My Focus Brick: Some advice for teachers

I originally posted this on Quora. as a response to the question, “What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?” It resonated with many people on the site, so I wanted to share it here on my teaching blog as well.

What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?

This is my “Focus Brick” in my classroom:


It’s in the top-center of my back wall so it faces me while I’m teaching. It’s just a regular old brick with the letters “TJK” written in washable marker. There’s not much to it, but it’s an incredibly effective tool for me because it’s a constant reminder of something I frequently forget:

They’re Just Kids.

I teach middle school (ages 11–14 in the U.S.), and those students can be just…miserable at times. They’re going through difficult physical and emotional changes. They’re struggling with creating a personal identity. Many of them are just beginning to realize the significance of their problems at home: strained relationships, financial hardship, abuse and neglect.

This hellish cocktail of hormones and identity confusion causes them to be absolutely insufferable at times. They can be rude, combative, insensitive, disrespectful, ignorant, lazy, and just about every other negative adjective you’d associate with the angst-ridden depths of modern puberty.

Without a constant reminder of the rough developmental stage they’re experiencing, it can be easy for me to take their words and actions personally.

They don’t mean it personally, and even the ones who want to personally attack you don’t really understand what they’re doing. Many of them have very little subconscious control over their thoughts, and any child development expert will tell you these kids don’t yet have the brain development or emotional awareness to genuinely evaluate the consequences of their actions before they act. So remind yourself:

They’re Just Kids.

They’re not test scores.

They’re not machines.

They’re not adults.

We can’t treat them like test scores. We can’t expect them to perform like machines. And—as much as we want to at times—we can’t expect them to act like adults.

So in those moments—usually at the end of the day—when I’ve been beaten down by the ceaseless onslaught of bureaucratic idiocy that is the American education system; and half the class hasn’t even looked at the assigned reading from the night before; and three kids are sleeping—two because they were up too late playing Destiny and one because he was taking care of his infant brother while his single-parent mom was working her second job; and one girl keeps chanting “this class is sooooo stupid” while the girl behind her braids her hair; and two boys are chasing a girl around the room while waving a dead bug in a tissue at her; and two others are playing games on their phones; all while I’m trying to discuss the finer points of standard ELACC8L5.a…

…in those moments, I need to hold back from raging at these unwitting victims of pubescent insanity, so instead I take a deep breath, stare at my Focus Brick, and remind myself:

They’re Just Kids.


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