Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blessings and Curses

Sometimes we inadvertently reveal in our speech what is really hidden in our hearts. 

Case in point: today on Christian radio, I listened to a woman talk about how, as a schoolteacher, God has blessed her this year with a good class. A teacher myself, I understand the 'blessing' of a good class, but as a word person, I started thinking about what she really meant. Her well-behaved class is easier to manage and teach than an unruly one, so she ultimately sees it as good. Good, for most people who call themselves Christians, is equivalent to blessing. Good = blessing. Good = easy? Good = what we desire? Good = the life we want? If God blesses us with 'good' things, does that mean He curses us with bad? 

From a whole lot of Scripture and a whole lot of personal experience, I can tell you unequivocally that God does not curse us who are His children. He does not send us the "bad" as the opposite of the blessing. In actuality, the 'bad' often is - or leads to - the blessing itself.

The hard situations of life - the challenging times, the difficult people, the situations we can't change or fix - these are not the opposites of blessings. These are not curses, though they may feel to be. They are exhibitions of His favor that we can't yet see as blessings because our timelines are immediate and His favor extends into the unseen.

When I look back to the times I felt 'cursed,' I remember desperately wanting God to intervene with blessing. I remember begging for favor and yearning to know why He allowed such hardship for His child. I didn't see any of it as good, easy, or what I desired. Now, though? I see. Now, I understand that the initial hardship led to the eventual good. The immediate pain allowed for the ultimate joy. The 'curse' of the time made way for the 'blessing' to come.

None of this is to say that difficulties are enjoyable. We shouldn't wish for them, and I know firsthand that it's nearly impossible to count them as joy. But in the midst of them, they become bearable when we remember - and believe - that anything that comes into our lives has met with approval from our Maker. He allowed it, has seen it to the end, and will use it for our good. We can rest in the knowledge that what feels like a curse now is simply a blessing that remains unseen. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Imagined No

I never imagined the response I would get to a simple question posed on social media. I simply asked, "What do you think keeps people from doing what they would love to do and being who/what they'd love to be?" Apparently I struck a nerve - people sent me their responses electronically and told me their stories in person, and I was relieved because of what I felt was confirmed in their answers.

I am not alone.


"Obligations and responsibilities."

"Definitely money."

"Guilt for putting themselves first."


"Fear of failing."

"Fear of the unknown."

"Fear--of failure, ridicule, looking like a fool."

"Fear of not knowing they would be able to succeed in what they love..."

"Fear of failure or fear of success."

Over and over, the word "fear" was repeated in nearly every answer. Fear of failing, fear of what other people will say and think, fear of how life might change... Even the fear of success. I was blown away at the fact that so many of us want something else - might even feel called to something more - but stay where we are in spite of the feeling that we're not supposed to be there. Our fear, its many shapes and sizes, paralyzes us. We remain where because of the fear that anything else will be a colossal failure.

Certainly there are responsible reasons why we deny ourselves and our longings. Having a family requires money to buy things like food, so sometimes a paycheck takes precedence over a dream. Plus, we need insurance, don't we? And dreams require a significant time investment. Then some of us over-spiritualize and assume that we are not good Christians if we are not content in the current. We think there's no way Jesus would want us to step out of the situation we're in. After all, he put us there, right? So we don't go, don't change, don't allow ourselves to believe that the dream deep inside is really from God. We convince ourselves that we are simply selfish and that pursuing the more - whatever it is - is an act that is wrong.

Sometimes we use our responsibilities as our excuses.

Sometimes there is comfort in the fear because at least it is familiar.

I've begun to see that we live in the disappointment of an imagined "no" to a question we're afraid to ask.

That imagined and presumed "no" is the reason we don't take risks. 'Am I supposed to take this leap of faith, Lord?' 'Is this dream I've had since I was a little girl your true calling on my life?' 'Will I finally be content if I pursue this crazy dream?'

We imagine the worst, assuming that "no" is inevitable. We call it "responsibility" and "taking care of obligations" when sometimes it's really just fear and excuse-making and - this is my greatest fear - we miss why we were created. When we deny our callings and just call it being selfless, we are denying this world of the gifts that only we have to offer. We are not doing what is noble; we are doing what is comfortable. We are not taking the path God set before us; we are taking the path of least resistance.

When we assume the answer is "no" before we ever ask the question - we are limiting the life we were created to live. We call it many things, but sometimes it's just being faithless. It's time we call it what it is.

