Knowing vs. Understanding


In education we always tell students to never stop learning…. and boy did I learn something HUGE from a simple sentence a few weeks ago.

Recently, I read a blog from an administrator where he stated something similar to this… There is a big difference between knowing and understanding.  This really got me thinking about my teaching through the years up to now.  It made me stop in my tracks and evaluate myself.  Are my students just knowing or are they really understanding? What is more important?  That they know the information. That they understand the information. That they both know and understand the information.

So I took that challenge and started to change some of the ways I approach learning with my students because one should… Never Stop Learning!

I decided that real learning is when you know the concept, but yet understand it enough that you can teach it too.

In the past few weeks I have been doing the “usual” teacher thing, answering questions my students have, but with a small twist.  As I answer a student’s question and move on, when the same question is asked I don’t answer it. I know strange right, not answering student questions.  This is where the change came in my teaching. I ask the student I just helped to come over, and I watch, listen, and guide as they explain to their friend how to know and understand the question.

What I have found is that true understanding comes from knowing. It has been interesting to watch them teach each other. It has been interesting to hear my teaching through them. It has been interesting to see them confidently stand and go to their friend in need.

Game changer for sure, but the learning didn’t stop there… I began to ponder myself as a teacher.

I always ask myself am I doing enough for each of them.  I am I really “getting” them the way they need me too.  Am I understanding them where they are or am I asking them to understand where I want them to learn?  Am I really understanding them or do I just know them?

These questions really got me pondering so much more than teaching… 

We as educators are always asking students to KNOW the information.  We are always asking them it they UNDERSTAND the information.  But….

Do we just KNOW our students or do we really UNDERSTAND our students?

I began to think of the 13 darlings I get to spend my days with Monday through Friday.  I thought about the parts of their lives I know about but don’t understand.  I thought about the moments I missed learning to understand them and not just know them.  I thought about how important each moment is….

As their teacher I get to spend many moments with them, but with that comes a huge unknown. The moments I miss. The moments I don’t know about. The moments that can make their day do a 180, not because I am not watching but because I am not there, so I don’t understand.

As my students walk the halls and spend time at recess, as much as I try to not let things happen, things are said and done.  Things that hurt a kid to their core. Things that change their perception of themselves. Things that play over and over in their heads while I am asking them to KNOW and UNDERSTAND.

As my students walk out the doors to go home, I don’t KNOW how their nights and weekends will go.  I don’t KNOW what battles their families are fighting.  I don’t know what “baggage” they will carry with them when they walk back through the doors the next morning or on Monday morning.

BUT… I can be better, much better at not just knowing or understanding them, but knowing how to understand them!

I can understand that I need to make my patience a little higher, because Sally had to go to her mom’s house this weekend and she loves both her parents so much that it hurts to be away from either of them.  She wants to master her math facts but she just misses her old life.

I can understand that math is not the most important thing for Johnny, because his buddies just made fun of his new shoes in the hall that his momma spent her paycheck on because the tape wasn’t holding them together anymore. Johnny wants to read those words but all he hears is the kids laughing at him.

I can understand that Suzy needs a little more understanding with her homework and late work, because she had to get her siblings to school this morning because mom and dad were at the hospital again. Suzy wants to be at school. Life is easier there, but home needs her more right now.

I can understand that Freddy is acting out because he can’t tell me that he misses his mommy, because he doesn’t know how to put into words how he is even feeling. He just knows if he acts out I will notice him and I will give him some attention that he craves.. good or bad.

I can understand that not all kids come to school with the same background, the same love, the same homes, carrying the same weight in their backpacks, but they all come to school with the same desire to be successful. It’s just the moments we miss that make that hard sometimes.

But not impossible…

What I can do is KNOW that I need to UNDERSTAND that all kids come to school wanting to learn. Every single one of them wants to be successful. It is just the “stuff” that they carry into our classrooms from the bus or car ride, the walk through the halls, or even the night before.  The circumstances that they can’t control that control their ability to KNOW and UNDERSTAND what I am teaching them.

