Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I Saw You

Hey, October teacher.

I saw you stumbling into the lounge this morning, well before you were paid to be there, fumbling for quarters to get a caffeine fix.

You is broke. You is tired. You is a teacher. So true at the end of the school year!:

I saw the papers spilling out of your bag, the ones you graded too late last night because you promised you would.

I saw that silly Homecoming week get-up you wore to promote school spirit, and I also saw you tutoring that student from 4th period because she just can't understand how to multiply polynomials yet.

I saw you - see you - and wanted you to know.

I also want you to know I understand. October is a hard month in this line of work. The new of August has worn off, the exultation of Christmas break is far away, and you're smack dab in the middle of it all. You're in the meat of the material, the midst of the semester. You're in the meetings and the grading and the planning - and you're wondering if any of it makes a difference.

Rest assured. It does.

I know in the midst of it all you start losing sight of the forest for the trees, and you focus so greatly on the details that you miss the big picture. Those kids you're planning for, grading for, working for? They trust you. They listen to you, they want to please you, and they depend on you. Whether you realize it or not, you have become part of their stories. Years from now, when they speak of whatever grade you teach, they'll speak of you. You and they are connected forever, and everything you're doing now is impacting who they'll become.

Don't forget that.

Yes, I know exams and testing and evaluations are coming, and I know your calendar is overflowing with to-do's. I know your bag is full again today, and tomorrow's hours already seem too short.

But today, if you're feeling the weight of it all, can I invite you - just for a moment - to forget the lists and remember the love? For just a moment, don't think of all you need to do, but all you need to be. Don't look at the grades, but remember their faces. Remind yourself of what matters, and make the right adjustments. Go back to how you felt the day before school started, and recapture just a smidge of that excitement and anticipation. Tomorrow is a new day - a fresh day - the first day of something new. Make it what it needs to be. You're a teacher, and you have that power.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

She Stiffed Me Fifty Cents

I woke up yesterday morning absolutely irate with an imaginary cashier at a grocery store from my dreams because she stole fifty cents from me.

I have no idea what I ate that might have caused such a realistic and ridiculous dream, but let it be known that if you ever steal fifty cents from me, I will find your manager (whose name was Gage, by the way, in this dream that needs to be analyzed) and give him a piece of my mind. And if he smirks at me because "it's just fifty cents," we will have a conversation about integrity and how the monetary amount couldn't matter less - it's a revelation of the heart.

Bless my heart.

I'm trying not to let my heart be hardened against the grocery store chain I dreamed of, but I'm not there, yet. She stole from me, y'all. And Gage didn't care.

So that's how my Saturday started.

And this is how it ended.

Photo courtesy of Travis Lister
My family has season tickets to Clemson, and we're kind of hard core.

While Hurricane Joaquin was sending his rain-remnants last week to South Carolina, we were watching the game. In the rain. Wearing get-ups like this.

And when ESPN College GameDay comes to town, you get a little carried away. Your engineer dad creates gutters for your tents to funnel away the rain,

Travis Lister
you cover the generator to protect it from the monsoon,

Travis Lister
and you exchange your traditional stuffed tigers for a rubber ducky replete with a poncho that you recovered from Bowman field.

You know you're going to get soaking wet, so you prepare yourself mentally and just go with it.

Travis Lister
And this week? Oops - we did it again.

When you were literally born in a college town the year before they last won a National Championship, you don't let little things like driving rain keep you home. Especially when said team is playing really well and is ranked as one of the top teams in the country.

So we went. And we got wet. And they won. And we came home.

And I slept really well after all the rain and excitement, but thank goodness the cashier and Gage didn't visit my dreams again. I have a feeling we would have fought.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Your Divorcing Friend Really Needs

So you found out your friend is going through a divorce. She may have called you herself, or you may have heard through the grapevine that her marriage is ending, as half of all do.

As a friend, you want to be there, but you're unsure of what that means. Do you call? Do you ask how she is?

