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Rallying Cry from a "Champion for Children"


Emmy-winning producer/reporter Thomas Baldrick took a leap of faith and left his job in television to devote himself to efforts benefiting children. As the author of two books that focus on kids and how adults relate to them, he now visits schools and presents workshops for students, teachers, and parents. The man who has been dubbed a "champion for children" shares some insights he has gained through countless meetings with youngsters and discusses how teachers can more effectively reach them. Included: Baldrick suggests ways teachers can "celebrate a child" within the classroom!

"Magic happens when I go to a school," said Thomas Baldrick. "The more people who learn about this, the more lives I can touch. While it may sound corny, it definitely is true."

Thomas Baldrick

A six-time Emmy award-winning television reporter and producer, Thomas Baldrick is known as a "champion for children" who put aside a successful career because he felt that it was "far too dangerous to continue to play it safe." Instead he chose to pursue another goal: to use his talents to help children and charities. After leaving a position as senior producer of TLC's "A Wedding Story," Baldrick wrote his first book, Kids Rule! The Hopes and Dreams of 21st Century Children in 1999, and followed it with A Million & One Ways to Celebrate a Child in 2003. His works proclaim the idealism and innocence of childhood and tout the strength of character of children, families, and educators.

After covering the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Pennsylvania for ABC News, Baldrick brought solace to youngsters touched by these tragedies with "The Children of 9-11 Wall of Hope," a display of artwork and writing by children from the victims' families and schoolchildren across Pennsylvania. He works for the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, an organization that helps children experiencing family trauma "to make heroic choices every day." The foundation is named after Beamer, one of the passengers on Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, September 11, 2001, killing all aboard, after passengers struggled with hijackers.

Baldrick also supports many other charities, including the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. This fall, he also will serve as both television and event host of "Dare to Dream," a mentoring and career expo for high school sophomores.

Baldrick visits schools nationwide to promote self-esteem among children of all ages and in his workshops invites kids to identify the "heroes" in their lives -- and in the mirror. Targeting both educators and parents, he spreads the word about how adults can better relate to, understand, serve, recognize, and appreciate children. Baldrick recently took time to share with Education World some of his thoughts about kids, how to reach them, and what teachers can do to encourage caring and character among them.

Education World: As an individual who has been gifted with a talent for communicating with children, what advice do you have for educators who want to strengthen their skills in relating to students?

Thomas Baldrick: I'll say this for any educator who wants to strengthen his or her skills in relating with students...Not only is it the right way to go, but it's the smart way to go, too. Being a leader is much easier when others really want to follow you, and do so willingly.

As a teacher, you're already in possession of the necessary tools for successful communication. You are smart. You want to make a difference with your life. You are not afraid of hard work. And you truly care about kids.

As a first step, you can simply choose to relate better to students. Improved communication with students will come once you commit to it as a priority. Trust me, better relationships with students will happen faster and easier than you might think!

Use your ears and your heart to communicate with students. Your mouth will automatically follow. Too many adults talk to children, but far too few talk with them. Listen to your students. It's the best way to learn about them, and from them, too. If students feel it is safe to communicate openly without fear of being judged or ridiculed by you, eventually they will. Many children today feel as though grownups often don't listen to them or respect them. (I agree.) If you become a better listener, your students not only will notice, but they'll start listening more to you.

Often after I've done an author visit or workshop at a school, educators come to me shaking their heads as they tell me that the most needy or hardest to reach students somehow managed to gravitate toward me. Why does this happen? Why do these children cling to me? I believe it's simply because these lost little ones feel I am safe and they know that I care.

Take a deep breath. Teachers can do anything. Realize that while the constantly changing world is drastically different from when we were students, the basic tools for successful dealings with children have pretty much remained the same. Every student is unique, with a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and personal issues. If you pay attention, you'll soon discover that the actions of a student -- good, bad, or indifferent -- are nothing more than good, bad, or indifferent attempts to get his needs met. If you remember these things, one by one, class by class, day by day, your communication with students will improve and become more mutually rewarding.

