Stefania Shaffer, Profile


Heroes Don’t Always Wear Capes

Why Do Teachers Love Bill and Melinda Gates?

Nobody Knows How to Appreciate Teachers Like Gates Ed Foundation


I have been lucky enough to experience one of the most exceptional conferences I’ve ever attended where I delivered the closing keynote to nearly 500 educators through the Gates Ed Foundation, known as ECET2.

My message was meant to inspire new and veteran teachers alike, with a reminder that “for that one kid, you might be the single best part of their day.” If you have 15-minutes and 1 hanky, it’s worth sharing and bears repeating, “On the path to success, there is always a teacher to thank.”Gates Conference-Stefania Shaffer Keynote But, here is why this conference inspired me.

Imagine you are an educator. Middle school teacher. Let’s say you’ve been at it for fifteen years and let’s even go so far as to say that you still love your job. You are me. I am thrilled to be here. But, there have been times when I have needed support; call it Teacher Appreciation, call it a morale boost, call it a post-it note with five little words that read, “Best scores we’ve ever had!” (I am still floating off that last one from years ago).

If you don’t know ECET2, I’m here to tell you that you are in for the treat of your educational career. The name says it all: Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers. But it means more when you discover that the names Bill and Melinda Gates are behind sponsoring this national conference cultivating teacher leaders.

The Gates Ed Foundation will more than soothe your tired, aching soul and remind you of the reasons why you went into teaching in the first place. This conference will turbo charge your creativity for how you walk the walk in and out of the classroom. Are you that true leader on campus whose spirit never dims? Is your positive role modeling emulated by others? Has your can-do attitude for affecting change been considered– well, infectious? Then you deserve the nomination to attend this invitation-only national event. Here, teacher leaders learn how to build up their own community. If you’re really lucky, there is already a regional convening in your own area because someone attending the national brought it back to your hometown.

If you ever wanted to know what it could feel like to be Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, this is that golden ticket. This is not a curriculum conference to learn more about Common Core. This is a conference where like-minded dynamics are shared in trust tables with other teachers from around the country.

You will immediately bond as you realize that despite your geographic distance, you are all in the same boat and this reassurance will produce a Professional Learning Network…or a sisterhood, or a brotherhood. You have time to talk about issues in education that are thwarting your progress and navigate your way through solutions. You will find your Tribe!

You will be served glorious gourmet food in all its abundance, on par with any fancy cruise line. And when you are done with that meal, you will walk through the halls to your next breakout session passing coffee service tables with gorgeous desserts that you can grab as you go. In a few short hours, your next meal awaits. This is not your cold deli sandwich, potato chip conference. The Gates Foundation showers teachers with enormous gratitude for a job well done. Melinda Gates said it herself, “Nobody knows teaching like teachers.”

I believe nobody knows how to appreciate teachers like Bill and Melinda Gates. To get a real sense of what teachers experienced at the national ECET2 conference, here is a quick clip of what teachers took away. ECET2-Seattle 2015 For even more motivation before you open those August doors and say hello to a new crop of kids, here is what my precious colleagues who each delivered other riveting keynotes throughout the days had to say.

Mary Kenzer realized she could be an English teacher after being responsible for training high school kids at the grocery store Krogers where she had worked for decades. Mary Kenzer Keynote.

Lauren Maucere not only leads the charge for Deaf students, she teaches them how to advocate for themselves. Lauren Maucere Keynote

Finally, William Anderson inspires teachers to reach back to their past experiences as students and teach like their futures depend on it. William Anderson Keynote

If you love a teacher, please share this blog and view these unforgettable keynotes. Sometimes all we need as teachers to do this work is to know that we are not alone and to remember the reasons why we followed our hearts into the classroom in the first place.

The Bully Teacher

The Bully Your Child Meets Might Not Be in the Hallways: Recognizing the Bully Teacher.

It is sad to say, but bullies do exist in the classroom, and not only peer to peer, but from teacher to student. It does not happen a lot, but I believe it exists on every campus. I have seen the bully teacher in full swing first hand, and I always have the same reaction: tears in my eyes, shame for not being able to do more to make it stop. The first time I saw a child ripped to shreds by a teacher, I was also a child unable to help.

