Inspirational Thoughts

Messages of inspiration

  • Inspirational Thoughts

    Self-Perception: Your grass becomes greener when you water it!

    By Rio Clemente and Kelly Reid


    I have spent a large portion of my adult life hearing the following two questions: “Are you related to Rio Clemente the piano player?” usually followed up by “Do you play?”. These are questions that I have heard so many times in my life that a colleague actually had a shirt made for me that says, “My name is Rio Clemente…Yes, I am…No, I don’t.” It wouldn’t matter where I was. I could be at school, at the doctors office, literally anywhere and it would happen. It is very hard to form your own identity when you feel that you are living in someone else’s shadow.

    The infamous

    I decided that I needed to get out of my father’s shadow and be my own person. It was through my job that I would attempt to validate my existence. I began working long hours making lessons, doing extra things at school, and going above and beyond whenever possible. Over time, I felt like I was beginning to be my own person. However, it would only take one person to say “are you…” and I would feel defeated again. It is not to say that I am not proud of my father’s accomplishments. I am. He has played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and even the White House. I still needed to find my own identity.

    My dad playing at the White House
    My dad and I after a performance at the Birdland in NYC

    It didn’t matter that we did not have the same profession, it mattered that I was only known as his son and not my own person. I decided more had to be done. I was not working hard enough, I was not trying hard enough, I was not going above and beyond enough. It was getting to the point where It was affecting my health and the relations with my family. I was always saying things like “I have to work”, “You can go without me”, or “I’ll be up in a minute.” The minute would usually translate into hours.

    My amazing mother

    During the 2008-2009 school year, I was fortunate enough to be named my school’s teacher of the year. I felt that maybe then I would be happy. I mean who wouldn’t be? It was a very happy moment in my life, however, it was connected to a very sad moment in my life. In May of that same school year, my mother passed away at the age of 67. My mother was someone who always made the point to tell not only me, but my sisters how proud she was of us. She was one of the people I could always count on to make me feel better. She was someone who I believe was always trying to do things to prove her own self-worth. It is not a surprise why I am the way that I am. When she passed, my daughter was only one year’s old. My hope was to tell her how proud I am of her so she would not have to feel how I felt most of my life. Even with all of my attempts, even my own kids at times struggle with self-perception. Then again, how do I help my own kids with their self-perceptions when I struggle with my own.

    A couple of years ago it finally hit me. I should not care if people compare me to my father. I should not feel the need to prove to people that I have value. I should be able to look in the mirror and be proud of the person that I have become. I should be proud of my efforts and everything that I have achieved in my professional and personal life. I had to stop trying to constantly prove to people that I was a good teacher, I was a good person, I was someone who had value. I was someone who wanted to help others not because I needed to prove something, but because I loved it.

    OBX: 2008 (Last Vacation Together)

    Wanting to help others is something that I have always loved doing. That was instilled in me by mother. She always wanted to help others. Making others feel better is something that I have always tried to do. The one person I still wanted to be proud of me was my mother. Of course, that was not a possibility. The last time I spoke to her, she was in the hospital with pneumonia. I told her I had some graduate work to do but I would be back in two days. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. Her death hit me very hard. It just made me want to work even harder, however, I knew I had to take time for myself and my family. I knew I had to be able to look into the mirror and tell myself that I was doing enough and that I should be proud of what I have done. I had to stop perceiving myself in such a negative way. Luckily I have the support of so many amazing colleagues and friends to pick up my spirits. Life would not be the same without them. They have no idea what they do. Some live close and some live far. Some see you in the hall and give you a word of encouragement and some send you a funny picture about the weather. That is why it is so important to be kind because you never know whose life you can change for the better.

    Pictures of my amazing colleagues from school and Responsive Classroom

    Now that I was beginning to understand how to manage my own self-perception, I wanted to focus my efforts on my students. What if I have students who are battling with getting out of someone else’s shadow? What if I have students who look in the mirror and they do not like what they see? What if my students looked in the mirror and feel that everyone around them doesn’t like how they are? I wanted to make a difference in their lives and I knew this was my chance.

    I began planning an advisory lesson focused around self perception. An advisory lesson is one that either supports academic readiness or social emotional learning. The goal of of this lesson was for kids to talk about the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side.” I wanted to find out if they think everyone else’s life is better than theirs. I also wanted to know what they see when they look in the mirror.