EW: What have your many interviews with children revealed to you about what is important to them and the way that they think? How have their responses surprised you?

Baldrick: Every single student truly is unique. However, all children are similar in one important way: boy or girl, black or white, gifted, average, or special needs, all children want to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who they are. Period. This is the most important and most obvious message I've noticed from the thousands and thousands of children with whom I've visited or interviewed.

"Celebrate a Child" in the Classroom

In often-crowded classes, teachers face the challenge of knowing each child and making him or her feel special. Here are a few of the most meaningful ways Thomas Baldrick suggests teachers "celebrate a child" within the context of the classroom:

* Do whatever it takes; and don't be afraid to exercise your own creativity in reaching a child.

* Protect every child as though your life and his or hers depends on it. In some cases, it may!

* Never allow a child to be held up for public ridicule by you or a classmate.

* Encourage well-developed opinions and respect for those willing to share them.

* Encourage reading in every grade. Reading opens doors to success, improves writing and speaking skills, and builds self-confidence.

* Create rewards and extra credit projects that boost self-esteem in children.

* Find ways to teach children about life within the structure of your classroom lessons.

I continue to be pleasantly surprised by how resilient and loving children are despite carrying hurts that seem too big for their little bodies. This inner strength of children becomes downright amazing and awe inspiring for me in my work with the Todd M. Beamer Foundation's "Heroic Choices" program. We deal with children who have experienced trauma -- those who have lost loved ones in the World Trade Center, victims of abuse or violence, etc. -- and help them to make heroic choices every day. For these kids, their path requires them to be every bit as brave as Todd and the other passengers and crew members on board Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 [the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field.]

For many kids, getting out of bed every day to go to school requires an heroic choice. I am a huge advocate for protecting the innocence of children. Unfortunately, once innocence is taken from a child, it can never be replaced. With kids who have been forced to grow up too quickly, I try to show them love and respect, and often find myself apologizing to them on behalf of those who inflicted the damage. I don't ever want child victims to hurt themselves more by assuming the blame for the actions of some terribly misguided adults who failed to make heroic choices.

EW: Your book Kids Rule! The Hopes and Dreams of 21st Century Children highlights the beliefs and aspirations of today's kids. What is their, and your, message to teachers?

Baldrick: Kids today need hope as well as help. It's quite possible they need these things more than ever. While it seems like most adults think they need to be tougher on kids to "keep them in line," I prefer to give children more love and respect. Don't think for a minute this means that I don't believe in structure and discipline. I do. I know kids crave them. What I don't believe in is hurting kids by punishing them with words, fists, or other cruel actions. Those attempts disguised as "tough love" never once worked with me throughout my childhood. Hence, I have no reason to believe they will work for me as an adult. (Besides, I have no interest in trying.)

I can't tell you how many kids have complained to me about a parent yelling at them for getting a 92 on a test. The first comment they hear from a parent is something like, "What's the matter with you? How could you get that wrong? I'd better not see you do something stupid like that again." Ugh. I can't stand to hear those stories. Focus on a child's strengths, not his weaknesses. Isn't that how adults like to be treated?

Too many kids feel too much pressure today. They are pushed too hard to become stars in sports and other so-called "recreational" activities. I also believe school has become too competitive; kids breaking their backs by carrying bags full of books home. Teachers and students work hard during the school day. Teachers need down time, and so do children. Young boys and girls need time to play, to goof off, to explore and imagine. Simply put, kids need time to be kids. If all work and no play doesn't make Jack a dull boy and Jackie a dull girl, you can bet a semester's worth of lunch money that it will surely zap them of the enjoyment and wonder of learning. My vote is for less time spent watching TV or shuttling kids to and from activities and more time spent together as a family. This alone would reap huge dividends for education.