The next vivid memory I have is from my early teaching years. My principal recommended I visit as many classes as possible to get a feel for classroom management, and other tips I might pick up to make me the best possible teacher. I was absolutely floored when a few minutes after I walked into a veteran teacher’s room, the biggest kid in class was being taken to task.

He was told to stand against the back wall, where all eyes were cast upon him. For his lack of wanting to participate in a class discussion about the reading, he was verbally abused for several minutes. It did not take much to bring this oversized child to tears as he quickly swiped his face with the back of his hand while he tried to take his punishment like a man.

I could not believe my eyes. I left in tears that gushed down my face faster than I could catch them with the back of my hand. There was absolutely nothing that child did to bring on this teacher’s wrath, and there was nothing this child could have done to defend himself.

This moment was forever cemented in my mind, and led me to later develop some memorable characters in my first book Heroes Don’t Always Wear Capes, realistic fiction that covers the best and worst of what teaching has to offer among educators from a student’s point of view.

This is not the last time I witness the bully teacher putting a kid up against a wall, until tears come trickling down his face. A respected colleague surprised me when her door flung open during sixth period one afternoon.

She screamed at the top of her lungs for several minutes until this boy was sobbing. I had to close my classroom door, hoping to give him some privacy from his peers in my class, and to hopefully drown out the drama. As I returned to the front of the room to face my students, several of them had tears in their eyes, and I lost it once again.

It is human nature to feel compassion for those in need of our help. To watch someone suffer tugs at our heart. It took a few minutes before we could compose ourselves and carry on as if nothing was happening outside of our door.

The bully teacher provides lessons all right—lessons in humiliation, degradation, and destruction of one’s self-esteem.

I am now a veteran teacher in a better position to speak up when I see wrongdoing, even to address the teacher directly. This takes guts because, likely, the bully teacher is also a bully to colleagues.

The bully teacher hides behind tenure, and fraternizes with union leaders. The bully teacher intimidates administrators and parents who might worry that there will be more retaliation against their child in class. After all, grades are important.

Schools are active in measures to stop bullying among students, but what can be done to stop the bully teacher?

It is first important to distinguish between a teacher that is strict and structured vs. a teacher that is promoting harm to the psychological well-being of your child. If you suspect the latter, ask to volunteer in your child’s class. No teacher wants another adult to witness them verbally abusing students.

Document your child’s reports of times when they feel abused by the teacher bully, and any witnesses who will support this claim. Bring your documentation to administrators, starting with the principal, then working your way up the chain of command if you are not satisfied with the results.

Know that in instances of abuse, victims are not made to sit with their abusers to negotiate an outcome. A child has no equal power at this table. It is the job of the parent to advocate for their child.

Furthermore, I wonder why more schools don’t employ cameras in the classroom. Bill Gates recommends this idea in his Ted talk. I like it, too.

I wonder about several other measures, but since I have never seen them tried, there must be some good reason against them. I do understand there are false claims made by students who do not like a particular teacher, and this is why the rubber room approach to removing tenured teachers from the classroom who sit idle all day away from children, earning their full salary while being investigated is a controversial topic.

Again, the bully teacher does not make up the majority of teachers. But if you experience it as a student, it will impact your life adversely for the entire year—likely having repercussions for the rest of your life.

Blog question: How do we remove the bully teacher from the classroom?

Learning Something New Is Hard At Any Age

Need More Empathy For Your Student’s Learning? Take This Month To Learn Something Challenging Yourself.

It began as my administrator’s clever idea to help staff members gain more empathy for our middle school students while we learned what a typical day felt like for them.

Several of us in this experiment arrived at school almost giddy that we had substitutes covering our own classes, a little sad for those who wouldn’t be participating in the pushing and shoving through hallways.

After checking in at the front office to pick up our tailor made schedules, we navigated our way through wings and classes we rarely visited throughout the year because we were usually locked away inside our own rooms for most of it. Equipped with our lunch money, backpack, and comfortable shoes, we embarked on the “first-day-at-school” journey we hadn’t taken in decades.

I gained a few insights this day.

I discovered how hard it is to sit in our desk-chair combination seats that are torturous for even one class period, let alone a whole day of tailbone twitching trying to get comfortable.