Just what is it she really needs?

My own divorce is now years old, but whenever I hear of another marriage crumbling, my heart is quickened to the needs I had back then, and my deepest desire is to give what is really needed. No, not every person facing divorce is the same, but I believe there are universal needs that most who are divorcing share. (I'm writing from the female perspective since it is my own.)

What She Needs:

She needs you. More than she has ever needed you before, she needs your presence in her life. Divorce often costs people friendships, for reasons understandable and varied. Sometimes friends are mutual between the two who are divorcing, and sometimes they are forced to choose sides. Sometimes people just don't know how to be a friend for a person whose life is suddenly different. A loss of other relationships is almost inevitable in a divorce, but it is devastating nonetheless. Be there for her. Half of her whole is gone, and losing anyone else in her life inflicts a pain she is unequipped to handle. Eliminate that pain and be there for her.

She needs you to treat her like a normal person. Yes, perhaps she is going through the greatest change of her life, but what she desperately wants is not to be different. What she desperately needs is what you normally do. Call her to go for coffee; email her funny jokes; invite her to meet at the park with the kids. She may turn you down or she may stare blankly while she's there, but give her the chance to be normal. Give her the option of feeling like everyone else.

She needs you not to ask, "How are you?". She's not well. She's exhausted from crying all night, and she's worn out from being a single mom. She's stressed out from juggling work and bills and emotions. She's struggling. Don't ask, "How are you?" but ask instead, "What are you struggling with today? How can I pray for you? What can I do to lift your load?" She needs you not to ask her a question to which she's obligated to answer, "I'm fine." Because she's not. She's not fine, and she probably won't be for a while. Even if the divorce were her idea or her desire, she's still not fine. The dissolution of a marriage never results in someone being fine immediately.

She needs you to let her know when you're thinking of her. In the simplest ways, you can let her know she's on your mind - because she might feel like she's on no one's. Years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me this little card in the midst of my divorce, and it's still in my car today.

The smallest gesture on her part then has me in tears today remembering it. She knew what was happening in my life, she thought of me, and she took the time to let me know. Small acts are magnified when they are genuine. Send her a text, a card, some flowers - just let her know she is not forgotten.

She needs to treat herself. I can virtually guarantee that she is not splurging on manicures, new clothes, or trendy jewelry from Charming Charlie's. She is putting one foot in front of the other to make it through each day, and self-care isn't even on her list anymore. She needs you not to give her the option of taking care of herself. Make the appointment, secure the babysitter, and don't give her a reason to say no. For whatever amount of time you can manage, make her the priority in her own life. She sure won't do it herself.

She needs a safe place to share her fears. Many of her feelings right now make sense and are understandable, but many of them follow no logic. She might, in the deepest parts of herself, be convinced that her life will never be good again. She might believe she will never be loved again, and she might think the hurt will always be this fresh. She might be scared to sleep with the light off, and she might be afraid that her children will be scarred. She might be afraid of running into people who don't know what happened, and she might be afraid to eat alone in a restaurant. The world of divorce brings never thought-of-before fears, and when those fears don't see truth-illuminating daylight, they fester and grow more intense. Ask her directly, "What fears are you facing right now?" and don't be shocked at the answers. Satan is playing tricks in her mind, and you need to remind her of truth.

She needs you not to bash her ex. Regardless of the circumstances of the divorce, he was a man she loved, and she doesn't need to hear that she was a fool for ever loving him. She might be angry and upset with him, or she might still be on friendly terms with him, but regardless, you need to remain neutral if at all possible. Even if she needs to vent, you need to just listen. Being there for her doesn't necessarily mean being against him.

