Fantastic Friday: Endings and Beginnings

Bryant schoolThis Fantastic Friday post, which debuted on Down the Gravel Road, is a look back at the last gathering of the last group of elementary students I taught. They were ready to graduate from high school in May of 2011. This year, many of them are graduating from college. Though Bryant School where we had spent their fourth grade year together, had been closed, it was still standing. Bryant School is gone now, replaced by single family houses. Time passes. Change comes. But the lessons learned at their Time Capsule opening 4 years ago still hold true. And when I think of them all grown up, the children they once were still make me smile and cry.

Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday’s Time Capsule Opening was a strange mixture of endings and beginnings. The graduating seniors who gathered were Bryant Elementary fourth graders in 2002-2003, my last year of teaching. Until this spring, the students returned to Bryant to open the capsule.

But not this year because Bryant School is no longer open. So we gathered in the new, bright, and sunny lunch room at Franklin School instead.  The seniors were so busy thinking about graduation and parties and new beginnings, they barely noticed. Plus, they were having too much fun looking through old pictures, sharing memories, and discovering what they put in the Time Capsule to get all mushy and maudlin.

I, on the other hand, felt like a kid in uncomfortable, new clothes that didn’t quite fit. This place wasn’t the well-worn school where we made fourth grade memories. Seven years older, the little children I taught and loved for nine months barely peeked out from beneath whiskered cheeks and prom sun tans.

Their eyes are on the future.
Their hearts are full of hopes and dreams.
Their lives are full of beginnings, not endings.

For me, this spring filled with endings: the end of time capsules, the end of graduation invitations from former students, the end of Bryant School, which will soon be demolished.

I am ready for this ending, as ready as these brave young people are for the end of this phase of their lives. I just need a moment to cry and savor these sweet and tender endings. Then, I’ll learn one more lesson from these fresh and lovely students.

With them, I’ll look at the future,
examine new hopes and dreams,
concentrate on beginnings rather than endings.
With them, I’ll finally graduate from public school.

A Dream and a Prayer

school kids

I dreamed of you last night,
Three students who graced my teaching days.
Last night, a decade after the last good-byes
Of my final class of children faded away.

Why now?
My sleep-drugged brain wondered.
Out of all the students
Why these three?

The first question I could answer.
After a day of writing a mystery novel
With a elementary teacher solving crimes,
School was on my mind.

But why these students?
I can not answer, though a reason there must be.
So I whispered a groggy prayer to the One who knows,
Then fell into a dreamless, restful sleep.

Top Ten Reasons to Be Kind to Teachers Going Back to School

Back to School Teachers

My teacher friends and former co-workers in our school district went back to work yesterday. Speaking from 25 years of personal experience, here are 10 reasons to be kind to teachers for the next few days and weeks.

10.  Contrary to popular opinion, most teachers didn’t sit around the pool eating bon bons all summer. Most teachers spent much of the summer going to school to hone their skills. They even turned in assignments, sat at the other end of the red pencil, and received grades.

9.   During summer school classes, teachers wore flip flops. At home they went barefoot. And now they have to shove their feet into teacher shoes. Remember those teacher shoes? Not a pretty sight.

8.   The first few days back to school, before the kids return, are packed with meetings about exciting topics such as Proper Procedures for Cleaning Up Bodily Fluids (I’m not making this up) and the latest No Child Left Behind government regulations. The powers that be grant these topics higher priority than things allowing teachers preparation time in the classroom.

7.   Teachers know those meetings will eat away their preparation time, so they’ve already donated several unpaid days to get their classrooms ready, plan lessons, and prepare materials. And because of budget cuts, they often pay for materials out of their own pockets.

6.   At some of those meetings before the kids come, teachers learn about newly assigned duties that take away their scheduled planning time and in some cases much of their lunch hour.

5.   Once the students return, teaches spend much of their lunch hour doing one of the following: running home to let the dog out, eating at their desk while preparing for afternoon classes, or supervising students.

4.   You know how hard it is for your kids to adjust to the school schedule every fall? It’s that hard for teachers, too, because they’re big kids at heart. That’s why they’re teachers.