I developed a tremendous amount of empathy for students who ask to use the bathroom during class. I now realize this is less about, perhaps, wanting to avoid a grammar lesson, and more the case that there is simply not enough time to negotiate this necessity in the mere three minutes we have to pass between classes.

The most powerful lesson I learned today is this: I only know what I know. After sitting in on other subjects taught by my middle school colleagues, I found that with all of my education behind me, I have really only mastered the subject I teach. 

So I have done some thinking about how I will ward off Alzheimer’s since they say the best way to do so is to exercise the brain by learning something new. A language at this point seems like more school work, outside of my regular school work. A sport is out of my comfort zone. An expansion in my culinary and baking skills will be more play time, and not the challenge I am seeking.

So, I think back to my childhood to recall the passions I had a full minute to explore before I abandoned them for increased homework loads, adolescent angst, college commitments, corporate ladder climbing, and overachieving adulthood ambitions.

I remember that I once went to horse camp as a sixth grader in the Girl Scouts. I was taught how to brush a horse, and pat his caboose when I walked behind him, lest he be surprised and kick me. I got my first pair of Roper boots that my mom said would stretch out the more I wore them, so I slept in them. Every day for one whole glorious week, I got to see my horse Butterfly. Riding at a slow trot was not half as much fun as galloping.

Years later, I took any chance I had to ride with friends on the coast, or in the valley, because I wanted to gallop again. I considered myself a real horsewoman throughout my high school years because I had ridden the beach alone…twice.

Let me tell you, there is a lot more to becoming a horsewoman than what I learned at horse camp. I have been taking Dressage lessons for five months now—the English riding style that will eventually teach me how to jump. Around month two, I started to feel inadequate that as an aspiring horsewoman, I still relied on one of the ranch hands to tack up my horse for me, so I said I wanted to learn.

This has been the most challenging subject to master. There are about seventeen steps to girding up your horse before you can get your giddy-up on. All of the leather straps that need to be laced around your horse’s head, properly linking the chain behind his throat, while getting him to take the bit the first time, have given me nightmares. Don’t even get me started on the layers of saddling, and boot wrapping that need to be done. For a long time, brushing was still my favorite part.

But, this experience has finally given me one more great story in the arsenal I rely upon to build confidence among my seventh-graders. I love the student who tells me they’ve never been good at school, and learning is hard. I understand completely.

Now, I will tell them that I know exactly what it’s like to learn something new. I will tell them that when I didn’t understand the instructions the first time, I was overwhelmed. When I still hadn’t mastered the routine after the second time, I felt frustrated. After the fourth time, I felt embarrassed. After the seventh time, I thought I was in over my head and I would never get it. But, like Shania Twain’s song says, “I ain’t no quitter.”

Today, I am 85% Proficient, which means I am nearly Advanced. I know I can lick this, and I can see the improvements I have made.

The ranch hands all know me by name and tell me I am besting my time from when I last tacked up my horse—not that it’s a race, but they are building my confidence. I can even see the growing approval in my patient horse. He knows I know what I’m doing now.

When your own kids say “it’s too hard”—it only means they are afraid of looking stupid because everybody else seems to be getting it faster.

Take this month to challenge yourself—let your kids see the kind of learner you are. Show them that the road to mastery isn’t about age, it’s about skill—and gaining some is quite gratifying in the end.

Blog question: When did you last learn something challenging and what was it?

How To Tell When Your Best Friend Is A Bad Friend

What adults can learn from middle school—the Top 5 signs your friend is not a friend worth keeping.

Why does your neck stiffen when you hang up the phone with a best friend? Start paying attention to the warning signs of a true bad friend.

For years, there was a familiar voice replaying in my head every time I got off the phone with one of my best friends. It was not my own that I heard because I had not found my words yet to describe this feeling I was having. The voice was not my mother’s who would have frowned upon the situation as if I should know better by now, nor was it my then-boyfriend’s whose interpretation of the obvious I ignored. It was Oprah’s.

Having been an avid follower of everything Oprah, and a lifelong subscriber to O, The Oprah Magazine, since its inception, a long-ago read column has stuck with me ever since; it was an ah-ha moment on how to determine when a best friend is truly a bad friend.

As I recall, it boiled down to this for Oprah: When you hang up the phone, ask yourself, “Do I feel better, or do I feel worse?” If you feel worse, then it is time to make some decisions about how to get the love you need, or how to extricate yourself from the kind of pain you don’t need to be finding among your friends. The world has plenty of that to offer you elsewhere.