She needs help with the practicalities of life. Do her laundry. Go grocery shopping. Take the kids so she can nap. Vacuum her car. Buy her kids new shoes. If she's never changed the oil in her car, tell her where to go. Help her balance her checkbook. Take her house hunting if she needs it. Absolutely, she needs emotional help, but the simple ins and outs of life are sometimes more than she can handle. In the emotional fog she may be living in, she may not think to pay her water bill. Be her brain if her own fails to function.

She needs you to understand that the emotional roller-coaster she's riding has nothing to do with you, and she needs you to be patient until that roller-coaster levels out. Some days, your friend will seem fine - and in that moment, she really might be. A week later, though, she might be in a terrible place emotionally. The emotions divorce brings are unpredictable and often-changing, and she is at their mercy in many ways. She sometimes has to walk through what you will never understand. (And if you don't, don't act like or say you do. She needs to be able to trust your authenticity even if it means your saying, "I have no idea how you're feeling.") Give her time but not too much space. Let her go through the ups and downs without feeling like she needs to hide them.

She needs to laugh. Oh my goodness, does she ever. So much seriousness surrounds her - lawyers and court dates and custody arrangements and documents. Her capacity for it all is at full peak, and she desperately needs some levity to balance it all out. Provide the fun she feels guilty for having. Laughing will feel foreign to her at first, as if she's betraying the gravity of the divorce. Whatever you do, make that girl laugh. Help her release the emotions pent up inside, and remind her that fun isn't forever removed from her life.

In short, be for your friend what she cannot be for herself. Be her fun, her truth-teller, her hands and feet and brain. Just be there for her. When you think of her, let her know. When you feel like she needs help, give it. When she crosses your mind, pray for her. Divorce will change her, and she needs you to love her through it. She needs you to love her in spite of it. She just needs you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I've Been There

I tell my students all the time, "Guys, listen. I've been where you're going. I've been to 10th grade English, and I know what they expect you to know. I've been to the SAT, and I know what you have to be able to do. I've been to college, and I know that the quality you're turning in now won't cut it then."

I tell them I've been there because they need to know I'm trustworthy. They need to know my methods aren't haphazard but are preparing them for what's to come. They need to know my knowledge of their yet-to-come determines my actions in their happening-right-now.

They need to know, and so do I.

I need to know my God is trustworthy. I need to know His methods aren't haphazard, and I need to know His knowledge of my yet-to-come determines His actions in my happening-right-now.

It's so tempting and natural for me to forget God knows. He knows what was and is, and most comfortingly, He knows what will be. The future is past to Him, and He is not limited by the space and time that bind me. Nothing I face surprises His heart, and everything I face passes through His hands.

When I lose sleep worrying about what I can't see, His eye is on the sparrow - and on me, too. When I fear all that is to come, He knows exactly what I'll face and has prepared me throughout my life specifically for it. Nothing in my life has been haphazard or without plan. 

If I, as a fallible teacher, plan ahead for what my students will face, how much more does my loving Father plan ahead for His child?

When my world-hardened heart tries to convince me there's something I need that I don't have, my always gracious God reminds me that " good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless" (Psalm 84:11).

When my weary body and restless mind convince me I cannot keep going, my understanding and encouraging God tells me, "Everything is possible for one who believes" (Mark 9:23).

When my pain and isolation whisper, "Nobody understands," my Savior and Redeemer says, "I will never leave you or forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5).

When my trial feels unending, my God reminds me, "Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning" (Psalm 30:5).

Nothing reassures us quite as much as encouragement from someone who has been where we're headed, whether it's a class we're taking, an illness we're facing, or an age we're parenting. But sometimes there's not a person who can tell us we'll be ok. Sometimes we face waters uncharted by those we know. Sometimes we just don't know anyone who has been where we're going. It's in those moments that we can tell what our faith is really made of, and it's in those moments we can see if we really trust the God we profess. 

God has been where we are going. His throne "has stood from time immemorial," and He is from "the everlasting past" (Psalm 93:2). Even if no person we know has been where we're going, our God has. Not only has He been in and seen our future, He has ruled sovereignly over it. We can trust that He plans to prosper and not harm us in the hope and future that is to come. 

