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."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

You Have Seen

Dear Jennie,

Today you're well-rested, having just returned from a relaxing getaway with your incredible husband. The new school year is looming and you're feeling a little stressed, beginning to make lists of all that must be done. But the stress you're feeling now is nothing compared to how you'll feel next Sunday night, when you know that 75 students will be entering your classroom the next day expecting great things of you. The stress will be even greater as you begin to prepare them for the high-stakes testing that will determine so much of their future - and yours. The anxiety will mount, the exhaustion will set in, and around February of this year, you'll begin to grumble. So I'm writing to you now, before all of it starts, to remind you that the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion are all a privilege. Really, they are.

You see, Jennie, how have you forgotten? You've traveled to other countries where education isn't a given. You have seen with your own eyes children carrying their own chairs to a makeshift classroom in a tin building well over 100 degrees.

You have seen their kitchen, empty but for a few small bags of beans and a jug of oil. You have heard the school leaders say that the kerosene is almost gone and there is no money for more.

You have listened to lessons being taught in another language to children who have to pay to be there.

You have snuggled with a student who had never seen you before but held on for dear life.

You have seen the reality that education will be their only way out.

You have seen students smiling just at the chance to be at school. You have seen classrooms that are not Pinterest-inspired but are instead - and more importantly - freedom-providing.

So, Jennie, when education in America seems overwhelming both to you as a teacher and to your children as students, remember that it's education in America! It is not held under a bridge, it is not dangerous for your daughter to attend, and it is not financially impossible. 

Is it perfect? Of course not. But compared to what you've seen and where you've been, Jennie, it's a dream come true. A dream that even today, non-American children are chasing by illegally riding trains into this country. A dream that today, in 2014, little girls around the world don't have to opportunity to pursue. A dream that today, most people take for granted. Don't be one of them, Jennie. Don't be a grumbler. Don't fall into the trap that only complains about education in America. Be a part of making it better. And be a person who remembers just how incredible it really is.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You Think You Love Her Now

My side of the family is in a sweet baby frenzy right now, with my younger sister having just delivered her very own 8 lb 14 oz daughter. Born in the wee hours of the morning, sweet Emma has enchanted us all and ended a 7 year baby drought. We are all awash in pacifiers and swaddling and worries of when she last pooped. Babies make us crazy, don't they? (Side note - those 8 lbs 14 oz and my sister's tale of delivery made me thankful for my own unexpected C-sections. They weren't what I wanted, but neither is pushing out an 8 lb 14 oz baby, thank you very much! She's my new hero.)

As I've seen us all fall head over heels in love with this brand new person, it has occurred to me that the love we first feel when we see our newborns is nothing compared with the love that develops as we get to know them as people. The love we feel when we hear our newborns cry and when we nestle them for the first time is powerful and automatic, a connection so strong that we would immediately fight to the death for them. We think that we are as in love with them as we will ever be, but we are wrong. We think we love them now, but that love intensifies and changes as they do.

So I'd like to say to my baby sister as she is loving on her baby, you think you love her now, but just wait.

Just wait until that helpless newborn smiles at you for the first time (and not from gas.) Wait until she locks eyes with you and smiles that toothless grin because she knows that it's you. Just wait. You think you love her now.

Wait until she cries for you and cannot - will not - be soothed by anyone else. Wait until only Mommy will suffice. Your heart will swell knowing that she really does know her Mommy. Wait and see.

Wait until she reaches out with her fat-roll ridden arms, saying, "Carry you, Mommy," needing the safe arms of her mother. You think you love her now.

Just wait until she says in that squeaky 2-year old voice, "I wuv you, too." You will melt every time you hear it and secretly hope that she never learns to pronounce her L's.

Wait until you walk her into the first day of kindergarten, her hair in pigtails and your heart in your throat. Wait until you walk back to your car, crying the ugly cry because she's so big and you're so sad and you know nothing will ever be the same. Wait until she runs back into your arms and tells you about her friends and shows you her papers. You think you love her now. Just wait.

Wait until she begins to hide notes for you written in her own handwriting. "I love Mommy" painstakingly penned in crayon is more priceless than any Picasso in a museum. Wait until you pull out the shoe box containing all of her notes and have tears rolling down your cheeks because you remember feeling her kick in your belly. Wait and see.

Wait until you watch her do something she really fears for the first time, like riding a big-girl bike or diving into a pool. When she falls and fears but tries it again, your pride in her tenacity will add another dimension to your love for her. You think you love her now.

Wait until you're sick or have a headache and she shows genuine concern, asking, "Are you okay, Mommy?" Your love for her big heart will overwhelm you, and you will have faith that she'll be an amazing woman one day. You just think you love her now.

Wait until she begins to say her own prayers, saying things like, "I'm thankful for all of that, God, but mostly for you." You think you love her now.

Wait until her baby teeth fall out and too-large teeth grow in and her legs are long and gangly. You will wonder where your baby went, but you'll catch a glimpse when you least expect it, and it will make you catch your breath. Just wait.

Just wait until she confesses a fear to you, that she won't get a reward M&M in computer lab because she's not the first to finish her work. Your own tears will well and you'll want to fight over M&Ms and you will love her so fiercely it hurts. You think you love her now.

We think we love them now, but the truth is that we will love them more - and differently - tomorrow. A mother's love for her child is a dynamic, always-evolving, never-lessening creature. It is a love that no one can prepare you for, and it is a love that transcends even horrible-birth stories. It is a love from God himself, and it is a love only surpassed by Him. We just think we love them now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Deep Thoughts on Food Network

So today's deep thoughts about Food Network are 100% percent indicative of the fact that school is out and I'm at home and I have wayyyy too much television-watching time on my hands.


