Author Archives: Gretchen Cruden

Fresh Year, Fresh Eyes

I have been teaching middle school for a long time, but it never fails to make me smile when the following happens at a dinner party:

“What is it that you do?” asks a completely genuine person after they have told me of their grand office adventures.

“I teach (a smile starts to turn up the corner their lips)…. middle school” (smile transforms into awkward grimace). I am always intrigued by the shift in smile as it crosses the person’s face, I can’t help it. What is in that shift? A recalling of their own painful middle school years? A flash of sitting alone at lunch, head-gear on the table next to their institutional green tray? The aftereffects of what this unique age and stage represents in a person’s life fascinates me.

I also relish it because inevitably the person stumbles for words and then says something to the effect, “I could never do that.” One woman even exclaimed, “You must have a secret super human power!”

“Oh, I do!” I replied, “ I have no sense of smell!”

Fast-forward to 2018. My New Year’s Resolution is well underway. I have changed my diet drastically, eliminated my allergies and now… I can smell! I have lost my super human power and I am experiencing the world through a fresh set of nostrils.

Morning math class, Struggling Student, with serious math woes that compare nothing to his home-life woes, comes up for help. A wave of alcohol stench beats him to my desk. What?! This is middle school! He has been drinking? When? Where? Did he come to school this way? Even before he opens his mouth to speak, I have a mental plan to be in the office with this student and the principal. I help him find “X”. I eye him intensely as he ambles back (unsteadily?) to his desk.

I reach for the phone to call the principal. Sweet Girl, the class peach, walks up. Again, a cloud of alcohol fumes wafts towards me. What? Not Sweet Girl…not the class peach! What is going on? I stand up, walk around my desk and survey the room.

It is flu season and a big, green bottle of hand sanitizer has been placed by the sink. Yes! Whew! I do not have a class of prepubescent drunkards…I have a class of rightful germophobes!

And then it hits me. I had quickly jumped to judge Struggling Student as wayward child, while it took Sweet Girl’s presumed innocence to make me go upstream and seek the truth. My conscience slunk into my gut and sat down hard. I never wanted to know I could be that kind of teacher – the kind who falls prey to the Pygmalion Effect.

I clearly recall sitting in my teacher prep classes in college and learning about the Pygmalion Effect. This concept was presented by Dr. Rosenthal in the 1960s and holds that teachers’ expectations of students greatly influences their learning and behaviors. Dr. Rosenthal found that when teachers were told their students were on the brink of a massive intellectual blooming, their IQs did indeed rise over the course of the school year. The kicker? All were truly just average students. The Pygmalion Effect has been supported by numerous studies since it was first discovered.

I was a Pygmalion Effect participant. I was not happy, nor was I proud about that. How had I come to this? More importantly, how could I improve my thinking?

So many data points track our students year-to-year, classroom-to-classroom: Response to Intervention data, state test scores, in-district test scores, behavioral referrals and IEPs are just a few. Most are aligned to statewide policies that require teachers to review, analyze and adjust their instruction for improvement. I cannot help but wonder what effect this information has on a teacher’s subconscious mind as she participates in a thousand little interactions with each student over the course of the year. It is very easy to see how I could have come to this; how any teacher can come to this.

How can I improve? How can any teacher improve? In all honestly, I feel like I am a very fair and equitable teacher. I keep mental track of whom I have called on, I am careful in my praise to ensure students know they their efforts are meaningful. I am cognizant of each student’s abilities as I prepare materials that will push each child to the high end of their Zone of Proximal Development. And yet, those are all very conscious choices I am aware of. What about my unconscious actions? My implicit biases? Perhaps I “feel” like a fair and equitable teacher, but do I subconsciously think like one?

I am intrigued by the work of Dr. Pianta in this area. He experimented with an intensive behavioral training program which provided teachers with a whole new set of teaching responses surrounding student behavior. A quick review of his work gave me a series of, “Aha” moments. In essence, he found that teachers who undertook skills-based training to ameliorate unconscious biases actually increased student learning for all of their students. Many of my students come from deep poverty and face many struggles in their daily lives. Interactions with their teacher should not be one of them. Most of the time, I am keenly aware of this; my moment was an eye-opener for me. I realized I needed to do everything in my conscious AND unconscious power to ensure this to be true ALL the time; throughout all those thousands of little interactions that grow students’ belief about themselves.

My New Year’s Resolution has found me experiencing the world through a fresh, new set of nostrils. I have added to my resolution to view my students through a fresh, new set of eyes.

The Stress Mirror


I have been asking questions about this adventure called teaching a lot this year. Why is teaching so different from other professions? What sets teaching apart from all else?