    The first year I did this activity, I had the kids fill out a piece of paper that said I perceive myself as…Others perceive me as…I want to be perceived as. It was a work in progress as far as the lesson went, but their responses shocked me. In the words of my amazing colleague Noelle, I was “SHOOK!” Kids were writing statements like I perceive myself as fat, stupid, ugly, useless, friendless, unathletic, someone with no friends, awkward, stressed, etc. How could these kids who were in a classroom where they were cared for and respected feel so negatively about themselves? Then again, when I looked in the mirror for many years, I felt a lot of negative thoughts about myself. Not only was my glass not 1/2 full, it was empty and broken.

    My and my buddy J.Swaim

    Getting back to their comments; I began to think…maybe it was a bad year? Maybe this is not the norm. Maybe this group was writing what they thought I wanted to hear. I did the same lesson for the next two years, except this time I taught it with a colleague. One year J. Swaim and I taught it and one year K. Reid and I taught it. The results for the most part were similar. Some kids have a very low image of themselves. One class was one of my all time happiest classes and those kids broke my heart when they were talking about how negatively they look at themselves. If these kids were feeling this way, I could only imagine how some of my other students felt.

    I do not have the answers to why kids feel this way. I do not know if it is because they see kids posting pictures on Instagram and Snapchat and they look like their lives are so perfect. I know adults to do this. How many times have you seen a picture on Facebook and think how wonderful everyone else’s life is and you might feel like your own life is falling apart.

    One strategy that I have tried to instill into my students is to be openly communicative with someone. Tell someone how you are feeling. Find that one person who might be wiling to pick up your spirits. I am very grateful for the people I have had in my life who when I was feeling down, they were there to pick me up. Sometimes it was my parents, sometimes it was sisters, sometimes my friends, and sometimes my colleagues. It has even been my students. Everyday has its challenges. There are days when you do not want to get out of bed. You might think what is the point? The point is that you matter and the people around you need you. You have no idea the impact you might have on another person. You might be the one that fills another person’s cup and you do not even realize you are doing it. Two people who are always filling other people’s cups are S. Suydam and A. Hodgson. Both are constantly checking in and seeing how I am doing, how their colleagues are doing, and how the kids are doing.

    S. Suydam and A. Hodgson supporting past and present students at a football game.

    Someone who has always filled my cup is K. Reid. I asked her to co-write this blog entry with me and she is going to share some strategies that she uses to help with self-perception.


    How people perceive themselves is usually different than how others perceive them. We know how we want to be perceived and work toward that but it isn’t always easy. To me, being an identical twin, self-perception has always been challenging. I love my sister and she truly is my best friend but always being compared to someone else has been hard.  Who was the prettier twin? Who was the smarter twin? Who was more athletic? Funny? Caring? I could go on and on. My parents never tried to compare us but how could they not? Everything was a competition.  When it came to sports, who was the better pitcher in softball or who could do a better toe touch for cheerleading. When it came to school, a big one was who got the higher score on their SAT’s, which we got the same score in the end ironically.  When we graduated from high school; our GPA was a tenth away from each other.  When it came to college, we didn’t want to go to school without each other but that brought more challenges. We both had the same major, same classes, same job on campus, and same sorority. Ok you get the idea. It was hard because we had the same interests and similar goals so often that put us into situations where we were together. Even though we work really well together, everything was a competition. I have worked my entire life to feel like I am good enough in comparison to someone else. We both are teachers and not surprisingly teach the same subject, science.  Although I feel like I was competitive with my sister, I do feel that it made me question what I was doing, work hard, and become a better person.

    I feel like I was so used to comparing myself to my sister that I often compare myself to others. I try not to but it isn’t easy.  Even now, I feel like I compare myself to my peers, what could I do more of or am I doing enough? Am I a good teacher, a good mom, a good daughter, a good wife? I feel like once I start thinking about what else has to be done for school, around the house, or for my daughter, I’m exhausted from constantly going and stressing about what is next. At a time of high anxiety, I try to stop and take a deep breath.  