EW: How would you characterize the "classroom caretakers" you encountered as you worked on KIDS RULE! The Hopes and Dreams of 21st Century Children, and how do these educators go beyond the call of duty?

Baldrick: In my book, I labeled teachers as "classroom caretakers" because they are. Let's face it -- the breakdown of the American family unit and its effects on the education of our children has fallen squarely upon the shoulders of educators. Today's educators need to be teachers, guidance counselors, family intervention specialists, big brothers, big sisters, and so on. This is both wrong and unfair.

It's too simple and not accurate enough to say that educators go beyond the call of duty. From what I've seen in classrooms across the country, today's educators make going beyond the call of duty their everyday call of duty. In other words, "going the extra mile" is merely part of the course that many of today's teachers choose to take.

In my opinion, a far more realistic goal for educators and parents should be to teach a child to reach his or her personal best. This certainly doesn't mean that every child is capable of straight A's. Deep down, we all know the truth -- whether or not we want to admit it. Don't even get me started on the concept of teaching to tests! To me, the best way to ensure that no child gets left behind is to see that no educator gets left behind. For crying out loud, let's cut the lip service and pay all of our educators fair wages!

EW: In your second book, A Million & One Ways to Celebrate a Child," you share ways that adults -- especially parents -- can give a child the "best school year ever." How can teachers contribute to this goal?

Baldrick: I included those suggestions in the book because some newspaper columnists and TV and radio shows found the information to be quite valuable. To me, they are simple yet sound observations.

One example for how teachers can contribute to making this year the best school year ever for a child is through an idea I named "Study History -- Don't Live It." Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:

Each school day and each school year is a fresh start. If a child was a struggling "C" student in fourth grade, be positive about fifth grade and help him to be positive, too. Improving to grades of B's and A's is entirely possible. On the flip side, remind a child that last year's A's aren't IRA's. They don't roll over from year to year.

Teachers also can help children by "living in the moment." Forget about what happened in your classroom last year, last month, or last period. Whenever you are communicating with a student, ask yourself, "What's here now?" Your inner voice will tell you what you need to do to reach a particular student or class. Sometimes the best thing to do will be to close all books and share a story; other times you'll ask the perfect question or simply flash a caring smile. Trust and believe in your greatness as educators, and showcase it in your classrooms. Your students will then be able to see and believe in their greatness, too.

EW: Many of the children you feature in this book are models of courage and caring. What is their lesson for educators? How can teachers promote the kind of character and creativity that they have displayed?

Baldrick: I agree. I do believe the children featured in my books are models of courage and caring. I think they offer a few lessons for educators. For example, educators should never give up on a child. Nor should any educator ever underestimate the difference he or she makes in the life of a child.

I met a 32-year veteran educator during an appearance in St. Paul, Minnesota, this summer. He told me a story that I am going to write about in my next book. Many years after saying something to one of his students, the educator's grown son heard the same words spoken by the keynote speaker of a major convention. You guessed right. The speaker was referring to his own childhood, and the father of the man in the audience had changed his life.

Teachers can best promote character and creativity in children by being honest and living by example. Encourage children to "think big." You can even use one of my sayings: "Swing hard in case you hit it!" After all, it is the only way in life to hit home runs.

Teachers also can teach children a valuable lesson by making it safe to fail. Too many kids reject themselves before giving anyone else the opportunity to reject them. I am always honest in admitting my mistakes to children. It doesn't show them my weaknesses; it shows them my strength. If children know that I have made mistakes, they realize it's only natural for them to fail at times, too.

As far as creativity is concerned, I am a big believer that if you follow your passion, good things will happen. If you do what you love, you love what you do. Happiness is the real success in life.

This e-interview with Thomas Baldrick is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

  • Thomas Baldrick, Author Learn more about Thomas Baldrick's school presentations on this page, part of the Web site Authors and Illustrators Who Visit Schools.

Article by Cara Bafile
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