Friday, July 19, 2013

It's All About Relationships- A Dedication to Dr. Rita Pierson- This One's Personal!

Today I want to take some time to talk about what I feel is THE most important aspect of teaching. No products, no pins, just my own personal thoughts and feelings.

Fair Warning- I’m going to get personal. What I’m sharing today is coming straight from my heart.

Recently, the world of education suffered a significant loss- Dr. Rita F. Pierson. This is a dedication to her. This is also my story.

Here we go…

I taught my first year in a school where things were just “peachy” for me. The majority of my kids were white and upper-middle class. I had tons of support from parents, the students were well behaved, I only had ONE student who gave me any major problems, and everything was… like I said, just peachy!

Second year- I moved back home to Houston and to a new district. I had a new demographic of kids and a vast majority were Hispanic. This proved to be a challenge. I didn’t speak Spanish, which meant I had to have someone translate for me sometimes when I needed to speak with parents. It wasn’t exactly difficult, just a bit more challenging.

Third year- everything came crashing down.  I was moved to a new school within the same district but with, again, a different student demographic. This time the vast majority of students were African American, and as luck would have it, in my class the vast majority were boys- boys who had already failed a grade level once before, boys with major attitudes, boys who weren’t afraid to hit the wall, throw things, and talk back, boys who couldn’t read, boys who were as tall if not taller than me, you get the idea.

That year I was faced with many difficult behavior situations and had student personalities that I didn’t understand and was ill equipped to handle. I felt like a wall was standing firmly between my students and me. I didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand me. And honestly, I was miserable- completely miserable. I felt so unprepared, so helpless, and I would cry almost every day. I would only listen to the radio on the drive home and turn it up as loud as I could stand it just to drown out my thoughts.  I realized that I was not the good teacher I thought I was. I would yell, I would argue, I handled situations in the worst possible way. I had very supportive colleagues, don’t get me wrong, but no one understood what was really going on and exactly how I felt when I was behind closed doors with a class that was out of my control. Why did this have to happen to me? I don’t deserve this kind of mistreatment! Don’t these kids know how disrespectful and inappropriate their behavior is?

I was drowning.

I went on like this, clawing my way through, day by day by day, through Christmas.

It was that spring that I was lucky enough to attend a workshop put on by Aha! Process, a company that was founded by Ruby Payne (another post on that coming soon). During that workshop, I had the privilege of hearing Rita Pierson speak. I was at my lowest point emotionally and was on the verge of a breakdown. The video below is not the exact speech she gave at the workshop I attended, but the message is the same. I realized I was missing the most important piece of the teaching process. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

 If you have time and are in a quiet place, I hope that you will turn up the volume, make the video full screen, and listen carefully to what she has to say.

After hearing Rita, I realized I was doing everything wrong. I was not forming relationships with my students. Instead, I was arguing, defending myself, and in turn escalating situations that could have been easily resolved. I realized that I was constantly in defense mode, taking students’ behavior personally, and allowing them to hurt me. And the worst part for me to admit, I barely knew who my students were. I couldn’t have told you their favorite colors, who their brothers and sisters were, or if they had pets. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was so wrapped up in my own shock over their behavior that I never had taken the time to truly understand them and where they came from.

It was then that I realized I had to make a major change. I made the decision to get to know my students, hold my tongue, get a handle on my emotions, and try harder. I took Rita’s words to heart and apologized to my students for my behavior and actually sought to understand their feelings toward me.

I remember one student told me he was upset with me because he felt like I had treated him unfairly. It broke my heart to hear him say that, but it broke my heart even more when I realized I actually had treated him unfairly by rushing to an inaccurate assumption. I knew nothing about my students. I knew nothing about their lives, their daily struggles, or the hurt and pain they were carrying. I had been completely and utterly selfish.

The rest of that year was never “peachy,” but I learned a lot about my students and myself. At the end of the year, I felt a deep sense of remorse for the amount of time I had wasted. I vowed that I would never make the same mistakes again.

This past year (my fourth year), I was lucky to stay in the same building with the same team members. I had an amazing colleague who is a true master at forming relationships with students. From watching her, applying what I learned from Rita, and practicing, practicing, practicing, I feel like I had the best year ever. I had changed from within and it made all the difference in the world.

Teaching is not easy and students will always present different types of challenges. As Rita says, “the tough ones show up for a reason- it’s the connection, it’s the relationships.” It doesn’t matter who your students are or where they come from, the single most important thing is the relationship you have with them.

This part of her speech still rings in my ears. She says:

“Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be. Is this job tough? You betcha. Oh God, you betcha. But it is not impossible. We can do this. We are educators. We were born to make a difference.”

Rita passed away a few weeks ago, but her legacy will live on. She stands as a guiding light for all teachers, especially those who are struggling to find their way.

I have grown exponentially from my first year of teaching. I think it is hugely important that as teachers we share our battle scars. My battle scars have molded me into the teacher I am today and serve as a constant reminder to push myself to be better and to hold myself and my students to a higher standard.

Do you have your own battle scars? Have you been through situations that have made you the teacher you are today? I hope that you will share your experiences with others- you never know who out there might be feeling exactly the way you felt.

Have a great weekend, everybody! 


  1. Thanks for sharing this TED talk. I plan on sharing this with my PLC in the fall!
    Polka Dot Kinders

  2. Very well written, Kelly. Rita would really like this. She was a special person and will be missed by so many.
    Linda Baker
    aha! Process, Inc.

  3. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. I just watched Rita Pierson's TED talk a couple of days ago for the first time and was so overwhelmed by how honestly and passionately she spoke that I watched it again and shared it with friends. What an amazing experience to have heard her speak in person and at the exact moment you needed it. I have a year left of school but I will be saving your post with Ms. Pierson's TED talk as a reference to look back on for when I am in the classroom and need a reminder of why I wanted to be a teacher and why it's such an important job.


  4. Deena July 20, 2013
    Thanks so very much for sharing this. Rita Pierson was my first assistant principal my first 4 years of teaching. She was so special and I had lost contact with her. It was so nice to feel her touch once again. Thank you.

  5. Kelly,
    Your teaching experience sounds incredibly similar to my own. I spent two years in "peachy world". I rarely had any issues with students and I had parent volunteers who held my class parties and yes, I had an entire classroom sized supply closet with unlimited supplies (whoa).

    For the last 7 years, I've been in a very different district. I have had some students for two straight years and I've never met a parent. My first 3 yrs. at this school, I had the WORST administrator EVER. Not to mention, I too wasn't connected with the students. I truthfully, didn't understand them and/or where they were coming from. My administrator held this against me. This definitely wasn't the way to go about it. I grew up in "peachey world" - perhaps I was so naive I didn't know that another world existed or maybe I just was too self-absorbed to realize it.

    I've been at this school going on 8 years and it is very hard to think about going to another district. I am feeling like it is time for a change so that I can grow, but I fear the unknown.
    This Little Piggy Reads

  6. Kelly,
    Wonderful post and a nice dedication to Rita Pierson. I went through Ruby Payne professional development also. Life changing. Makes you really look at things and situations in a whole new light.
    Fabulous Fifth Grade Fun

  7. Kelly,
    What an amazing story. You are where you are for a reason. Those kids need YOU and Rita would be so proud to hear of the difference she made in you. I completely agree with the fact that children have to trust their teacher before they can learn and building relationships with them is the key. Once the relationship is there, they won't want to disappoint you. And I LOVE the chant she shared about being somebody. How powerful. I think I might try that this year. Thanks for sharing your heart with us. You're the best!

    Teaching With Moxie


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