I am not giving you carte blanche to do whatever you want; I am giving you permission to do whatever you're supposed to. Can the misery of pretending that you're fine in the place you are in be enough to move you out? Can the nagging feeling that there has to be more for you be what allows you to search for it? Can my urging you that your dream is your calling be what it takes to move you from complacency to complete abandonment?

It is not selfish to be what God called you to be. Rather, friend, it is selfish to deny the world of the beauty that you will bring when you are who you were created to be.

May we all believe that today.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To Those Kids I Taught My First Year...

Dear Students,

I met you guys 13 years ago this August. You were 12 - not quite little children, but not quite young adults, that awkward stage now known as the "tween years." I was barely 21, a new college graduate with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of uncertainty. On the day we met, I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I had spent weeks shopping for and decorating our classroom, and to this day, I can remember exactly what it looked like. I remember the bulletin boards I painstakingly decorated and the curtains I hung in the windows. I had pored over the textbook, carefully choosing the stories I would teach and the projects you would complete. My lesson plans for those first weeks were impeccable, and my welcome letter to you was thoughtful and full of my hopes for our year together. In short, I thought I was ready for you. In fact, I have never been more wrong. Because, even though I was a magna cum laude graduate with a degree in Secondary Education who had aced the Praxis exam and received great feedback on my student teaching, I was not prepared. I had no idea what I was really doing, and I had no idea just what was really expected of me as your teacher.

You're 25 now, perhaps college graduates with families of your own, and you might not even remember your 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Dutch Fork Middle, but if you do, this is what I want to say to you.

I am so sorry.

I feel now like I failed you.

It wasn't on purpose, and I didn't exactly realize it at the time, but now as an experienced teacher, I know the mistakes I made and the many ways I didn't give you what you needed. I saw you as students, but I forgot that you were people. I focused on the content, and I didn't consider your character. My priority was your performance, but I excluded your needs. Will you - can you? - please forgive me? I hope I didn't derail your education and make you despise school. I made it all about the academics - and regardless of what politicians, Common Core standards, and high-stakes testing say - it isn't. School isn't just about what you learn, but who you become. And I did nothing to help you become what you were meant to be.

I am so sorry.

That first year, I did not have kids of my own yet, and as a result, I didn't know how kids work. Sure, I had studied theories about child development and I had been lectured to about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but I didn't understand you. I never stopped to think about your home life and how it affected what you did in my room. I never considered that some of you were hurting or that you couldn't learn because your bellies were hungry. I was so naive, and I assumed that some of you weren't learning because you just weren't trying. Now I know that maybe you couldn't.

To you, sweet red-headed M, the first autistic child I ever taught, I beg your forgiveness. I had zero experience with autism, and you suffered as a result. I did not know what to do to help you. I felt helpless and scared. I pray that you are successful now anyway.

And you, little C.B. Your anger is what I remember all these years later. I never tried to understand where it came from, and I only added to it by staying on your case. I don't know where you are now, but I'm hoping that you encountered a teacher who knew and therefore cared more than I did.

G.H. - I heard that you brought a gun to school after I taught you. Thankfully, you didn't do anything with it, but I want you to know that I have questioned myself often about what I could have done to turn your life around when you were 12. It haunts me sometimes that I didn't try harder for you. I know I don't deserve the blame for the choices you made, but I wonder if I could have intervened back when you were in my care.

To all of you, the now-adults I will always picture as the then-children: goodness, do I wish I could have that year with you back. I would put down the legal pad of information I taught myself the day before I taught you, and we would just talk. I would ask about your dreams and tell you that they could come true. I would tell you about myself - the person, not the teacher. I would encourage you in your failures, not berate you for your lack of effort. I would care about your after-school activities, knowing that for some of you, they meant everything. I would be your safe place, because I know now that some of you didn't have one.

I haven't seen most of you since you were in the 7th grade, but I want you to know that my failures with you then have been the cause of some of my successes today. Anything good I do in my classroom today is because of the bad I did in yours then.

You might not remember me, but I will never forget you. You, my first students, deserve my apologies, but you also deserve my thanks. You changed me, and every student I encounter now benefits because of how you affected me. Wherever you are now and whatever you are doing, know that I'm thinking of you. I'm wishing you success, and I'm sending you "I'm sorry" all these years later. Learn from me now the hardest lesson I've ever learned myself - that the places where we fail and the times when we feel inadequate can also serve as the greatest stepping stones to finding where and what we need to be.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Girls, Girls, Girls

Each day as I drive down a certain highway in my hometown, I see a sign advertising in bold black letters, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" As I watched a pseudo-news program on television last night, it featured 'the sexiest Halloween costumes for women' and showed a video-gone-viral of a young woman receiving over 100 catcalls just walking down the street. When I opened up CNN's website just now, the featured headline read, "Women Sold, Raped, Enslaved by ISIS."