I can control how I respond to Sally, Johnny, Suzy, and Freddy. AND it is in that moment,  that small moment, that I can control how they know and truly understand what I am teaching them… the academic concepts and the concept of you matter.  You matter more than the math book, but we will together learn! You matter and your learning will be successful, because I may not have your baggage, but I WILL help you carry it at school.

Teach your students to never stop knowing, understanding, and learning, and in turn NEVER stop learning, knowing, and understanding your students. They deserve it!





Model What You Want… Get What You Model… And don’t forget about Spaghetti!


Spaghetti…. Do you like it or Do you have an extreme dislike for it?

We will get back to spaghetti in a minute!

As a veteran teacher of 20 + years I have always told my colleagues that the minute I stop progressing is the minute I find something new or put in my retirement papers.  This attitude isn’t one that I came up with myself.  It is an attitude learned from a former colleague and friend that had been teaching longer than I had been alive when we first started to teach together!

Get What You Model…

When I first met Mrs. Freeman she was a friend of my husband’s family and a teacher at the local school.  At the time I was teaching in a nearby town, and had just begun my career.  Then a few years down the road a First Grade position in our town, Mrs. Freeman’s school, so I quickly put in an application!  And just like that I was now not just a family friend but a colleague of Mrs. Freeman’s.

Model What You Want….

As I started to work with Mrs. Freeman I began to notice she wasn’t your
normal, run-of-the-mill veteran teacher. There was something different about her.  Something that I needed to watch and learn from.

Mrs. Freeman was the first to school in the mornings, and left not soon after the teacher bell rang as she worked at the local convenience store at night.  It wasn’t because she had too for the money….  No, I believe in my heart is was way more than just something to do. It was a way for her to make sure her “kids”, old and new, were doing okay.  She would chat with them about how things were going and would make sure the kiddos that came in, I believe just to see Mrs. Freeman also, knew she cared! She was building a relationship with her new kiddos, and maintaining the relationships she had already formed with her “old” kiddos.

Then I saw something in her that I hadn’t seen in any veteran teacher I had worked with or been taught by, and it stuck.  It made me open my eyes wider. It made me “sit up, watch, and learn”. It was big. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t the NORM!

Model What You Want…

You see in Nebraska, back when State Standards first came out, Fourth Grade was one of the few years that students were assessed. And by assessed I don’t mean just one test….. ALL THE STANDARDS WERE ASSESSED IN FOURTH GRADE! Mrs. Freeman met the challenge head on and dug into the standards, breaking them apart, putting them back together, aligning them with her curriculum, and then curriculum mapping to make sure she was preparing students for what they were going to face.  She knew they were counting on her. She knew they needed her best effort, so she gave it all she had and more. Not for herself, but for the kids.

As we grew closer as colleagues, she began to ask me about some of the “stuff” I was doing in First Grade. She had seen some of the “stuff” and thought it might be something she would like to “try”. She came in and watched. She had me come and teach a lesson to her class so she could see things implemented at her level. She asked questions. She tried new things, and WHY?

Remember, Mrs. Freeman had been teaching longer than I had been alive! And she wanted to learn. She wanted to be more. She wanted more for her kids.  She wanted to give the best at all times. She was one of the most progressive, non-complaining, do what’s best for kids teacher I have had the privilege to work with.

Was she the best all the time… Probably not. But when she didn’t think she had done her best she didn’t settle.  She dug deep and worked harder.  Every child learned.

She truly was and modeled… Every Child. Every Day. Find A Way!

Get What You Model…

So how does that lead to me… How? That is where I learned the attitude of, “Give It All, All the Time!”

I learned from Mrs. Freeman that the attitude and excitement and work ethic you model for your students will be what you get back from kids.

If you want students to turn work in on time… Get papers graded and back on time.

If you want them to be excited about school… Be PUMPED as they walk in the room. Each moment of everyday.

If you want kids to respect you…. Respect their lives, in and out of school. Respect their time. Respect who they are not who we wish they would be. Respect is earned not demanded, both ways.

If you want kids to trust you… Make mistakes something normal, something that happens to you. Say sorry when you need to. Say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” if you don’t. Make yourself human and a team with them not “I am the TEACHER!”