    I have always been an anxious person but right now there is a lot of negativity going on around us. It can be so easy to get sucked in it and go down that path of anger and frustration. Everyone is being stretched to the limits and it isn’t easy to stay positive. I have felt myself getting anxious to a point of chest pain.  I also realized that it has affected my life with my family. The stress makes me angry and have short temper with my family. I have realized that this has to stop. I have always tried very hard to be positive. On my phone’s home screen I posted the saying “Train your mind to see the good in everything. Positivity is a choice. The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”  I feel like I don’t focus on that as much as I should but it is my reminder to slow down.

    When I feel myself going down the negative, anxious path, as I said, I take a deep breath. I also recite affirmations that I have written. I created a list of positive words about myself. They are my reminders that I will get through that anxious moment. They are sayings like, I will get through this, I am happy and positive, I am healthy and relaxed, and everything is working out and many more. When repeating this, I am thinking or saying those positive messages and I feel my heart rate instantly slow down.  I am changing my mindset. Those small reminders help me to remember that I have been in difficult times before and I got through it then so I will get through it now. An amazing author who focuses on the positive mindset is Louise Hay. She passed away in 2017 but her books on how to think positive have helped me create my own list of positive affirmations. I have them listed on my phone and go through them to help me keep that positive mindset.

    Due to this idea of the power of words and its impact on your body and in your life, R. Clemente and I created an advisory on the power of words. Students looked at statements and had to think about how they would feel if someone said that statement to them. Statements ranged from “You are an idiot” to “Thanks for the advice. It was helpful!” Students discussed how they felt when those statements were said to them but also how it would feel if someone close to them said them. It was a good discussion on the power of words and their impacts on people. We also talked about the health impacts of a negative mindset and determined ways to be more positive in our lives. Students shared great ideas for how they can be more positive. I hope that I helped them to realize how important a positive mindset is. I know I struggle with being positive everyday but hope that the advisory helped our students to light a spark to be more positive their own lives.


    Mirror Mirror

    Looking in the mirror and having a negative self image is something that I have struggled with most of my life. My father recently told me that as his star fades, my star is shining brighter. I know my father is proud of me and I know my mom was proud of me. Even so, I cannot let that run my life. I know people deal with their own self perception issues. Some think everyone has it better than them. Some think that they are not as good as everyone else. Some might even think that they are not doing enough. The reality is the grass becomes greener when you water it. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are doing a good job and that you have value. With the help of my family, friends, and colleagues, I am able to start seeing the good in the mirror. The question is, when you look in the mirror, what do you see?

    K. Reid & R. Clemente

  • Inspirational Thoughts

    SEL to the Rescue

    My name is Rio Clemente and I work at a middle school in New Jersey.  September 2020 will be the start of my 20th year teaching social studies to sixth grade students.  I have been a consulting teacher for The Center for Responsive Schools for the last five years.  With a lot of teaching experience and professional development under my belt, September 2020 is going to a year where I am going to need every bit of it. 

    The summer of 2020 was not your typical summer.  I spent most my summer stressing about whether I would be teaching virtually or in person.  Most nights I had trouble sleeping.  When the decision came that we would be teaching in person, my stress levels increased drastically. I also began to think about my future students.  How must they be feeling?  Are they nervous?  Are they scared?  Are they excited?

    When I was given my schedule, I was unsure how I was going to run my classes.  I would see kids in person based on what their last names are.  For example, A-L would be in person while M-Z would be virtual and then it would swap the next day.  Regardless of the day, the 100% virtual kids would be home.  I was tasked with teaching the in-person kids and the virtual kids at the same time.  This is no easy task.  Which led me back to my previous question.  How must the kids be feeling?  It was then that things finally came into focus.  I knew I was going to have to take time and focus on social emotional learning (SEL).    After speaking to my colleagues Kelly Pickul, Noelle Cocca, and Gary Brady, they were on board.  All of them are strong believers in teaching the whole child.  We make a great team.

    As a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, not being able to do the type of things that I was trained to do was not easy to accept.  However, I knew that making connections with kids was still a possibility and it was something that I needed to make a priority in my teaching.  I knew that if given the time, I could still make a difference.  I began plans to run 50-minute Responsive Advisory Meetings (RAM) during my afternoon classes.  This was the time chosen because everyone would be virtual, and I could my student’s faces.

