. She also organized a sticker drive where people donated stickers for free so that students could use them to decorate their journals and personalize them. After the first round of journals went out, another 200 plus students asked if they could also have journals. Practically our entire middle school student body wanted to take part.

Students also responded by wanting to have more opportunities to be inspired. They wanted to read more stories like Rachel’s. They wanted to be inspired, which is a big deal for middle schoolers! Many students found something that they could be passionate about. Our Media Specialist even provided a special section of books specifically for these students.

I could go into a LOT of detail about Rachel and her story, but that’s not exactly the focus of this blog entry. The focus of this entry is to relate her challenge to my first year of teaching and what I have learned about teaching.

This entry could possibly be emotional for some as you relate it to your own experiences, so I won’t go into a lot of the details about Rachel. If you are interested in knowing more about her story, please visit: You will also find information on how to bring her story to your own students there.

What you do need to know is that Rachel was a compassionate, caring person. That is obvious through the writings that she left behind in her personal journals, through an essay that she wrote for one of her classes, and through the testimonies of many of her peers. Here are her challenges, and how I hope to relate them to my students and others in the school:

1. Look for the best in others
It’s very easy to get information from others on students. In fact, we receive information on students before we ever even meet them in most cases. It could be paperwork, it could be work samples, it could be stories around the water cooler. But how much of that information relates to students’ strengths? How much of it has to do more with what others feel we need to know? How often do you hear “Little Johnny can’t sit still and talks all the time” before you ever get the chance to know what an amazing artist little Johnny is? And, honestly, I know time is a factor. It may be more of a pressing issue to know what challenges lay ahead of us for around 120 students before we can focus on the strengths. We definitely need a heads up on where a student is going to struggle (or be a struggle) in the classroom. It’s a scary thought to walk into the classroom completely unaware of what difficulties may arise. I’m certainly guilty of looking at a new student’s IEP and flipping past page one (which CLEARLY states the students strengths and visions for the future) and going straight to the goal page. What goals does this student have? Where are we going to find the deficits?

But here’s the good news: we can work through those challenges by looking at the strengths. Look for the best in our students. It’s hard. Believe me, some students MAKE it hard. But that’s why it’s called a challenge! Starting off your students with interest inventories or surveys and really assessing where they shine, even finding out how they learn best, can really help hone in on how to get past “little Johnny can’t sit still and talks all the time.” Could little Johnny’s talking be a strength? Can we draw on that? And it’s not always difficult. Just asking a student what they’re good at could be a great place to start. In doing that, you begin to build a relationship with that student. Even occasional short conversations can be enough for a student to see you as a real person and not just the Charlie Brown-esque teacher standing in the front of the room “wah-wah-wah”ing.

And certainly use your resources. Hearing that you can use little Johnny’s talking as a strength in the classroom may seem like a daunting task, but a quick google search or chat with a co-worker may be just the way to capitalize on all that chit-chat. And also remember: little Johnny probably has many, many more good characteristics. We just have to search for them more than we search for his weaknesses.

2. Dream big
This one is a two parter. We need to dream big both for our students, and for ourselves.

We’ll start with dreaming big for our students, because it relates to looking for the good in them. Many times we encounter students who don’t care. I was surprised at how many of them I’ve come across already in middle school. It seems a little early to have given up, but I just recently heard two students, both who had received failing grades, laughing over the fact that one of them had earned five more points than the other. It’s a little devastating and unnerving. I have to wonder, if they aren’t focused on any purpose in school, who is focused on it for them? Is there someone rooting them on? I had had a discussion earlier with one of those students regarding her dreams for her future. Most questions were answered with shoulder shrugs and “I dunno”s. She did not have a vision for her future besides “I don’t know, work at, like, McDonald’s or something.” This is where we can take the first challenge a little further. When we see that good in our students, that thing that they do surprisingly well, that something that they really enjoy, that’s when we can run with it. How can they apply it to their future? Is there a club or organization, in school or in the community, somewhere that they can learn more about their strengths? Is there some way we can help them turn their strengths into dreams?

Sadly, many students don’t have anyone to dream big for them. And I’m not putting down parents, here. Often times, parents and guardians are trying their best just to provide for their children and make it from day to day. We have a responsibility to step in and really go to bat for our students when we can. Again, when the students see us putting in this type of effort and concern for them, we are strengthening our relationships with them. They will be more willing to put in effort if we set the standard on how to do it for them first.

On a personal note, I have just completed my first official real life Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavioral Intervention Plan for a student of mine. His behaviors have, admittedly, gotten out of control, and he has begun to use a behavior that once had a function, as more of a game. Even I am annoyed by the behavior most of the time. And I have a lot of patience for kids. (Not as much with adults, I use it all up on kids.) So while putting together his FBA and BIP, I met with some of his teachers, counselors, and administrators. We discussed his behaviors and I could see the annoyance and fed up feelings in all of the faces. I realized we were going to have to dream big for this kid, even if we had to convince ourselves first. There is always a function behind these behaviors, and we have to believe in the interventions we are setting up for the interventions to even be possibly successful. So, here I am, first year teacher, reminding my peers (and myself) that we all need to believe in this kid and our intervention attempts. Of course, my amazing co-workers were all on board! All it took was a reminder that someone needs to believe in this kid and we need to dream big for him. He’ll get there. I know he will.