No matter where I look, it looks really bad to be a female.

Maybe it's because I'm the mother of a little girl who is rapidly growing older, or maybe it's just because I am growing older myself, but day by day I am increasingly saddened at just what it means to be a female in 2014. Sure, we have the right to vote, and yes, the glass ceiling has begun to crack and shatter, but in many ways it still dangerous and/or a liability to be a female.

Every day at the high school where I teach, I see young ladies violating the dress code and displaying their bodies in a way that makes me cringe. Their tops are low-cut, their shorts are unbelievably short, and their skinny jeans are impossibly skinny. Those 15 year old girls probably don't understand, but the way they display their bodies says a lot about the way they feel. And the feeling that most of them seem to feel is this: "I am my appearance. My self is my looks." Maybe, for some of them, they just dress like their friends, but maybe, just maybe, they have learned that even in 2014,  in much of the world, a young lady is the sum of her parts. And those parts need to be shown.

I am not - hear me, please - blaming these girls. I am blaming us - our society. We collectively have allowed females to be 'less-than.' We have reduced them to parts and demanded that those parts appear a certain way. We have caused a girl's worth to be dependent on so many things other than who she really is - the person inside with a heart and intelligence.

I have realized that in many ways, and in many places, girls are a commodity. They are still treated as though they are inferior to males, and they still are fighting for equality. I know that I, personally, have felt this way. I have felt 'less-than' simply because I am a female, and I have been told that I cannot do what males can do - even though I am more qualified and would likely do quite well.

When will this end, and how? I wish I knew. The scary thing is I'm not convinced that it will. Seeing females merely as sex objects and pawns in a man's world has become so ingrained in our culture that a perspective shift will not come easily. Especially as long as we females who know better don't do better. If we continue to allow ourselves to be demeaned and discriminated against, nothing will change. If we don't fight for ourselves - and our daughters - no one will.

I want to be able to tell my little girl that she can do anything - and mean it. I don't want there to be businesses in my hometown where men can pay - in any capacity - for women and their services. I don't want her gender to essentially be a disability that prevents her from achieving her dreams. I want her to see a world that so far hasn't existed: a world where being a female is more positive than negative.

Image courtesy of http://www.lettherebeneon.com/?page_id=892

Friday, October 24, 2014

I Never Don't Feel Guilty

It's 2:47 on a Friday, this one being a teacher workday. I am sitting down, in my recliner, at home. As we speak, there are still a bunch of teachers at my school logging hours, planning for next week and doing the myriads of unending tasks that teachers have to do. But I'm not there. I'm home.

We were given permission to leave today at 2:15 since we spent an evening at school a few weeks ago for Open House. I had permission to leave - yet I feel guilty. This, my friends, is the real life of a teacher. We never don't feel guilty about something.

I feel guilty because I was the only person walking out the door at 2:15. The parking lot was still full, and my own to-do list wasn't finished. My supply cabinet really needed to be reorganized, and the nonfiction unit I'm doing soon still needs some work. My bookshelves are dusty, and I should have emailed that parent. Ugh - yep. I probably should have stayed later.

But I didn't. I chose to come home to my elementary-school-aged children and spend some time with them. (I'm a rebel, aren't I?) I chose to try to turn my school brain off for a little while and not be driven mad by the ever-increasing demands placed on me - us - including the new requirements we learned about in the meeting this morning. I chose to go out for lunch with my friends, and I chose to leave today as soon as I could. And I'm trying to be ok with that.

But you know why it's hard to be ok with that? Because teachers are constantly judged, and the criticism is loud and stinging. We are judged by parents - "My child has never made a C before, so you must be the problem." We are judged by other teachers - "Ew, I never teach that story. The kids think it's so boring." We are judged by administrators - "Mrs. X was at school even though she was sick. Let's all try to be like Mrs. X." And please don't forget the community - "Kids today can't read and write. I just don't know what's going on in that school." From every direction, teachers are judged, but the harshest judgments are those that come from ourselves.