If you want kids to love your room…. Love your room! Love your job! Be excited. Be enthusiastic. Make them believe what you have to teach them is FAR from routine. Love being at school, so they love coming!

And most of all…

If you want kids to care about your subject matter….. You need to care about their subject matter.  Not their grades. Not their assignment. Not their test scores.  Not their homework.  You need to care about the things that matter to them.  You need to make a connection……..

I have a student this year that is SUPER quiet.  I mean NEVER talks in anything but a whisper.  I made it my goal to connect with this student.

One day this student had a question in math… As I approached this student to answer the question I got down on her level next to her and said, “Before I answer your question you have to answer a question for me.” She looked at me very cautiously and whispers, “Okay?’  I then asked the student what her favorite food was.  She looked at me like I was a crazy teacher and answers, “Spaghetti.”  I proceed say, “Guess what?  I can’t stand spaghetti!” She says in her tiny whisper, “That’s funny. Everyone loves spaghetti!”  From that moment on whenever the announcements say we are having spaghetti she yells, “You aren’t eating today are you Mrs. Smith!” and I reply back, “You got it girlfriend!  I can’t stand that stuff!”

One moment… Not even a minute and a connection was made.  She found out I cared more than that question. More than that assignment.  I wanted to know her! She mattered and I cared!

Back to Mrs. Freeman… I thank her for modeling what I needed! I thank her for showing kids that she cared enough to face the tough parts of teaching, so in turn the kids dug in and faced the hard parts of school.  I thank her for showing me that you have to care.

Because sometimes all it takes is an extreme dislike of spaghetti to let a student know…. Every student. Every day. Find a way!








A Teacher’s Regret… Lesson Learned…


As we walk into the last semester of school it can seem like we have so much to accomplish before the end of the year… So much to do so little time before testing starts. So much to do before we have the students ready for the next level.  So much to do…. In this blog post I would like to you see, I would like you to take to heart at what is really important. It is the moments you give of yourself to those faces that want more than a test score……….

I was an attendee a NETA conference in Kearney, NE this fall where Jimmy Casas was the keynote speaker as well as a presenter. To listen to him discuss the importance of building relationships was more than inspiring…. It caused me to attend 2 of his 3 sessions that day.  I sat in the back in the corner reliving what took a huge part of my heart, but replaced it with so much more than I could have ever imagined. As he spoke it was everything my teaching philosophy is in my deepest core. I always tell people that the relationship is 90% of the learning process.  The other 10% will come when they know you care about them more than their name in a gradebook, the curriculum, or your paycheck.

But… I wasn’t always that teacher. I was the teacher that saw the kids as the curriculum, the 8:00 to 3:30 classroom, and as the kid in the desk that just can’t stop talking.  It took a special little girl that taught me to Love to live, but live to love!  

My story ended and began on May 21, 2003 with a student I will call Sally…..

That school year started off like every other school year.  A classroom full of first graders eager to learn with eyes facing me saying take us and teach us!  As the year progressed a little girl began to stick out, not in the way that you would think to a teacher.  She was a struggling reader.  She was a struggling student in math.  I had conferenced with her parents at the beginning of the year and let them know that she was behind, but I would do all I could to get her to where she needed to be, I thought.

As the year went on this student began to grow in her relationship with me.  She wanted to tell me everything she could. She wanted me to know everything….. EVERYTHING!  She would come to me and say, “Mrs. Smith…”  I would say, “Not right now Sally. Just a minute. Tell me later.”  Then shortly thereafter she would again say, “Mrs. Smith… “ I would again say, “Sally, give me a minute and then I will listen.” But that minute never happened…..

She would work one on one with me.  Her bright eyes and smile wanting to absorb every minute of her time with me and every ounce of what I could teach her.  She had the desire to learn. She had the desire to go further than she even thought she was capable of, but it wasn’t happening.  She wasn’t growing at the rate she needed to.  So I set another conference with her parents.

At this conference in late April or early May I told her parents that I didn’t think she was ready for Second Grade.  I thought it would be best for her now and in her future education if she spent another year with me.  Her parents both agreed and it was decided that Sally would be with me for another year next year.

