Guest Post: Clay of Making the Days Count, on Lessons Students Taught Him

photo credit: N97: Console via photopin (license)
photo credit: N97: Console via photopin (license)

There are fellas in the flock.

guest postTrue, the Coach Daddy profile reader smells more like lavender or vanilla than Old Spice. (With a good bit of fresh cookies and tortillas from the kitchen).

Clay Watkins of Making the Days Count has been a friend of Coach Daddy just about from the start. With a blog name inspired by a Muhammad Ali quote and wise words, Clay has become one of my favorite dudes to read – and answer comments from.

He’s a teacher who learns as much from his students as he teaches them.

He’s here today to tell about some of those lessons. Please give him a warm CD welcome, and be sure to check out Making the Days Count, too.

photo credit: Projekt 52/2011 Technik, Freund oder Feind via photopin (license)
photo credit: Projekt 52/2011 Technik, Freund oder Feind via photopin (license)

Learning Never Ends – It’s  Fair Trade

I just finished my 16 year in the classroom as a professional education. Before that, I was an amateur educator working in the restaurant business. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way – some the hard way, some the easy way, but all of the lessons I’ve learned have polished me into who I am in today.

Next year, I’ll be a slightly different person because of the kids come into my room. I teach them and they teach me, even though they don’t know it – It’s a fair trade.

8th grade - 1975
8th grade – 1975

Before I became a teacher, I mean, a real teacher, I thought I knew what teachers did. But, I was wrong.

I teach middle school kids. I use the word ‘kids’ because they are kids – they are 13- and 14- year-olds. This year will be the fortieth anniversary of my 8th grade year. Yeah, I am old, though I’d prefer to use the word experienced or seasoned.

In 16 years, I have seen a lot in my classroom. I have had three parents pass away – two from breast cancer. When I first started teaching my oldest, W, was 18 months old. This fall, he’ll be a senior in high school. Now I have two kids, the youngest, O, will be in 7th grade next year. My kids and my students keep growing and learning and yet, I stay the same age, almost like a state a frozen animation.

At the end of the year, some students ask me to sign their yearbook. I don’t just sign or write – ‘have a good summer.’ I try to make what I write meaningful to both of us. In years past, I’ve written notes referencing the idea to make all of your summer days count with the number of summer days in the inscription. This year I used a quote from James Thurber,

“It is better to ask some of the questions than know all the answers.”

That is the gist of what I do, what teachers do. To make kids wonder, think about things they’ve never considered, to ponder, to ask questions because in doing so they gain knowledge, but they also generate more questions. It’s a vicious cycle – learning and growing; the more you have the more you want. Learning never ends.

Much of my learning comes from mistakes I have made. Sometimes the mistakes are caused by misconceptions, and other times just plain stupidity. In my second year of teaching, I moved grade levels and content areas, so in essence I was a first year teacher, all over again.

I had taught sixth grade the first year and I was promoted to seventh grade the next year. That August I had 40 or so of the same students and 110 new ones; for some it was heaven, for other, it was a nightmare.

I decided to incorporate current events in my classroom and assigned my students a “Geography in the News” article. The assignment was for the students to find the article in a newspaper, write a summary, and then present to the class.

The first quarter was awful, downright painful at times. But, I persevered and stuck to my guns – big mistake. The mistake I made was that I assumed my kids had the background to make sense of the article its own.

I remember several articles that year and one article in particular that taught me the lesson. The student presented her article to the class, she was a good student and did very well, but as she presented it was clear she had no real understanding of the ideas in the news article, which was about Fair Trade coffee. In her defense, most folks did not know either.

I read her summary and marked her paper with an A. A couple of mornings later, I was in line and at Starbuck’s and saw they were offering coffee samples – there was sample bag of Fair Trade Certified, so I grabbed a sample and brought it with me to class.

I was returning papers and I returned hers with the sample. At first, she looked puzzled, then a smile crossed her face, and she couldn’t contain it – she turned to her friend and began to explain what she had and what she had learned.

She understood and I had learned, too. It would take another quarter, but I stopped doing current events articles in that way. It doesn’t work and the assignment isn’t real, it’s just another ‘hoop’ for kids to jump through.

I have created some assignments that I think are amazing, but sometimes the assignment is just too difficult and doesn’t demonstrate what the student has learned. I have assigned plenty of these. This year I taught science and I learned plenty.

At the end of the year, my assignments were real. Not copied, or borrowed, but real. The physics final included a word problem about the new One World Trade Center Observation Deck elevators.

The One World Trade Center opened the weekend before the final on Friday, May 29th. My students didn’t understand the significance of the opening – they were born between September 2000 and August 2001.

9/11 is another day, to America who remember the day, it’s more; which is why and needed to provide the background they lacked. Of course, the kids knew the formulas and how to apply them; or at least most did, but they needed to sift through the information and decide what data should be used to solve the problem.

