Posts By: Helena Li

Everyone wins when we are kind to substitutes! :)

Helena Li

January 19, 2015

I substituted for a year after I graduated from my teaching program, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. I was working in a district with 28 schools (my home district has 6) sprawled throughout eight cities. Everything was unpredictable. Most of the time, I had no idea where the school was, unless I had been there enough times to remember the side gate into the parking lot where I was not allowed to park. Sometimes, I got called to sub for the morning, then requested for an afternoon job at a school an hour away that started 45 minutes after the morning class ended, leaving me negative 15 minutes for lunch.

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Ideas and TipsStories

Words are some of my favorite things in the world; I spent so much time with them that I had thought we were pretty good friends. I was surprised to find, during college, that I had overlooked a very important group of words – conjunctions. They had been constant companions in my speech and writing, yet I had not realized that they had personalities of their own that were coloring my demeanor and others’ perceptions of me.

I discovered this in my first education class, as my professor was telling us about the importance of choosing our words when we speak to students; in particular, about the powerful and potentially dangerous conjunction “but”. As she spoke and revealed the hidden effects of “but”, I mentally dubbed it the Stingy Conjunction. Whenever we connect two ideas with “but,” we end up overturning the first part in the same breath. Even if we truly meant what we said originally, the “but” steals it back from the person we’re talking to.

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I am from the generation when cell phones evolved from being primitively monochrome, with its most entertaining feature being an ever-elongating snake, to sudden touch screen brilliance, with a sassy voice-activated personal secretary. I have been an avid user at each of these stages, relishing every new invention, novel distraction, and complicated organization tool.

We have evolved at a rate that would frighten Darwin, growing an extra appendage that our thumbs are incessantly tapping on. If I have become so dependent on technology and the instant gratification of notifications and Likes, how addicted must our kids be, who were born into this world likely in the company of 4-inch lit screens?

The answer is clear in my students who walk into our meetings with their phones clutched tightly yet subconsciously, whose hands instantly move to their pockets at the slightest vibrate or beep. Even if they do resist looking at their phones, I lose them to the moment of distraction as they ponder who it could be that just messaged them, sent a Snapchat, Tweeted. Yet, I cannot blame them, because their world – the world that we adults have created – is designed to turn them into consumers of technology.

This is why it is important for us to also teach our kids how to set boundaries with these entertaining distractions. If we are going to give them tools to make their lives better and more efficient, then it is also our responsibility to teach how not to get lost in them. Even as adults, we sometimes spend just as much time on Facebook as we do on our actual work. You can imagine how much time kids waste on these mind-numbing, infinite scrolling sites and apps that separate them from learning useful skills and knowledge.

I want to share the following three tips that have been the most useful in protecting our time against the machines, ones I personally utilize and also teach to my students:

1. Turn off your phone notifications for all non-essential apps.

We become slaves to our devices when every single app gives us a notification for every occurrence, training us to immediately slide it open to investigate what breaking news coupons Ebates is offering today. Do we really need to? No, we can shut off the notifications and regain control of when we want to check them. Otherwise, we become wired to look without thinking, when we are in the midst of reading an email, writing a report, or even having a conversation. It might hurt at first, but you’ll get used to it… and like it.

2. Hide your time-sucking apps.

If you know that you open certain apps 20 times a day and spend at 10 minutes each time you open them, then hide those apps in the way back pages and recesses of your phone, inside folders of folders of folders, so that you give yourself time to really think about whether you want to open them. Will it really benefit you to open them right now? The time to get to the app alone will probably stop you because you will think better of it. Congratulations, you just earned 3 extra hours in your day!

3. Physically place your devices in another room.

Take some time apart. If you have an important test or essay coming up, put your phone in a different room or ask someone to keep it while you focus on your task. What I learned from serving jury duty was that setting your phone on vibrate does not make it inaudible; likewise, placing it face down on the table does not stop us from reaching for it. Sometimes, we need a physical barrier and that is okay. I always love telling my students how my college roommate would ask me to hide her laptop while she studied, and to change her Facebook password when she was applying for medical school. And now, I can claim credit for helping to add a dedicated doctor to the world.

In each of these instances that we are taking something that seems like a necessity away, replenish it with something better. I encourage my students to replace the Facebook app on their phone’s home page with CNN or Ted, to substitute the phone on their table with a book I recommend. Those 3 hours you freed up? Learning programming online!

Most kids do not realize that they are being commanded by their handheld devices because that is how good the tech industry is, and we should be proud of the industry’s progress. However, with great technology comes great responsibility, and we need to make sure our kids learn the latter because the prior is here to stay.

A few weeks ago I happened upon two articles that surprised me. The first was about how in some states absolutely no girls took the AP Computer Science exam. The second article was about how Lego was finally making female figurines for science sets.

As a counselor for high school students, I witness AP exams becoming the talk of the town during spring every year. Students gear up for finals, SATs and ACTs, and countless AP exams each May. I also get to know every student’s proposed major — computer science has risen to the top 3 in the past few years. In my own students, I definitely did not notice a difference in the interest of computer science between boys and girls.

Even though I already knew that fewer girls gravitate toward STEM fields overall, the particular piece of news that Wyoming, Montana, and Mississippi had no females taking the APCS exam in 2013 truly bothered me, especially because engineers and developers are in such high demand. If these are the most sought after jobs, how will girls contribute to shaping our world if we don’t encourage them along that path?