3.  Teachers would rather help kids succeed than mark assignments with red pencil and fill out report cards. But their job description requires they do both.

2.   Teachers spend all day supervising 25–30 people who are crowded together reading and doing paperwork in a small space without privacy cubicles. Can you think of businesses that ask adults to work in conditions like that?

1.   Your child’s teacher cares about your boy or girl. A lot. Your child’s teacher cares about every student. But teachers know they can’t give students everything they need. Teachers know that no matter how hard they works, at some point they will fail students. They will obsess over every failure and try to do better the next day, knowing they will fail again. But they keeps trying because they believes kids are worth their best effort. And if you tell teachers they’re doing a good job, they’ll remember your kindness and pass it on to a child. Because that’s what teachers do.

What would you add to the list? Leave a comment!

10 Years Older and Still At It

Jolene Philo leaves teaching

A couple weekends ago, I turned 57. Not a Big–0 birthday, but big nonetheless. Because I’ve now been out of teaching for an entire decade.

This 1–0 anniversary is a good reason to think about what’s happened since my wonderful co-workers gave me a send off that included the granting of a childhood wish to be a flower girl by making a “Mrs. Philo Phlowergirl Phorever” sash for me. (Which, by the way, is still in my closet.)  Here’s a smattering of where the decade went:

  • We said good-bye to both Hiram’s parents.
  • We hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan.
  • My daughter and I went to Europe.
  • My daughter graduated from high school and then college.
  • Hiram and I adapted to the empty nest smoothly.
  • Mom moved from her home to my brother’s house.
  • Mom’s house sold 4 hours after it was listed on the market.
  • Both our kids got married…within 3 months of each other.
  • We helped them move from here to there to there to….
  • Our first grandchild lit up our world.
  • Hiram and I celebrated 10 more anniversaries, with the count now standing at 36.
  • We’ve vacationed together in Alaska, Idaho, Savannah, Wisconsin, and probably other places that slip my mind because I’m 10 years older than I used to be.
  • I’ve traveled to speaking gigs all over Iowa and in DC, San Diego, Long Beach, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas and other places that slip my mind because of jet lag.
  • Only my mother, 2 of her sisters, and 1 brother-in-law are left of her 7 siblings and spouses who filled my childhood with security and a sense of belonging.
  • I worked for our church part time 4 years.
  • God allowed our congregation built a new church, and He provided everything needed to furnish it.
  • I’ve published scads of magazine articles and 2 books with contracts for 2 more.
  • Those books have led to friendships with the most amazing people in special needs ministry around the country.
  • I’ve gained enough tech savvy to be dangerous, but not enough to be proficient.
  • My retirement pension started sending checks 2 years ago.

The list could go on and on, but you get the picture. God blessed my step of faith out of education and into writing and speaking. He’s been with us through every joy, every sorrow, every good-bye, and every challenge. Sometimes, He even provides opportunities so I can wear my Phlowergirl Phorever sash at speaking engagements.

What more could I possibly want?

Teacher Magic

Teacher magic

Last Thursday I went back to school for the first time in a long time. A former teaching colleague had asked me to represent the world of professional writing at the local high school’s career fair and then speak to some English classes after that. Due to a scheduling snafu that can be blamed on my calenderally-challenged brain, I arrived an hour and a half late for the two hour career fair.

That’s a story for another post–except for one thing.

Flustered by my late arrival, I totally forgot Thursday was the last day of school before spring break and a short day at that, due to parent-teacher conferences. If that realization had dawned earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been so discouraged by the lack of response from the first two groups of students. To say they weren’t impressed by the life of a writer would be an understatement. They were a hard crowd, and I flopped. Miserably. During the passing time before the last class arrived, I finally remembered. The kids are just marking time until spring break.

So when the class settled in, I asked, “How many of you are counting the minutes until spring break?”

Every hand went up.

“Well,” I leaned toward them with a conspiratorial whisper, “If you’ll just pretend you’re interested in what I say, I’ll let you in on a little secret.”

They leaned toward me.