It took me most of the weekend to gather the information to write the problem – I needed to know the elevator weight – empty and full, I knew the distance it travelled and the time it took get to the observation deck. I wrote the problem and came back to it, twice. I checked the math and the physics to make sure I was correct.

On the day of the final, I gave the students the problem, then, showed the following videos. One World Trade Center is built in the site of the first two World Trade Center towers, which were destroyed on 9/11.

In less than 14 years, new buildings have risen from the ashes – One World Trade Center dominates the New York City skyline at 1776 feet. Here is a time lapse video of the building’s construction:

Also, the kids needed to know about the elevator.

and, the video perspective riders see as they travel up.

The explanations took time, but they helped my students have a frame of reference.

The elevator trip 47 second trip begins 55 feet below street level and ends 1254 feet above the city. The average speed is 27.85 feet/sec or almost 19 miles per hour. That’s movin’ for an elevator.

After the video, the students had plenty of questions, but quickly got down to business and nailed the problems. I could see the sense of accomplishment when they handed the final to me.

I too, felt a sense of accomplishment – because not only did I challenge my students, I challenged myself. We both learned, it’s a fair trade.

School’s been out for a week and I’m a week closer to next year. It is always good to look back and reflect, but it’s even better to look ahead and work hard to get there; because where you’ve been explains why you are here, and what happens today dictates where you’ll be.

Learning never ends – it’s a fair trade. Today is gonna be a great day – I know it and can feel it, so I’d better jump up, jump in and seize the day. Making the Days Count, one day at a time, one lesson taught, one lesson learned, it’s never ending.

Is there a lesson you learned while teaching someone?

learn quote


  1. Sounds like my kind of teacher here and I also taught middle school so I could very much relate to so very much here about the good, the bad and the ugly of it all, but still wouldn’t have traded a moment of it either for the world.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I’d share cookies in the teacher’s lounge with the likes of you and Clay, Janine.

    2. claywatkins says:

      I love my job – it’s great working with the kids and sharing my passions. Even though science was a tough subject this year, my passion came through and made a difference for many of my students. Thanks for coming by – have a great week!

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        I saw the bit about melting metals … I’m much better at melting cheese, Clay.

  2. claywatkins says:

    Eli – thanks for the opportunity to share on your blog. It’s off to school and another day of learning.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Got get ’em, brother. Thanks for bringing the knowledge today.

  3. kismaslife says:

    Oh, although it isn’t you, you sound very much like my son’s junior class history teacher! It is because of teachers like you that my son has fallen head over heals in love with history.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      I wish my girls had more teachers like Clay.

      1. A.PROMPTreply says:

        Agree with Eli on this one…..wish my son had more teachers like this!

    2. claywatkins says:

      Thank you – I had several teachers along the way who made a difference in my life – surprisingly, I am a Facebook friend with my 7th and 8th grade reading teacher – I reached out several years ago to say thanks and shared my blog with her. It made my day when she replied, it was a fair trade. Thanks for stopping by to read. Have a great week!

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        I’m so old I’m afraid my favorite teachers might be dead by now.

  4. mypixieblog says:

    I have endless amounts of respect for anyone in the teaching profession. It’s funny, just the other day I remembered my English teacher in HS and how she taught me how to read into text and an entirely new way of looking at the story of the Tell-Tale Heart. I attribute the direction I took in college and the professional path that I am on now to her. Entirely. She nudged me creatively and believed in me when other adults in my life thought of my dreams as not very smart/profitable.

    It sounds as though you are this professor for so many of your students. You might never know the impact you have on your students but I hope that you are just as rewarded by this experience as they are to have you as their mentor.

    Thank you so much for sharing your words, and experience. Your “kids” are incredibly lucky to have you 🙂

    1. claywatkins says:

      Thank you – there were several teachers who had a positive impact on my education and learning. My junior English teacher in high school made a difference and reached out to me when i needed it most and gave me what I needed – empathy and understanding. I think I learned more that year in English than I did the three other years of high school English. It all boils down to the idea that students don’t care how much we know, but how much we care. Truly, that’s what teaching is about – thanks for stopping by and reading, Have a wonderful week.

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        Fantastic quote, Clay: “Students don’t care how much we know, but how much we care.”

    2. Eli Pacheco says:

      We all have that pivotal teacher in our past who can help steer us toward a goal or dream, don’t we? What an impact.

  5. tamaralikecamera says:

    I was a college kid during Sept. 11th and my teachers were dumbfounded. I would really struggle to learn how to explain it to kids today.
    And it feels like yesterday.. not 14 years ago.
    Teachers hold one of the most important jobs in the world. It’s up there with.. parents. And I wish I had that magical gene you all seem to have where you can light up a classroom and light up your own life with teaching.
    I’m a forever student instead. So I appreciate you.