The last week of school was upon us… It was Wednesday and we would be packing up our things in the first grade for the summer tomorrow, Thursday, May 22, 2003, the LAST DAY of SCHOOL!! YAY!!  

I had so much to do and so little time (you know the crazy of the end of the year)! I was dismissing kids after a LONG last full day of teaching for the year.  I walked the kids out. All the parents were there and waiting to pick up their kiddo or they started their walks home.  Sally and I looked for her mom, but it looked as though she would be late.

So Sally and I sat down on the steps of the school waiting for her mom for what seemed like an eternity, because I had sooo much to do, from 3:30 to 3:45.  We sat, she talked and talked and talked, and I didn’t listen. Instead of listening I sat thinking and disgusted that mom was late, because I had more to do than sit with her kid during my work time and I had my own family and stuff to get home to.  

Finally, at 3:45, her mom pulled up to the school in an RV.  I walked Sally across the street to the RV, opened the back door, and put her in.  I walked around the RV to the driver’s side and talked to mom again about next year’s plans for Sally.  As they drove away I thought to myself, “Finally!”

I hustled back into the school, hastily packed up my things, because I had to get home. All of “this” was now going to have to wait.  I walked out the door of the school and heard sirens in the distance. Our town was near the interstate so sirens were not an unusual occurrence. I looked towards the interstate and notice smoke rising in the air.  I thought to myself, “There must have been a car fire on the interstate.” I proceeded to get into my car and head home.

That is where one story ended and another began…… May 21, 2003 at 4:00 I became a different teacher.  That smoke wasn’t just any car on the interstate.  It was the RV that I had, THAT I HAD closed the door on 5 minutes earlier putting that 6 year old into. The same door she wouldn’t be able to get open to get out of. That closed door was the last time I would see that smile.  That little girl that dressed up on Homecoming week as the little girl in Monsters, Inc. That door closed on the last time she would say to me, “Mrs. Smith guess what…….” I will never know what…..

You see it was in that moment that I lost a part of me that I took for granted. That I thought would always be there. I lost a part of me that meant more to me than I let her know.  I lost the chance to let a kid know they mattered. That they mattered beyond 8:00 to 3:30. That she mattered… She was important.

In that moment I also lost the teacher that didn’t let her students know that they were more than a test score, a homework assignment that was turned in or not, or that they mattered more than her planning time. That their story matter and I wanted to be a part of it.

Sally was one of four children that lost their lives that day in an RV fire.  I put her in the RV at 3:45 and at 4:00 she was gone.  SHE WAS GONE! She wouldn’t pack up her desk for the summer. She wouldn’t take home all the stuff that was scattered all over her locker. I would have to do that piece by piece. I would have to sort out Sally’s school life wondering what I missed. Wondering with each picture in her desk if that was the picture she tried to show me.. Mrs. Smith.

She wouldn’t finish that super important test, but I could finish the test for her. The test she left behind for me…..

I wouldn’t be able to ever hear her stories that I said, “Just a minute Sally. Tell me later.”, because you see later would never come…… with Sally. But I could hear the stories of all the students to come.  I could take part of “my” time to be present.  I could learn so much more about them than their academics.  I could know their favorite food, their favorite sports team, what they did on weekend, etc. I, to steal a line from Mr. Casas, I could learn their core. And in turn share mine. I could tell them what my favorite food is, my favorite baseball team, my favorite season and my least favorite season, and the fears I have and all my imperfections. How I learn from my mistakes and others.

Relationships….. They matter. They matter more than a 6 to 18 year old could or would ever tell you.  They are the root of education.  They, like you said, are the core of it.  Your core, their core, they matter.

Relationships…. I still get busy. I still tell kiddos that they will have to wait to tell me something, but guess what, later always comes before the end of each day.  I find them. I look in their eyes. I listen! The “small things” they want to tell you really are huge!  They tell you about them. They tell you what makes them tick. They tell you what they love. They tell you what excites them. They tell you because you matter to them.