I did more digging. The most recent data I could find for APCS was for 2012 on the CollegeBoard website. The numbers I saw were even more astounding than I expected, and I shamefully dusted off my calculator that had been living at the bottom of my drawer. I never liked math – ironic, I know.

I saw that during 2012 in the US, only 4,893 girls took the APCS exam, as opposed to 21,210 boys. That means only 18.7% of the test-takers were girls. Was it simply that fewer girls took AP exams in general? The answer was a resounding no. In fact, over 1.1 million girls took AP exams that year versus 927,000 boys. The figures showed that an overwhelmingly larger number of girls took art, humanities, and foreign language AP exams than boys, with the exception of only a few tests.

APCS had the greatest disparity in how many girls versus boys took an AP exam. Even in 2013, only 18.5% of APCS test takers were girls despite the fact that the overall number of girls taking APCS exams had risen, according to Georgia Tech’s Institute for Computing Education website.

As a bittersweet follow-up to this information, I read that Lego had just announced the addition of female science figurines in the form of a chemist, paleontologist, and astronomer. What? I had no idea Lego had confined girls to the beach, kitchen, and mall all these years. It seemed anachronistic in this day and age of political correctness and girl power. Even Barbie had careers as a computer engineer, presidential candidate, and army officer, despite her more popular (and pink) roles. But at least Lego was taking steps, and I was glad for that.

Some of us, like myself, may have assumed that we were further ahead in encouraging girls toward STEM fields than we actually are, or that change will naturally occur in time. Or perhaps some of us are acutely aware of the disproportionate amount of female talent in science and already actively working towards change. Either way, the reality is that we have a lot of power in our hands as educators to encourage girls to become engineers and programmers. Being that the majority of educators are women, we must first recognize this truth so that we do not unknowingly perpetuate the cycle based on our own subconscious biases that have been implanted in us throughout our own lives. Once we become aware, then we can make choices to empower girls to pursue the subjects and careers they are told not to by society, so that they can take part and have a voice in the jobs that are shaping today’s technologically-directed world.


Matilda was one of my favorite books as a child, and I’ll always remember my amazement at the duplicity of Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, in using an electric drill to reverse the odometers to sell his used cars for more than they were actually worth.

Whether or not you’ve read Matilda, we can probably all agree that we disagree with these tactics because they’re dishonest and unscrupulous. Yet, now as an educator, I wonder more and more if we are creating a world in which the youth are forced to adopt these strategies for survival. In fact, are we shaping our kids the same way Mr. Wormwood is fixing his cars, imprudently emphasizing external factors instead of cultivating internal strength?

It is when I move away from the topics of test scores and awards that I truly begin to understand my students. Without this omnipresence that seems to subconsciously drive every aspect of their lives, I get to see what actually motivates them. I like to not ask them about how many points they’ve improved on the SAT since our last meeting, and instead ask about what has recently made them happy, angry, proud. They begin to speak about their love for beautiful literature, for their parents who work so hard, for the miracles they’ve just witnessed under a microscope. When they raise their voices excitedly, or try to blink away tears in their eyes, I rejoice, as strange as that sounds. I grasp these moments by the reins and encourage them to think about why it moves them, to help them connect what they love to what they can do in the real world. We build and reinforce that bridge with activities and knowledge that bring them closer to the other side; and hopefully, this pursuit becomes a habit and mindset that makes diligence worthwhile, because they are doing what they love. When we peel away the numbers on their resumes this way, we are left in a space with infinite possibilities for discovery and innovation. I think that’s how it should be.

Yet, when we send the message that numbers will measure their potential and intellect, it’s no wonder they see those digits as the prize. The 2400, 1st place, 99th percentile, Top 10 become everything they strive for and everything that fulfills them. We deprive them of the chance to build tenacity, to have a reason to keep fighting even if there is no trophy in sight, because external motivation is not only limited, it is limiting. By not fostering the habit of curiosity and the grit to work for their dreams, our kids will not have dreams bigger than to earn numbers that define them.

We need to do away with cranking back odometers and begin to invest in helping our kids develop a strength of purpose. Benchmarks and standards are necessary, yet they have taken too much of the spotlight and become the sole motivator for many kids, forcing them to abandon a love of learning even if it had existed in the first place. To be honest, it is easier to teach to the test and focus on attaining the numbers, because all it takes is drilling and practice, which does teach hard work in a sense. But what about the moral fiber and creativity that we are neglecting to build in our kids, which are necessary to be successful and happy in the real world? It takes much more dedication and creativity to teach students these same traits, because we have to model it ourselves.

The good news is that we have the power to do it, to enact change and to give our kids the type of education that will build them into the best people they can be, not just the highest achievers they can be. When we succeed in teaching and reassuring them to explore their interests, they will build a work ethic towards their dreams that will deliver many, many meaningful accomplishments. It starts with us, and I think it’s time we confiscated the electric drills from the Wormwoods of the world and take a lesson from Matilda’s creator Roald Dahl about the spirit of learning we want to pass on to our kids – “If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it.”

Drawing credit: Paul Callis, a special needs teacher in Oakland, CA. Follow his daily, whiteboard drawings on Instagram (@48birdo48)


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