“Every teacher in this building is counting the minutes, too.”

They laughed.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Do you know exactly when in the sweep of the second hand, the dismissal bell will ring?”

They nodded.

“Would somebody in the back of the room wave one minute before it rings, so I can finish and you can get out of here right away?”

Everyone in the back row gave a thumbs up…and we were off.
They asked questions, one after another.
Good questions.
Perceptive questions.
They laughed at my jokes.
They cracked a few jokes, too.
They talked about their writing likes and dislikes.
Their eyes sparkled.
Their faces glowed.
The magic was so strong,
we were all surprised when the dismissal bell rang.
Most students headed straight for the door.
But several stopped to say thank you.

I left the building with tired feet, a renewed appreciation for teachers, and a memory of why teaching had been my chosen profession for 25 years. It feels good to connect with students again, to hear them share their ideas, to see their potential, and to urge them to follow their dreams and use their imaginations.

When a teacher gets her mojo back, she can work magic in young lives.

photo credit:


tissue variable

As a former elementary school teacher and survivor of a respiratory virus that’s still holding the man of steel hostage, today I’m officially launching a personal research study into a new branch of science.


My interest in this area of research was first piqued during 25 years of teaching. Early on, I observed an interesting pattern. The number of boxes of tissues used by students in a given year correlated directly to the number of learning and behavior issues among those students.

Correlation 1: More learning + behavior issues = More tissues consumed.
Correlation 2: Fewer learning + behavior issues = Fewer tissues consumed.


More recently, I’ve discovered that the whereabouts of tissue boxes in our house are good indicators of the healthiness of the inhabitants of a household under respiratory siege.

Stage 1: Tissue boxes in normal positions in each bathroom = everyone feels hunky dory.
Stage 2: Tissue boxes the couch or end table = everybody’s in denial about how fast they’re goin’ down.
Stage 3: Tissue boxes on couch or end table + overflowing wastebasket nearby = hell health in a hand basket.
Stage 4: Tissue boxes back in normal position + stray tissues on bedside and end tables = getting better, but not quite there yet.
Stage 5: Tissue boxes in normal position + dust on the tissue on top = God’s in his heaven + all’s right with the world.


According to official scientific monitoring underway at our house, I am currently at Stage 4, while the man of steel is at Stage 3. I am also looking for volunteers willing to participate in this research study. At this point, I can’t afford to pay you, but your name will be added to the list of charter tissue-ologists, which will be a big deal when the field of tissue-ology gets up and blowing running. Leave a comment below if you would like to participate in the study. And remember, you heard it here first.


Ten More Things To Be Thankful for this Tuesday

Many of my Facebook friends are still participating in the November 30 days of gratitude project. As was mentioned in last Tuesday’s post, I missed the memo about when to start, and played catch up by listing 10 things for which I was thankful. This Tuesday, because I seem to have trouble remembering to post one thing per day, I’m back with ten more reasons (in no particular order) to be grateful.

  1. My twenty-five year career as a teacher provided our family a good livelihood and was perfect preparation to be a writer and speaker.
  2. Being an uncoordinated kid because it gave me compassion for students who hated recess.
  3. Our warm house, preferably mouse-free, but even with unexpected company, it’s a great home for over twenty years.
  4. My son’s early medical adventures and my father’s illness taught me to never take good health for granted.
  5. Being raised in Iowa and raising our kids in Iowa.
  6. Attending a church where the pastor preaches truth and makes in interesting.
  7. A loving church family.
  8. A mom who taught me to cook and to love cooking.
  9. Being able to spend most Tuesday’s with Mom, though this week she’s visiting my sister in Minnesota.
  10. Siblings who do all they can to make Mom comfortable and happy.

So what are you thankful for this Tuesday before Thanksgiving? Leave a comment…or two…or ten!

Ten Years Ago This Week

Ten years ago this week, I began my twenty-fifth year of teaching.
My son with undiagnosed PTSD had just moved to an Orthodox monastery.
My daughter began eighth grade.
My husband worked crazy hours as an ICU nurse and loved it.
My mother lived in her own home and was a ball of fire.
Abby the dog was finally housebroken.
Our church met in the high school auditorium and had downtown offices in the basement of a renovated horse livery.
I thought my teaching career would continue another twelve years.