    For the past few weeks, I have run advisory lessons starting with teambuilding using the last person standing activity.  This is where kids tell me something that they think most kids in their class have in common, something maybe a few kids have in common, and one thing that is unique to them.  This activity gave me some great insight to my students.  Whether it was learning that one of my students is a nationally ranked wrester or that some can speak multiple languages, or some have lived in a variety of states and countries. After our first advisory, I could not wait for the next one.

    The next advisory lesson was on effort and its impact on success.  For this advisory, I used Padlet so kids could be honest with their answers and stay anonymous.  I then used Microsoft Forms to gather some closure data.  I gained some interesting feedback from the kids.  Some kids said they do not think their parents, teachers, and friends notice their effort.  One went on to say, “I put my effort into my phone because nobody notices my effort.”  I knew I had to try to use my reinforcing teacher language to let my students know I noticed their effort.  If kids feel that their effort is not noticed, many give up and in the current situation we are living in right now, giving up seems easier for kids if they feel they can hide by just muting their microphone and turning off their camera. After seeing such heartbreaking comments, I knew we had to keep going.

    My colleague Kelly Reid (Science Teacher) followed up our lesson with her own RAM on how create a success plan.  Mrs. Reid as a teacher has a tremendous amount of empathy for her students.  Just like me, Mrs. Reid is feeling the pressures of teaching in this environment.  However, this has not stopped her from meeting the needs of her students on an emotional and personal level.  Being able to work with someone who has the same belief system as you is a gift. 

    When we shifted our focus from effort to leadership, it was at this point that I noticed a change in my students.  I could see they were taking leadership roles in our discussions.  They were becoming more confident and were self-advocating more.  I felt like we were making progress, but there was still a way to go.  I felt like we had not had that one moment where I could be like “YES”!  Then it happened.

    Our next advisory was on resistance.  Kids were given scenarios and they were asked to respond how they might resist the norm in the scenario.  One of the scenarios dealt with gender equality.  The scenario went like this: You are a new student at an imaginary middle school. It turns out that they only have sports for the boys at the school.  When you ask the principal how come?  You are told that there is not enough money to pay for girl sports. You are then told there are some nice girl clubs that you can join after school.  How can you resist this policy?

    This scenario was the game changer.  Especially for the girls in class.  Not only did they participate more than ever, something incredible happened.  Girls in class began talking about personal experiences dealing with times that they were mistreated because they were a girl or for other reasons.  Basically, the lesson went off track, but it was worth it.  When comments came up about being treated badly by their friends or being a target in the past, the other girls in class comforted them and did what they could to make them feel better.  When the lesson was over, some of the kids from class stayed for almost an additional twenty minutes because they were not done talking and they needed to be heard.

    To me, that is what is all about.  Kids just want to be heard.  They want someone to listen to them and acknowledge their feelings.  When I ended my virtual class period, it changed me.  Trying to teach in a hybrid model was taking its toll on me.  I was feeling defeated and distraught.  Starting my twentieth year in the classroom, I felt like I was not making a difference.  After this period, I finally felt like my old self.  The point I am making is it is not always the teacher who is changing the lives of the students.  Sometimes it is the students changing the lives of their teachers.

    I look forward to our upcoming advisory lessons.  We will focus on communication, empathy, and stress management.  These are three topics that I feel will really benefit the kids in this environment.  The beauty of any advisory is that you can connect it to your content.  My advice to anyone who is nervous about running an advisory, take the risk.  It is worth it.  It gives us a chance to be ourselves and help kids deal with the challenges of life.  You might not see the result immediately, but I promise that you are making a difference.  You just have to believe. 

    When you are done with your advisory lessons, a good idea would reach out to the parents what was done.  After each advisory, I send a summary to the parents.  Here are a couple sample responses that I received.  “This is all so wonderful to read. Great job teaching such a worthwhile lesson to our children.”  Another parent wrote “Wow. This IS wonderful! Some of these kids really did open up so much. Excellent assignment.  We truly appreciate how you and Ms. Cocca genuinely care about our children’s wellbeing. We are immensely grateful. Virtual schooling has been extremely challenging for our daughter.  We’re glad she’s in your class, though.  She really enjoys it. Thank you!”  Parents will appreciate your efforts.  Everyone has their own challenges and if we work together, we can help one another.  Never forget that you are making a difference in the life of a child.