Now. We need to dream big for ourselves.

Again, we need to role model for our students. If we don’t have clear goals and ambitions, why should they? This doesn’t mean that we all need to go back to school and earn several doctoral degrees. This just means that we are ever broadening our own horizons. We have goals set for ourselves, and we are able to share bits and pieces of this with our students (when appropriate). When my students find out I’m in graduate school, they ask me a lot of questions. Isn’t it hard? Don’t I get really tired? Isn’t it boring? (It’s not boring, for the professors who may read this, but the students assume it will be!!!) Why would I go back to school to get a higher degree if I could just be a teacher with a regular degree? They are really interested. And I have goals beyond this. There is the possibility that I will go back, again, eventually. I also want to learn Spanish. I also want to learn sign language. I want to learn to play the piano and guitar. I want to keep learning. If I continue to have these dreams for myself, and continue to pursue them, I can continue to provide examples for my students of why dreams are important, and why putting in the work now is going to be worth it someday.

3. Choose positive influences
This challenge is going to be more focused on my teaching career than specifically on my students. Choosing positive influences is huge. Remember the water cooler talk I referred to earlier? It’s really easy to get caught up in that. Even if you don’t have a water cooler at your school. There is always somewhere that people congregate to vent. I’m not saying that venting is a bad thing, or that we don’t all need to vent sometimes. What I AM saying is that, as a first year teacher, I can’t be anyone’s shoulder to cry on. I’m doing what I can to get by. I am not able to take on any additional burdens, and may not be able to put myself in that position for a very, very long time. As much as I want to know the gossip, or hear all the crazy things that people have to say about So-and-So and Whatshername, I NEED the positives. This is where we need to figure out the things we WANT to do and the things that we NEED to do.

I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive, positive team that I work with. I definitely have several people that have been teaching long enough to know what they should tell me, and what they should not tell me. My advice to new teachers would be this: find out where the venting and gossiping happens early on. Then don’t go there. It’s just too much to try to take on anyone else’s negativity this early, plus, you don’t want your name in it, in any way. You will probably be provided with a mentor. Use that person to help you when you need to vent or have a problem, and use them to help you find other positive people to support you in the same way when they are not available.

4. Speak with kindness
This seems obvious, but it can be extremely hard at times. Frustrations can build up and emotions can get the best of any of us. Add to the daily schedule the fact that you probably stayed up late trying to finalize those lesson plans and find that perfectly differentiated activity to cover all of your students. You’re probably extremely tired. Plus, it’s only Wednesday. Is it really only Wednesday? You have two more days until the weekend. Yeah. That’s stressful. Kindness might be the last thing on your mind by now.

But it’s important.

As part of Rachel’s Challenge, my school had an extra meeting for students later in the afternoon. Students were invited to come and talk about how they were affected by the assembly. I did not attend the second meeting, but another of the EC teachers that I work with did. When I asked her about it, she described to me how emotional it was. She told me that one of her students from last year had gotten up to talk. He talked about how he has Autism, and how he gets picked on, and how he can’t help it. He just wants to be himself and be happy. Other students talked about things that have happened to them at home. Still others discussed the fact that they had considered harming themselves, or even suicide. Her reaction was: “All of this stuff is going on at home, and we are trying to teach them what main idea is.”

This really spoke to me on how important it is to speak with kindness. We have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. We have no idea what some students are simply surviving through from day to day. I would encourage you to also view this short book to get a better idea of what some students are going through behind the scenes, and why the way we talk to them is so important:,d.cWc

(It will come up as a PowerPoint. I promise it’s safe, if you’re interested in looking at it!)

5. Start your own chain reaction
This is Rachel’s final challenge, and many schools make a physical representation of it. If you’ve seen the movie Pay It Forward, this is a similar premise. If you do something positive for someone, they will be inspired to do something positive for someone else, and the chain will continue. The physical representation is made up of paper chain lengths with positive things written on them, linked together. It’s a great way for students to see their positive actions leading to more positive actions!

All of the previous challenges can relate to this final one. If we look for the best in others, they will be inspired to look for the best in someone else.

If we dream big for ourselves and others, they will be more inspired to dream big for themselves.

If we choose positive influences, we can be more positive influences for others, who will then be positive influences for the people in their lives.

If we speak with kindness no matter what, we are being role models to our students for how to deal more appropriately with difficult situations and emotions, and they will learn to speak with kindness to others.

I would like to wrap up by encouraging you to really look at Rachel’s Challenge on your own time. This is a very basic look at her challenge and all of the amazing, inspiring things that she wrote and did. In no way do I feel like I have covered it all. I do, however, feel that I was extremely inspired by the assembly in her honor and all that it has done to inspire my students. I hope that you will be inspired as well!

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