But I was wrong. Because God answered a prayer uttered during the return flight from a workshop conference a week or two before school started. Please God, I had whispered, if you want me to be a writer, I need a different job. A month later, I knew the 2002 – 2003 school year turned out to be my last as a teacher.

So much has changed in my life since then.
My son, after treatment for PTSD, is a husband and will soon be a father.
My daughter is a college graduate, married, and settling into a new home.
My husband works a regular schedule in a heart cath lab and loves it.
My mother lives with my brother’s family and has Alzheimer’s.
Abby the dog died after a full and pampered life.
Our church meets in a new building constructed on a former cornfield.
Two of my books have been published, and I speak around the country.
I feel ten years younger than during my teaching years, and I’m much healthier.

But many things haven’t changed. Many of my friends are still teaching. They go back to school today, facing a host of challenges and determined to make a positive difference in their students’ lives. Their students will be blessed to spend the next nine months in my friends’ classrooms.

My friends will work incredibly hard, come home tired day after day, correct papers and plan lessons late in the night, and catch every cold and flu bug that goes around. They need our prayers. And since God answers prayer, just as he did ten years ago, I’ll be praying for them. Dear God, give these teachers and dear friends strength and wisdom, enthusiasm and compassion to meet the needs of children.

Will you join me in praying that prayer?


Hopeful Enough to Drive By

Scuttlebutt around town is this. The workplace that was my home away from home for eighteen years, the school where my second family worked for nine months of every year, has been demolished. We all knew Bryant School’s demolition was going to happen. In fact, before the building closed in May of 2010, I went back to say good-bye, took pictures, even blogged about it.

I’ve been avoiding that part of town, ever since the building went down.
One thought of the empty block where Bryant School stood,
one mind picture of the ground leveled and grass growing over the foundation,
and I start crying.
Silly, I know.
But having a significant piece of the past erased (and a piece of my kid’s pasts, too, since they went to school there) is harder than I expected.

But this week, some breaking local news made me willing to confront the present instead of mourning the past. On the first attempt, our town passed a bond issue for a new high school. Pretty amazing since the community has a thirty year history of repeatedly voting down school bond issues, eventually settling on compromise solutions that are than second best.

But not this week.

The bond issue passed with 79% voting in favor of it. When the news came, I thought of something my son said when he was in high school. “Mom, why would I ever choose to live in this town as an adult when the people don’t care enough about kids to build decent schools?” I had no answer, only sadness for the message the voting public repeatedly sent to young people in our town. Today, on the other hand, I am proud of my town for passing this bond issue in the midst of economic hard times.

The bond issue news has me feeling hopeful again.
Hopeful enough to face the ghost of Bryant School.
Hopeful enough to dream about our children’s futures.
Hopeful enough, I think, to visit the place where my home away from home once was.
Hopeful enough to laugh through the tears when I drive on by.

When Did It Happen?

The season changed from summer to fall so quickly. One day the temperature was so warm, I wore a sleeveless shirt, capris and no shoes. The next day, it was so chilly we dressed in long pants and hoodies, then hurried to turn up the thermostat.

When did it happen?

My children changed from kids to adults. One day they needed me to wipe their noses, mend their broken hearts, listen to their dreams and pack lunches to take on hiking adventures with their dad. Now they both have sweethearts, grand dreams, and adventures of their own.

When did it happen?

My mother changed from an independent woman to a dependent one. One day she quilted for hours at a time, read thick books, traveled, and mowed her lawn with great delight. Now quilt patterns confuse her, she reads thin books, sits in her chair, and won’t touch the lawn mower.

When did it happen?

My life changed from teacher to author. For years, I woke every day and dreamed of writing a book, taught kids to read and enjoy books all day, and came home to tired to put my own ideas on paper. Now I wake and write all day, have had a book published, and go to sleep at night with a smile.

When did it happen?