What makes a frenemy? A Feature writer at O, The Oprah Magazine, named Paige Williams could not have defined it more brilliantly, and humorously, in her article called The Friendship Detox: How to Say Goodbye and Good Riddance. This article has stayed with me long after I read it because I, too, have had to ask myself what makes a frenemy? And, more importantly, why when something good happens to me does it sound like my friend is chewing shards of broken glass as she spits out her atta-girl?

For years, I put the phone-test to the test, and for years I always got the same answer: stiff neck, tight shoulders, feeling worse, much, much worse. If there was a battered friend syndrome, I am sure I would fit the profile. I offered the first line of defense for her brashness, her selfishness, her utter misunderstanding of anything I thought could calm her, sooth her, present solutions to her problems. Had I done something to deserve her cutting me to the quick? I didn’t get it, but I forgave it time and again, and again, and again because I thought she was my true best friend.

She finally became so contentious over random topics of conversation that I felt like I was becoming an unwitting sparring partner for her verbal jabs. This was not part of my training in Friendship 101.  I only attended courses on how to love a friend through a difficult time, and how not to be too burdensome a friend by unloading every single problem you have every single time you’re together. I lost sleep. Lots and lots of sleep, which is precious to me. But, I knew it meant I had to say goodbye. As soon as it was over, my peaceful slumber returned immediately.

As a middle school teacher, I have seen my share of tear-stained children (both boys and girls) crying in my room at lunch over a best friend who has suddenly turned out to be a bad friend.

For students grappling with the mysteries of why best friends sometimes aren’t the best friends for us to have, just know this is a question that will plague you into adulthood—we don’t have all the answers.

I happen to love the best friend character of Rebecca Benson I created in my first novel Heroes Don’t Always Wear Capes because every kid should know what it’s supposed to look like when a true friend stands up for you.

But, here are a few tips on how you can tell it is time to un-friend your friend.

1)After talking to your friend, do you feel better or worse? If you experience a tightening in your neck, shoulders, or a heaviness in your heart, believe me, you feel worse.

2)Has your friend spilled the beans on one or more of your secrets? If you cannot trust a friend, you do not have a friendship, you have an arrangement. What are you getting out of it? What is she? Hopefully, you are not giving more than you are getting. The best friendships have balance.

3)When something really great happens for you, is your friend truly, enthusiastically giddy about your good news? Or is there a jab, a stab, a comment to be made through what sounds like a mouthful of broken glass?

4)Does your friend talk about the personal problems of her other friends to you? Guess what? She is also talking to them about yours. Loose lips sink ships, not just world war battle ships, but friendships included.

5)Are you losing sleep over the worry of ending a bad friendship? End it and find out how a good night’s sleep is supposed to feel. If you are wrong, you can always take it back; a true friend will forgive the error of your ways.

Blog question: Do you have any other warning signs that your friend is not a friend?

Vandra Meets Bullies, The Old-Fashioned Way, Before Cyber Bullying Existed

Ask any student, what’s worse than bullies harassing you at lunch?

Cyber bullying—replaying that awful moment on a loop for the world to see over and over the rest of your life online.

In the days before cyber bullying on the Internet, we still had forms of intimidation by the tough kids who thought they ruled the school.

If you were new to middle school, you were an easy target, and not because you were tugging a rolling backpack twice your size— those were things we called luggage and saved only for plane trips—and not because you had a way with creating matching Pee-Chee folders and textbooks you covered in fabric, color-coded by subject.

If you were a sixth grader, you were fair game for the bruisers in eighth grade who needed a place to vent the anger that had probably been unleashed upon them one too many times. You were small, you were innocent, and you cried easily—which is the ultimate goal of a bully, to know they have hurt you in some way.

Today’s bullies don’t just harass you in the hallway, or steal your lunch money, or push you into lockers, although these things still exist. Bullies are much more sophisticated these days because they want to be celebrated for the massive punishment they unleashed on you by filming your worst day with their camera phone, and then sending it out to the universe through any one of the multiple channels providing them much more than the fifteen-minutes of fame any ordinary person accomplishing something spectacular would likely get. In this regard, bullies are no different than the murderers who seek out attention from the media.