    1. claywatkins says:

      I vividly remember the day. I was teaching the water cycle and between 2nd and 3rd period – about 9.25 AM a counselor came in, read a prepared statement, then left. We were all at loss for words. When the kids came back for the afternoon classes – we had a bit more information and I remember telling the students that the World Trade Centers had fallen. The next day, i marched my kids to the flag pole and talked to them about the meaning of half-staff. I reminded them that the terrorists mission was to take the flag down, but we were only half-staff to honor those who had been lost. I finished with the idea that one day, the flag would be fully raised and that the buildings could and would be rebuilt. I enjoy teaching kids and inspiring them to learn and grow – I reach those I can and I am know that if I don;t reach a kid, there is another teacher in my building who will. Thanks for stopping in to read – have a great week!

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        It’s the words you share that aren’t in the teacher’s guide that mean the most.

    2. Eli Pacheco says:

      Teachers like Clay help make us who we are today, right Tamara?

  6. ksbeth says:

    fantastic. from one teacher to another, i love how you embrace the art of teaching. i teach full day kindergarten and i learn from my students every day. beth

    1. claywatkins says:

      Oh bless you – I student taught in a first grade classroom for a week and I could never do it full time – even though I have the K-8 license! Teaching is sharing one’s passion with another person and helping others grow and learn. This week I am taking a class with other teachers and the room is full of ideas on how to reach kids and make a difference. Thank you for helping bring kids along on the first few steps of learning in a group. Have a great week and enjoy your summer!

      1. Eli Pacheco says:

        It’s a tough enough job to be lunch dad once a month.

    2. Eli Pacheco says:

      Imagine if a kid could have both beth and Clay in their academic careers …

  7. Love your attitude and commitment Clay! So glad to get a chance to “meet” you. I have great respect for good teachers, and as my husband is one, I totally understand and appreciate your openness to learn from the kids while you’re teaching them. It’s a beautiful win-win dance. And that’s a fabulous quote you’re signing this year’s books with. May we always ask questions.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      If my kids stop asking questions, Coach Daddy will be out of business.

      1. claywatkins says:

        Amen! questions are what drive learning? Not, why do we have to learn this! 🙂 Have a greta weekend.

    2. claywatkins says:

      Thank you – questions open doors and doors open new doors. Every year is different with a new challenge and a fresh perspective. It’s always good to keep moving forward with a focus on where you’ve been and where you’re headed or least want to be. Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. Clay, I love so much about this post!

    First of all the fact that there’s a teacher out there who managed to make physics exciting for me! What was the elevator assignment about, I wonder if I could somehow come up with a solution even though my math and other necessary skills are more than rusty?

    Second of all I appreciate a school assignment that doesn’t come from the theory book of boredom, but current real life. What a difference this makes in terms of speaking to the students!

    Third reason: you took the time and effort to create this assignment doing a h*** of a lot of research yourself when you could have gone off and have ice cream instead! This speaks volumes for the passionate and engaged teacher that you are!

    Last but not least, – of course, right, E? – I love the mention of SBUX fair trade coffee. Not many of their whole bean coffee varieties are actually labelled “fair trade” because what SBUX does in and for all of their coffee producing countries and farmers, is in fact much more than the label asks for. This is one of the reasons why it’s “so expensive”.

    Lessons learned while teaching? Many! One of them being – as simple as it sounds – that every person learns differently on so many levels. Some need much more specific info than I do, for example. I thought everybody loved to figure out things based on ambiguous hints, leaving the outcome somewhat open.

    And now I’m adding this elevator ride to my bucket list..!

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      You’re a model student, Tamara!

      1. I was my physics’ (and chemistry’s and math’s) teacher’s nightmare!!

      2. Eli Pacheco says:

        you should join Clay’s class.

  9. marydpierce says:

    I have been a long-time follower of Clay’s blog. I am always impressed by his commitment and devotion to teaching. It seems not be a job for him so much as it is a passion for learning. The Phil Collins quote is perfect.

    In regards to the new One World Trade Center, I really need to get down there to see it. I’ve been reluctant because of fear of the emotion it would dredge up, but I have Mohawk cousins who worked on building it and I am so proud of them. And in reading this post I have learned a lesson about the importance of letting go of the past, so thank you, Clay. You have taught me today.

    Fair trade, indeed.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      You’re spot on about Clay’s devotion, and I thought the Phil Collins quote fit his words perfectly. I think sometimes that emotion that gets dredged up isn’t always pleasant, but not a bad thing to experience again, for perspective, if anything.

  10. Dani says:

    Love this:

    “We both learned, it’s a fair trade.”

    Clay is an example of what we hope teachers are.
    And what we hope they believe.

    Enjoy the summer, Clay.

    Blessings to you,

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      They’re the ones we remember when we’re all grown up, right Dani?

  11. cathy says:

    Hi Clay…
    Reading your post brought back so many good memories of teachers who had a positive impact on my life. I have often thought that teachers make such an impact because they open the world for children, teach them that there is so much beyond the four walls around them. Teachers helped me learn, not only the problems and knowledge from books, but about life. And about caring. I applaud all those called to the teaching profession, who try to make a difference, such as you do Clay. And you do make a difference. Never doubt that.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      Dude’s a gem, isn’t he Cathy?

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