Yes, we teachers know that we have a million eyes on us. We know that there is nothing more important than influencing the life of a child, so the million eyes have a right to be on us. That's fair. But the brightest spotlight we feel is the one we turn on ourselves. On the whole, teachers are a group of perfectionists. You might not be able to tell by looking at some of our desks, but we want to do things right. We want to be on the cutting edge of research and technology, and we want to be the teacher that a high school senior remembers fondly. We feel like crying when a lesson bombs, and we hurt when our kids just can't get it. We have file cabinets full of old lessons, but we create new ones every year so they'll be just right. We look in others' classrooms as we walk down the halls, and we feel insufficient because of what we see. We peek at the study guide left in the copier, and we groan inwardly when we realize ours is not nearly as good.

We are constantly judged - but the worst judgments are our own. They bring a guilt that feels inescapable. On a daily basis, I might feel badly about any (or all) of the following:
* I can't get to school before 7:15 because of having to take my own kids to school. That teacher gets here every morning at 6:30 when the building opens.
* I forgot to make these copies yesterday afternoon, so now I have 46 seconds before the bell rings to get them run off.
* That bulletin board has been up since August. It really needs to be changed.
* The 72 essays I collected three days ago haven't been graded, and both kids and parents are checking Parent Portal to see if the grades are there. They aren't.
* Having to say, "We don't have enough time to finish this story in class, so you guys will have to finish it on your own tonight. I know - I'm sorry. But there's not enough time."
* That student from 4th period last year was arrested last night.
* The technology I was awarded through a grant is probably wonderful - but I haven't had enough time to learn to use it well yet.
* Student X doesn't have access to the internet at home, and no one in his family was willing to take him to the library. His paper, therefore, isn't typed. Which was a requirement.
* I forgot to show the school news. Again.
* This poetry packet I need to copy is 15 pages. I know that's a lot of paper, but the poems in our textbook are really bad...

It just goes on and on. In the course of one class, I feel so inadequate to meet the demands of every student. There are kids with learning disabilities, kids who barely speak English, kids whose baby sister is fighting cancer, kids who have no high school graduates in their families, kids who have no books on a bookshelf at home, kids who did not get enough to eat today, kids who cannot afford the supplies they come without, kids with struggles I can tell are there but cannot figure out... The education system has evolved to hold teachers accountable for students and their performances, and believe me, we feel accountable. I feel responsible for things I cannot change and cannot control, and it leads to a feeling of all-consuming guilt most days. We teachers never don't feel guilty.

Part of learning to be a teacher is learning to live with the guilt. It's understanding that at the end of the day, if we've done all we can do - academically and otherwise - then we can go home and be satisfied with our day's work. It's realizing that we can't change everything for a child. It's understanding that no matter how hard we work - or how late we stay - there will always be someone doing more or working later. Part of being a good teacher is going in your classroom, closing the door, teaching your heart out, and then going home to recharge. Part of being a good teacher is getting out of the school and being just you. Even with a little guilt following you as you leave.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Joy Is Coming

Single moms, I woke up this morning thinking of you.

There's no reason why other than that the Holy Spirit reminded me I was once one of you, and there's no one who understands who hasn't actually been there.

So as I was drying my hair and simultaneously trying to get my children ready, I thought of you and prayed. I closed my eyes and was transported to the hardest days of my life - the years I spent as an all-alone mom, a woman who was working and mothering and exhausted in a way that cannot be explained in words. I teared up as I recalled the nights I spent wide-awake because my overtired brain could not stop thinking. I prayed on your behalf, asking our God to give you real physical rest and to relieve the burden that is weighing on you most.

I am no longer one of you, but in some ways, I feel like I always will be. I know just how you feel, and I want to tell you today that you are not forgotten. I know how alone you feel and how worried you are. I understand the helplessness you feel when there's just not enough of you and the effort you give falls just a little short. I remember always trying to be enough and never feeling like I was. Today - whether it's a good day or one of those where you didn't want to get out of bed - today, I'm telling you that you are not forgotten. You are not alone, and your God will never leave you.

You, single moms, are rock stars. You do it all because you have no other choice, and because you do it all so well, no one knows just how hard it is. No one knows the constant pit in your stomach, the pulse-increasing worries that overtake you even in the calmest of moments. No one knows the nights you're awake until wee hours because the house must be cleaned, the laundry washed, the lunches made, and the bills paid. No one knows because your complaints stay inside - you stuff your hardships down and just forge ahead. You, ladies, who are forging ahead - you do it out of love for those babies of yours, and I'm telling you that your work done out of love will never be in vain. Never, even if it feels like it.

I'm crying as I type because, dear sister, I know. So often, that's what I needed to hear in those hardest of times, so that's what I'm saying to you today. I know. Our situations might be different, the ways we became single very different, but I know your heart, and I know your fears. I wish I could say I know your future and could tell you that everything will change soon, but all I know for sure is that even in the midst of your hardest of times, if you seek the Lord, He will be found. Though your situation may not change, your perspective can.