Relationships….. They need to know they matter. They need to know they are more than the curriculum. They need to know you are human. They need to know what makes you tick as much as you need to know what makes them tick. They need to know they matter to you.

You see like I said the story begins, ends, and begins again. I wish I knew how to make all teachers see this.  I wish they could “get” it in a way that is a much easier lesson than mine.  

You see when you spend the last 8 hours, the last 15 minutes,  of a 6 year old’s life with them not focusing on them, but focusing on the “stuff” that matters but does it really.. it doesn’t.  You see stuff that really doesn’t matter, because it will fall into the right place, at the right time, with 110% vigor and effort when that relationship is built….

When you stop and listen…. Really listen with a caring ear and heart.  Their stories will fill your soul. They will fill your heart with more joy and each year as they pass through your door. Your heart will grow more and more until you think it will burst, but deep in that corner their joy will fill you and in the end you learn more than they do! You learn that we all learn and grow when my classroom morning greeting and afternoon send off is truly believed in a student’s core…. You are kind! You are smart! And You are important!

Take time… Take a moment… Those faces matter! They matter more now than they ever did to me!  Build the RELATIONSHIP and you will build more than you think!


New Year, New Student



Just a short blog from a thought that came to me on a quick run….

I live in the middle of Nebraska so running outside in December is sometimes challenging.  Today when I left to run it was 5 degrees outside! On those days I choose to run the halls of my school…. No Windchill, No Freezing Temps, No Cars or Critters to worry about.  As I was running today thinking about the New Year that is upon us I  had a thought…

New Year, New You!

You hear this quote many times as the old year comes to an end and we begin to usher in a New Year.  We start to think about starting something new.  Making ourselves better. Giving ourselves a clean slate from all that “junk” we ate the last month! A fresh start to prove to ourselves that we can find that corner of us that needs improvement and do just that. Start over… New Year, New You!

What about our students?

As I ran the halls that my students walk this was my thought… I give myself the chance to start again! I don’t hold onto the “bad” from the last year, and I just press forward and TRY to improve.  Do I do that with my students?  Do I allow them a “New Year, New You”? I mean why do I let myself start the New Year with forgiveness and a clean slate, but when Johnny walks back into the school I get that cringe in my stomach of “Here we go again!”

New Year, New Student

I have spent time reading the book Culturize by Jimmy Casas this Christmas Break and in the book it talks a lot about being a CHAMPION for kids.  As I thought and ran this came to mind with New Year, New You, New Student… when you win a Championship there are a lot of failures and losses along the way, but you don’t give up. You get up. Dust yourself off and try again.  Let’s do that with our students as they walk through the doors of the school in the next week……. Be the leader of the Champion!

New Year…. New You… And let them be a New Student!






Investing…. This word holds so much power.  This word scares some and others see it as a challenge. A risk to find a way to get the biggest gain.

When we invest in something such as the Stock Market we can hardly wait to see what our return is.  When the envelope shows up in the mail or the website is checked you are always hoping for an increase, a positive investment.  What if you get your portfolio statement and it shows a large decrease in your investment?  You have to sit down and look it over.  You sit and analyze it. You check to see if it is something you should try again or if you should move your money.  Investing… it’s a gamble until you find the perfect fit for your money and your future.

As a teacher fresh out of college I hit the ground running! I was ready to invest in kids, but I didn’t put a ton of “money” into the student.  I was afraid of the “market” crashing with little left over. I began to put enough in to make sure that they received the information they needed, but not really enough to make a difference in having the big positive outcome.

I was the teacher….

I was a 2nd or 3rd year teacher when my investment, we will call “Johnny”, made no return. I began to ask myself, “Why should I give and give and give? Johnny doesn’t even come to school most of the time, and when he does come he doesn’t even try, and homework that is a WHOLE different story!” So I took my “money” out of that failing investment without analyzing it at all.

I was the teacher….

I had tried and he didn’t. I didn’t look to see why the investment wasn’t working. I thought, “He isn’t going to try and I have tried everything.” I didn’t take time to sit back and think. “How can help this kid get through? What can I do to make it work?” Or… even this question, “How should I change what I am doing to meet the needs of this student? How can I make him succeed not wait for him to figure it out on his own? What am I missing?”