We shall begin with Giada De Laurentiis. My immediate thought every time her shows come on is, "For real?" She's a doggone chef who cooks all the time, yet she has the figure of a fashion model. She weighs like 82 pounds and smiles with those perfectly white teeth, and I am (understandably) inherently distrustful. I like my chefs to have the figure of Barefoot Contessa or pre-scandal Paula Deen. I need to know that they eat what they cook and that if I were to somehow begin cooking the way they do, I would blow up and am therefore justified in my less-than-Food-Network-worthy culinary prowess. It makes me think she's a wizard or something. Plus, "Giada at Home" contains views of the ocean through her window. Unfair.

Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten. Whatever you call her, she is a character. She says things like, "I suppose you could always use a store-bought chicken stock, but it's just so easy to kill and roast a free-range chicken from your farm and use produce from your own garden. Home-grown basil has a freshness that stores just can't duplicate." Well, then. I couldn't agree more. Plus, she laughs. A lot. If you've never noticed, just listen when her friends mosey on over to her palatial abode in the Hamptons. She laughs a strange amount.

Ree Drummond. I think we could be friends, but I would need to see her not smiling just once to know that she's the real deal. Seriously - she smiles the whole show. Still, I like her. She uses the blasphemous store-bought ingredients and makes things like Monster Cookies, so she can't be too bad. Plus, we could hang out at the lodge while the kids round up the cattle.

Guy Fieri. While his bleached porcupine hair is a bit jolting at first, I adore "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." He is hilarious, and he's pudgy. The two most important qualities in a TV chef. Plus, I just got back from a cruise that served his burgers, and they were unbelievable. Super melty cheese and donkey sauce. Yum yum. Which makes me think of yum-o, which makes me think of Rachael Ray.

In a paradoxical predicament, I am highly annoyed by her, yet always watch her. Why is this? Is it because her 30 minute meals seem accessible even if they would cost a million dollars to actually make? Is it because she could talk the paint off a wall? Perhaps it's her stories about her Sicilian mother and her excessive use of EVOO. The mystery of her appeal remains.

I would like to address the hidden hilarity of my watching Food Network shows at all. I don't like to cook. Not even a little bit. And eating isn't something I love too much, either. I am not a foodie, and I do not have a discriminating palate. I could eat cereal three meals a day. I guess I like living vicariously through people who have mastered the stress of having side items finish cooking at the same time. Tears me up every time. Last night, my rolls finished just as the pork chops did and I felt they should award me a show. Maybe the hours of watching Food Network are starting to pay off after all.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reflections on a Sabbatical

I needed a break from the world.

Life was chaotic, I was overwhelmed, and the constant barrage of perfect pictures of everyone else's world was about to do me in. So I did the 21st century version of squirreling myself away from society for a while - I logged off.

I didn't blog; I didn't read blogs. I swore off Facebook, and I shunned Twitter. I gave myself a time-out from the nonstop updates that stole my minutes and brought out my envy.

It was glorious.

And now that I've allowed myself some social media again, I almost wish I hadn't. Perhaps it's just my personality type, but I've come to realize how few contributions social media actually make for me personally.

Sure, I can see what people I went to high school with are up to (and goodness gracious, that's more than I needed to know), and I can learn quickly who just got engaged or took a pregnancy test, and yes, I don't know how we lived without knowing who was at the gym or seeing a picture of their meals, but truly - does the information we're obsessed with posting and fanatical about reading enrich our lives? Does it make us better people, or does it just make us voyeurs? Does it make us more satisfied, or does it just make us compare?

I know what it does for me, and it often isn't pretty.

Now, I'm not saying that social media can't be useful. Certainly it can. It promotes some good causes, reconnects old friends, and (sometimes) encourages us. But if we were to draw up a list of pros and cons, I'm afraid the cons would win every time - at least for me. And in an age where time is so limited and people are already so disconnected, allowing social media to consume such a large part of our lives is unproductive and isolating. And I don't think anyone can argue that it doesn't consume a lot of time. Nearly everyone I know checks their social media multiple times a day. Don't believe me? Go to any restaurant and just watch the people dining. They can't eat an entire meal without checking who has updated Facebook or taking selfies to show the world they were on a date (enough already!). We no longer know how to be; we must also do.

What it all boils down to for me is this quote from Roosevelt - "Comparison is the thief of joy." Every single time I get on social media - and maybe it's just me - I compare what I say/do/look like/wear/write with everyone else. I don't want to, and goodness knows I don't try to, but it just happens. Most people post the highlights of their lives (although we all have those 'friends' who post the negatives that should really remain private), so seeing the highlights can wrongly make us believe that their lives are all highlights. News flash - they aren't. Social media has become, for many, just the grown-up way of bragging about the good and concealing the bad.

My sabbatical revealed to me that I can live without Facebook. Twitter isn't a necessity, and even though I enjoy keeping up with strangers' lives via blogs, I don't have to. I did not suffer in the least from not knowing the ins and outs of others' days. I managed just fine without poring over entries of 140 characters. I spent more time reading and less time with my nose buried in my phone. Life felt calmer, and I honestly felt less anxiety. Maybe it was imagined and just a placebo effect, or maybe there was really a connection. Whatever the case, I learned something valuable. Less computer, more living. You should try it sometime.