And then, one afternoon, my answer was experienced. I had a momentary swirly eddy of stress that day – the kind that seems to pop up out of nowhere amid the general thrumming of my classroom. In the teaching world, these are much like a bull ride; wild and crazy, but usually much longer than eight seconds. I captured the moment in a conscious stream of thought during my lunch break that day. Here it is:

Five minutes to lunch – a middle schooler is on full meltdown because her PowerPoint did not save and she will JUST DIE if she has to redo it. I begin the search on her very old, very slow computer. All the while, another kid is spitting mad that so-and-so stole his mechanical pencil lead (mechanical pencil lead…the bane of my existence!). Another student tips back and falls out of his chair and hits his head…yet again. He is sent to the office to get an ice pack, only after it is determined through a ro-sham-bo who gets to walk him down so he “doesn’t concuss and stuff” (his words, not mine). I make a note to check his pupils when he returns and to give his mom a call at lunch. PowerPoint girl is still melting down. “I HAVE TO HAVE IT!” Computer is Still. So. Slowly. Searching. An ironic counterpoint to the frenzy. A kid (you know the one) brings up a book that has the last 20 pages missing and the NEED to finish it RIGHT NOW to take a reading test – do I have the same book? (How did you not notice the gaping spot where the pages should have been?)

Teachers teach students far more than just content every single moment of every single day. There is a concept in neuroeducation called mirror neurons. This concept holds that when a person witnesses an action or emotional response to an event, areas of their own brains light up as if they themselves had participated in the action of event. It is one reason why athletes are able to use visualization techniques to perfect a move.

More importantly for educators, it is the reason why students sense our reactions and moods surrounding events and build these into their own schemas of emotional regulation as to how they should respond to such stress in the future. If we get angry and frustrated in dealing with the on-going stresses in our classroom, students learn to get angry and frustrated too when they feel stressed. If we approach stress as simply a part of teaching and can detach ourselves from its grip enough to just witness it as a response to events unfolding, we are far more like to respond calmly. Students “mirror” this calm in their own brains.

Teaching is unlike any other profession in that we must keep our game-face on the entire workday; there is no escape – no cubicle to retreat to, no office door to shut, no water cooler to take a quick walk to just to get some perspective. No, we must stand in our shoes and cope with the constant thinking/decision-making/problem-solving and the constant calling out of our names. There is no retreat.

We handle this all not to just keep our jobs or even to check a box on the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model. (There is no box for it anyway.) No, we manage our emotions because we have students watching us, learning from us and ultimately becoming us. That is a heavy burden to carry and is one of the things that sets teaching apart from other professions. When my Bored Teachers feed pops up on Facebook with its funny “stressed to the max teacher” memes, it reminds me I am not alone. This burden is carried by many hands.

Yet, there is always a grain of truth in humor. The Bored Teachers memes speak to the stress inherent in teaching that sometimes can be overwhelming. It is this type of stress that was examine in the Quality of Worklife Survey of over 30,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers. Some striking findings? Overall, 73% of respondents stated their workday was often stressful. With this high of a percentage of stressed teachers, it is not surprising 26% of respondents say that in the last 30 days, their mental health (stress, depression, emotional challenges) was not good for 9 or more days. Whoa. This is not good for teachers and certainly not good for students.

The world of learning has embraced the importance of teaching social emotional regulation for students. But what about teachers? Bearing in mind the aforementioned survey’s findings, it would be wise on many levels to allocate professional development dollars providing teachers with high-end stress management strategies for regulating in the moment. Imagine a classroom with a teacher at the helm who had learned powerful insights into their own emotional reactions to students’ behaviors alongside strategies for how to stay calm throughout the swirling stress eddies of the day. That is a powerful learning environment.

Phone rings – no more ice packs for chair tipper; sending him back with a Ziplock full of ice. (I know this will be leaking within minutes of the kid’s return and he will be eating the ice, which will irritate the kids around him.) Oh! Blessed relief! Pencil boy found his lead. But, now he refuses to apologize to the accused. Accused is red-faced mad, but sitting in silence, arms crossed. I make another mental note to pull both of them out of the lunch line for a quick chat to resolve this when everyone is a little cooler.And then the magic…THE POWERPOINT IS FOUND! A gush of intense joy! Big hug!

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mrs. C, you saved me!”

“You are welcome,” I say as I steal a peek at the rescued PowerPoint.

It consisted of one, single slide with a title on it. “Freinds” -misspelled and all.


The lunch bell rings.



Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (, the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, ( or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.