He is not only the teacher who has seen the future courses, He is the one who created them. He is also the one who made us for them, knitting us together to successfully navigate them all. 

Our God is the One who can truly say, "I've been where you're going," and He is the One who is truly trustworthy. His ways are not haphazard, and His knowledge of the future determines His actions now. When the fear of the unknown presses heavily into our souls, may we press heavily into the One who knows. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Veteran's Advice for Newbie Teachers

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first group of students, and recently I gave some advice to a practicum student under my supervision. Poor guy - he probably doesn't realize that classroom experience doesn't qualify me as an expert or even mean I halfway feel confident in what I'm doing.

Nonetheless, I decided to compile a list of my best advice. If you're a new teacher, here you go. I'm hitting you with my best shot:

1. Forget approximately 56% of everything your university just taught you. It's theoretical methodology that only holds water in ideal conditions with high-achieving, issue-less students. The students you face will not follow the formula, and each must be treated individually. There is no "one size fits all" method for your wee ones. Take bits and pieces of the best theories and combine them with your teacher's intuition. A teacher's gut is better than an untried theory any day.

2. Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If your kids are hungry, exhausted, or stressed from their parents' all night screaming fests, they can't learn. Period. Fix what you can and love them through what you can't. If their basic needs aren't being met, your love will have a much greater effect on them than any standard ever legislated. Be their safe place, and you will have made a difference.

3. Be funny. Only poor classroom managers say things like "You can't smile until after Christmas." If you can't laugh in a room full of children and simultaneously maintain control, you should never have been awarded a teaching certificate. 

4. Decorate your classroom. You will literally be locked in those four walls for hours at a time. Create for yourself (and your children) a haven that reflects your personality. Your school kids want to see pictures of your home kids, and they need something interesting to look at when you bore them. Which you will. (Sometimes you're boring. No offense. You'll even bore yourself). Teach long enough, and I promise you'll start to sound like the Charlie Brown teacher even to yourself. 

5. Never try to start a diet during the school year. Caffeine and sugar are food groups that will sustain you in this profession, and trying to give them up will only give you unbelievable headaches and a case of the grumps that will make your students (and colleagues) beg for mercy. Do everyone a favor and eat a Snickers. You're not yourself when you're hungry.

6. Stop trying to grade everything. Collect it all and assess only what's most important. If you try to grade everything they create, you will be a crazy person by week two. Trust me - I know. (Read this if you're currently trying to do it all. It will free you.)

7. Know that being nice doesn't mean being easy. Push those little boogers until they plead for mercy. They can work harder than they think they can, and they will never know how much they can accomplish until they have no other option. Forget giving them "Free Fridays" and "Ketchup Days." (Click here to read my thoughts on such things. Don't get me started. Don't even get me started). Don't reward laziness and a lack of responsibility with extra time to complete assignments or entire school days to play board games. When was the last time you were given Friday off just because you worked hard Monday through Thursday? Aren't we supposed to be preparing these kids for life? Jobs? Maturity? Come on, now. 

If you didn't get the grade you wanted, it's highly possible I didn't get the work I wanted.:
8. Learn the names of your janitors, secretaries, and support staff. They make the school run, and when you hypothetically lock your keys inside your classroom for the third time in a week, they will smile and unlock the door if you know their names and speak to them like the people they are as they sweep the floor of your trashed room. If you think you're better than they are, you need to quit teaching and work the long, thankless hours they do so you understand. (BTW - Mrs. Lizzie no longer cleans my room, and I am devastated. She would come in and we'd talk about books, my favorite thing. She always checked them out of my classroom library, and she'd take some for her granddaughter. Bless. I miss that lady).

9. For the love of paper clips and Rubbermaid containers - get yourself organized. You do not have enough hours in the day to be fumbling around trying to find the answer key you created for the vocabulary quiz. Spend time up front creating yourself a system, then use the heck out of it. You will love yourself for doing so, and your students will be grateful that you know exactly where their make-up work is. 