Can I tell you what I know now that I'm on the other side? Those hardest of times were necessary.
I hated them, yes. I agonized through the years when I felt abandoned and forsaken, and I pleaded with God to deliver me from those times. He did, eventually, and my lips will never stop praising Him for what He delivered me from and what He delivered me to, but those times? I needed them

Those times taught me true faith and gave me a testimony that God is indeed who He says He is. Those times taught me that circumstances don't define us - and they don't determine our worth. Do I want to go back? Absolutely not. But would I rewrite my history to exclude those hardest of times? No. I wouldn't do that either. Those times made me who I needed to be. That's what I know, and that's why I'm thankful.

I never understood the verse that says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance" (James 1:2-3.) How can a trial be joyous? The trial isn't. That's not what it says. The joy is not in the trial; the joy is in what the trial produces. The joy is in who you become and what you learn and how your faith becomes authentic because it survives the trial intact and stronger.

The joy comes, friends.

The joy comes because God remains.

You, single moms? You are not forgotten. And joy is coming.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Free Fridays and Ketchup Days

Now that we're back in the swing of school and I feel like I've gotten to know my 9th graders well, there are some things I have encountered that disturb me. A lot. (One of which is the way they all use the word 'alot.' It's two words, people. A. Lot. But I digress.)

I pride myself on being a tough teacher. If a student makes an A in my class, it's because he or she has earned it. I don't give A's just for showing up - students earn A's when they complete and master assignments. What disturbs me, this semester more than any other, perhaps, is how many of my students expect those A's just for showing up. The first few quizzes, tests, and homework assignments threw them for the proverbial loop. There were many grades far below par, and there were many confused students and parents. There was a confused teacher, too. If the answers aren't right, then I must mark them wrong, right? If the assignment is only halfway completed, then it cannot earn more than a 50 percent, right?

Yes, my expectations are high, and no, I don't apologize for it. But what has been on my mind lately is simply this: are my expectations really that much higher than my students have known? Is completing an assignment fully and accurately really such an anomaly? Have attempts without mastery been acceptable in the past?

Don't get me wrong - I know that high school is a whole new ballgame for kids. The pace is faster, the classes are longer, and the load is heavier. Understandable. But the expectations - shouldn't they be similar? The demand for responsibility - shouldn't it be comparable?

A friend of mine teaches across the hall from me, and she had a student ask if they got to have "Free Friday." Her response: "I'm sorry - what? You get free Saturday and Sunday. We have work to do."

Free Friday? Is there really such a thing? Are there teachers somewhere who have fewer standards  to teach and lower expectations from their administration? How can this exist?

My mind is always blown when I give back the first test, students see a low grade, and the question is posed, "When can I retake this?" I try very hard to control myself when I answer, "Never. You didn't take the notes, you failed to turn in the homework, and you didn't come in for extra help." I sincerely don't understand, and I need someone to explain this one to me. Is retaking tests standard practice now? Is getting a second chance when you did zero work the first time somehow helping children succeed? I would argue vehemently that giving multiple chances after initial laziness only perpetuates laziness. Why should a child study or work hard the first time if there's going to be a second? (Of course, there is a difference for a child with a diagnosed learning disability. That's a very different conversation.)


Likewise, "Ketchup" Days leave me dazed and confused as well - at least for high school. My students have 5 days after an excused absence to make up any work missed. After 5 days, the missing work becomes a zero, and they are not given the opportunity to "ketchup" no matter how cute the graphic on a red folder is. After 5 days, we have moved light years ahead, and failure to complete missed work becomes a responsibility issue. I fear we are teaching learned helplessness. My take on the issue is very black and white - the missing work was in the folder, you knew the procedure, so your failure to complete the work is a you problem. Case closed.

We are doing students - future adults - no favors by giving them a zillion chances to complete work well and completely. We are teaching them no life skills when we allow them to get away with anything less than the best they can give.

I'm going to make this into a poster to hang in my classroom!

The best thing happened during a conversation the other day with a student. She shared with me that she had fun in last year's class. The teacher was cool and let them use their phones all the time, but now she realizes how little she actually learned and how far behind she is as a result. She wishes her teacher had taught and demanded more. Isn't that the point of education? To teach people what they didn't even know they didn't know?

I desperately want to be remembered by my students as someone who challenged them daily, teaching them how to think deeply and act responsibly. I want them to look back on freshman English and think, "Man. I really earned that A."