Why are we fascinated by the tragedies of others? Students who witness the circle of bullies taking down their best friend while they stand by doing nothing to help is like watching a bad road accident. They can not not look away.

A bystander’s first feeling is usually, “I don’t want it to be me.” Their second feeling is, “I wish I could have done more to help, but what?”

An honest look at some solutions comes from highly regarded motivational speaker Michael Pritchard who rallies students to put bullying to an end. I have seen him speak at middle school assemblies. He tugs at heart strings and electrifies every single one of the several hundred kids in the audience. You can hear a pin drop—and no one laughs when one brave member travels to the mic to share how it really feels to be bullied.

As a middle school teacher who has seen nearly two thousand seven hundred seventh-graders come through my class, I have found there is something universal in bullying. The majority of students will say that bullying needs to stop—but the same majority will also say they have witnessed bullying and did nothing to stop it for fear of becoming bullied themselves.

There is a code of silence that is hard to break because many students believe that a teacher or a parent can’t make it go away. Besides leaving our doors open while eating lunch at our desk, how can we better patrol and prevent as parents and teachers?

I address the problem of bullying in my first fictional Middle-Grade novel called Heroes Don’t Always Wear Capes when the protagonist Vandra Zandinski is harassed by eighth graders when she is a new sixth grader. The older girls think she has stolen the attention of their eighth-grade boyfriends and form a gang of girl torturers to attack her at the bus stop after school, and to throw her down in the empty corridors during lunch. Vandra is petrified that things will only get worse if she tells someone. But when her Vice-Principal Mr. Barbey gets involved, Vandra finds out he is not so useless after all. He punishes those eighth-grade girls with multiple consequences, including a twenty-page written report on what harassment really means, how to recognize it, and how to protect those who are being harassed.

At least Vandra didn’t have to re-live her worst nightmares online.

Blog question: What efforts have you made to stop cyber bullying? 

The Proper Care and Feeding of a Seventh-Grader

Are you a parent new to seventh grade? Get ready for kindergarten all over again.

Whether you are new to sending a child through seventh grade or not, there are some tried and true rules from Kindergarten that still apply this year. This is your instruction booklet for the proper care and feeding of your child, a student you will hardly recognize before the school year is over.

After teaching nearly sixteen hundred seventh graders since the turn of the century—the one ushering in modern technology, not the era of Victorian propriety (although we could use a little more of that these days) the biggest mistake I see parents make is allowing their students free reign to practice a little well-deserved independence.

This is not the year to let go. Freedom this early is scary for adolescents who are now likely navigating the world’s worst choices diverging in two paths in front of them.

Whether you think they are choosing wisely or not, the pressure is mounting, and once or twice this year, they will hit their breaking point. Let them know that when their limits have been tested and failed them miserably, you will still be there. There to love them. There to listen. There to dole out appropriate consequences. And, please know that in the classroom, these are common malpractices of many new seventh graders.

1) Do not let your child go off to school without protein for breakfast. They are ravenous, with bodies growing so fast, their minds cannot concentrate in class when their tummy is rumbling. Students could eat in class if it wasn’t for the wrappers that get thrown everywhere, justifying a school rule against it.

2) Do not let your child tell you they have already done their school work at school. Likely, this is not the case. There is always something academic to be done to stretch that growing mind that needs as much practice as the legs do to keep up with all those sports activities.

3) Ask to see the assignment written down in a daily agenda. If you suspect there are too many days without homework assigned, or a project to be worked on, have your child ask the teacher to initial next to where your child wrote in “No Homework”. This request will be viewed as especially gracious if it is not made in the midst of a scintillating lesson being taught.

4) The papers at the bottom of your child’s backpack, all crumpled and in need of ironing, are actually for your review. They are the new worksheets or test results, or permission slips, or detention notices, or love notes passed from a new friend. You can tell a lot about your child’s day by emptying this pit nightly.

5) Do not be satisfied that the book report or oral report your child is writing or rehearsing has come from their own intellectual property until you insert the first line of it into a google search. That’s what teachers do. It is stunning how many 4.0 students are plagiarizing work they have every skill to create simply because they are over-scheduled. Try searching several more lines of words you never thought they knew. You have either raised a baby genius, or you both just learned something new.