10. Use Google Drive. Thumb drives are so 2007. Google, that blessed miracle of technology, lets you access your files from ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. Begin a document at school and finish it at home. It's a wonder. If  you don't know how to use it, email me. Seriously. No shame here - you will drop to your knees and praise Jesus when you realize how handy the old internets can be. 

11. Get a hobby. I love to read, write, and run, and if I neglect any of them for very long, I become very grouchy and my husband begins to ask questions like, "Do you want me to watch the kids so you can go run?" Do something to unwind. You could devote 24 hours a day to teaching and lesson planning and emailing parents and grading. Don't. There's a time and place for working your tail off, and there's a time to let it go. (Stop singing Frozen. Seriously. Let it go). Let yourself be just you for a little while each day. You will be a much better teacher (and spouse and parent and friend) if you take off your teacher hat every now and then.

12. Don't analyze the kids' permanent records before you meet them. Seeing test scores and guidance reports and custody arrangements will give you preconceived (and perhaps wrong) ideas and will subconsciously impact your treatment of that child. Let the kids, not the documents, give you first impressions.

13. Wear comfortable shoes. (I am very bad at this. Teaching high school freshmen makes me want to be cute and fashionable, so I make unwise footwear choices. Case in point - today I wore tall wedges. My feet now look as swollen as they did when I was 36 weeks pregnant. I regret my vanity).

14. Only praise sincerely. Don't say their work/effort/answer is good if it isn't. If you dole out empty words, you will lose their respect (and invite mediocre work). Praise them when appropriate and encourage more work/effort/answers when it isn't. 

15. Be OK with students not making all A's. All A's don't make you a good teacher, and I used to fall into the trap of thinking they did. A's should indicate mastery, so if your students aren't yet experts on the material, they should not receive an A. If your students immediately master everything you "teach" and never struggle or need any remediation, are you even really teaching? 

16. Avoid the negative Nancy (Nancies?) in your building. You need people to lift and bolster you, not beat down and depress you. Find the hot-air balloon personalities and hitch a ride. Ditch the anvils. Ain't nobody got time to hear all the complaints. Be a solution-maker, not a complaint-giver.

17. Buy stock in Post-it notes. Seriously. You will think of the most random things in the middle of teaching, and if you don't jot them down on the yellow squares that substitute for your memory, you will forget to buy toilet paper on the way home. 

18. Keep a file called "Why I Teach" because some days, you'll need a reminder. Keep those notes, drawings, and emails. When you get down, these will lift you. You're in it for those highlight-reel moments, and if you're not intentional about remembering them, they'll get lost in the tough times.

19. Make your students think and not just regurgitate facts. This world needs people who question the status quo and who don't automatically believe what presidential candidates say just because they're on television. We need out-of-the-box thinkers and people who approach problems from an angle not previously considered. (Hint - this means your tests should not just be multiple choice - even though they're faster to grade.)

20. Talk about what you read. Each day, I open class with an excerpt of something I've recently read. I've shared novels, nonfiction best sellers, articles from ESPN . . . Remind your students - daily - that literacy is the key to the world you're preparing them to enter. Words - and the stories they create - bring people together and show us our commonalities, and sharing words is the fastest way to create community in a classroom. Give your students a word-rich environment that's exciting and fresh, and with any luck, they'll want to recreate one for themselves. 

So there you have it. You're in an incredible profession, and even though it's demanding and under a microscope, you can rest at night knowing that kids' lives are different because of your impact. (Well, you can rest if you know it's a good impact. Don't be that teacher who's remembered 30 years later for being a complete jerk. Don't be that guy). Do what you do the best that you can, and just love the kids. Laugh with them, challenge them, and be a real person to them. That's what they need - real laughs, real challenges, and real love. Maybe there is a formula to this teaching thing after all

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Just Do Your Assignment

There's been a whole lot of this in my life lately.