I was the teacher…..

He began to show up to school less and less.  I knew then that I had made the right move with my investment, because Johnny’s family didn’t even care if he was in school and all these other students deserved my “money” more….

I was the teacher….

Then one rainy day, yes the day is etched into my memory.. My boss asked me to come to her office, and in that moment I found out why the investment wasn’t making any gains. As I sat down in my principal’s chair and the words began to flow from her mouth I only hear the first few, “Johnny wouldn’t be returning. Last night he had been pulled from his home and taken to Denver Children’s Hospital….. It was the worst case of abuse a Children’s Hospital had ever seen.”

It didn’t matter anymore who was the teacher….

You see Johnny WAS trying. He was trying to survive.  He wasn’t trying to survive math.  He wasn’t trying to meet the words per minute to be on grade level.  He wasn’t trying to get 80% on his spelling test.  He was trying to survive life from 3:30 pm to 8:00 am, so when he got to school he was safe, he was able to relax, he was able to not have to worry what was going to happen next.

I was that teacher… Now I am not!

Fast forward 15 or so years… I am still the teacher, but I am not that teacher.  I invest… I invest A LOT!  I invest in their academics. I invest in their reading. I invest in their math. I invest in self-esteem.  We take risks as a group. We make mistakes, as a group. We invest together. Some days I do all the investing, but some days my students invest more than I do. But that is how it should be, because we are a team. I am the leader. Guiding them through, making mistakes together, but NEVER giving up on the “investment”! Because the investment is one of the biggest and most profitable parts of teaching. It is where everyone as a team, not I am the teacher, will find the greatest gains.

Be the investor not the teacher!


Be Your Heart!

When I set foot into my first classroom I had no idea the impact of “Being Your heart” would have.  In fact I really didn’t know until many years later how HUGE sharing your heart with students truly would be.

There is a quote that many teachers share that states something close to this… “Your students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  But what does “care” really mean in this quote.  Does care mean greeting them? Does care mean asking how they are in passing? Does care mean teaching the curriculum to a class?  Does care mean showing up for them? Does care mean checking their homework assignment?

Those are all important.  Don’t get me wrong


Does care mean let students know your heart? What makes you tick… What makes you happy…. What makes you, YOU!

As an educator for 20 plus years I have been on both sides of what “care” really means.  I have been that teacher that makes sure that the curriculum is complete, the homework has been assigned, the line is straight and quiet, and a smile is on my face as I taught.  Don’t get me wrong! I loved my job when I was that teacher. I loved my students!  But my heart wasn’t always in the right spot.  I didn’t share me.  I didn’t invest in my students.

It took 5 minutes in my career to make me realize that sharing my heart, being my heart was worth it all.  It is worth the 10 minutes away from the curriculum every so often to just let students know you are human.  Let them know we are in this together. We will make mistakes, together. They will forget. You will forget. We will forget.  Let them know what makes you tick, what makes you happy, and what makes you, YOU!

My students today know my heart.  They know my favorite food is nachos with a side of Peanut Butter M and M’s. They know I wash it down with my favorite pop Diet Coke.  They know I forget my tea sometimes in the morning and my husband has to run it to the school on his way out of town.  They know when I talk about my favorite thing I did over the weekend how much I love my time away from school, but then they also know how much I love to hear about their outstanding moments away from school.

Be your heart, because when you see them and they see you “Beyond the Whiteboard” you both learn more than you dreamed possible.

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“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Henry B. Adams

Teachers… Have you ever asked yourself that very question? Why?  Why are we getting up day after day before the sun, leaving our own family to work with someone else’s children? Why are we working more than an 8 hour day to make lessons? Or are we really just making lessons?  Why am I doing this day after day?

That is a question I never asked myself in the first few years of my career because frankly it didn’t matter. I was the teacher.  I would plan. I would get through the curriculum. I would complete the tasks put before me, but did I really?  Are “they” tasks  or are they so much more than that?

Through this blog I hope to share how I see the “task… Beyond the Whiteboard!