My firstborn - my 6 pound baby boy - is tackling and being tackled. He owns a helmet and knows about defensive plays, and I have to watch as boys built like men drive him to the ground.

Needless to say, my prayer life has changed.

He loves football, but this is his first year. Most of the other guys have been out there before, so he's had a lot of making up to do. He's had to learn positions and plays, and he also has what we'll call a significant size deficit. (He's a year younger than everybody on his team, so the poor kid is easy to pick out of the crowd.)

At this week's game, though, this happened.

He got one of the two golden game coins. After each game, the coaches choose both an offensive and defensive player to receive recognition. And my baby boy got one.

Now, listen. He didn't score a touchdown. He didn't catch a pass. He didn't do anything for which his name would be in lights.

He just did his assignment.

He was told to block, so he blocked. Play after play, every time he was in, he tried to block whoever was in his path. Nothing fancy, nothing worthy of a highlight reel. He just blocked. He just did his assignment.

When that coach announced his name, though, I swear to you I got a lump in my throat and wanted to yell (but didn't) "THAT'S MY BABY!"

Isn't that the goal we all have for our babies? To do their assignments? I don't know yet what God's purpose is for that child. I know it's going to be amazing, and I know it's going to be specific, but I can't tell you what it will be. Chances are high his name won't be in lights, and chances are high he won't be world-renowned. Regardless, though, I just want him to do his assignment. I just want him to know what he's been told to do and to do it. Period.

Sometimes I forget this applies to me, too. Just today, I was scrolling through Instagram after work, and I saw post after post of amazing, unique, and attention-worthy things people had accomplished while I was working. It made me jealous, and it made me want to do what they were doing. But you know what? I have an assignment, and my assignment is not what they are doing. For now, my assignment is to cherish and raise up the young adults in my classroom. So that's what I'm going to do. My name may not be in lights, and I may not be world-renowned, but that doesn't mean my assignment is any less important.

If a blocker doesn't do his assignment, neither can the play-makers. If I don't do my assignment, neither can the play-makers I'm charged with influencing. My assignment matters. It may not always feel like it, and there may be days I wish my assignment were different, but my assignment in the right-now matters right now.

Sometimes, our assignments must be done in the rain.

It doesn't matter what the conditions are. It might be raining, and you might be tired, and you might be praying for the clock to get to the final seconds. The assignment matters even then, and sometimes most especially then. When you understand the importance of the task you've been given, you keep going even in the rain. You keep blocking even when you're tired. And, sometimes, you might just get the golden coin that reminds you your assignment matters.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Bold Prayer

A Prayer as Our 21 Day Fast Ends:

"God, we've been through a lot these past 21 days. There have moments of enlightenment, times of frustration, and nonstop reliance on you. It's not easy to give up things that are such a normal part of life on this planet, and whether it was food or Facebook, substances or sleep, we all set aside something to hear from you more. We all abstained from something to grow closer to our Sustainer. As this time of deliberate separation from the world comes to a close, we pray that the real results are only beginning. We ask, God, that what you began in us during these 21 days will grow and multiply in ways we cannot imagine. Many of us were praying specific prayers, and we ask you to show us the specific answers we seek. Many of us were looking for breakthroughs, and we ask you to show us the paths we couldn't see before.

What BOLD prayers are you praying?  Don't stop praying because God is listening and waiting to answer!!!  Mark Batterson quote from The Circle Maker.:
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But we're also praying something else, God, and we're courageously asking it. We're asking you to show us both something about ourselves and something about you that we didn't even know would come through this time. We're asking for a divine revelation that completely takes us by surprise. Remind us that you are bigger than we dare think, and teach us that you can do more in us than we even know to ask for. Begin it even now, Lord. Sweep us off our feet, and leave us in awe of who you are."