How to change a life

This week marks the end of another school year, and I’m not sad.  It hasn’t been the greatest year of my career; I’ve grown immeasurably as a leader and a teacher, and I’ve gotten a clearer vision of what I want for myself in my future, but I’ve struggled with frustrations about the nature of my work, sometimes feeling stuck or downright discouraged when I felt like I cared a whole lot more than my kids.

It always seems that when I’m faced with these dark moments that I experience these flashes of brilliance and I’m reminded why I’m in education.  Because teachers really do change lives.  We don’t always know we’re doing it, and if we’re asked, we might say that we hadn’t made a difference for anyone.  But beyond what is expressed on all of the cheesy inspirational images on Facebook about all the good teachers do, we really do change lives.

Stu started teaching four years ago with a very challenging assignment: he was given two sections of Dropout Prevention (I’m not sure if that was the course title, but it was something like that) and three sections of English I.  Those were dark days for Stu.  I tried the best I could to help him (as much as he would allow) but he struggled to keep the interest of those students, to manage their behaviors, to connect with them and help them to achieve.  He tried to use techniques and strategies he had learned in his eduction courses and in his internship with gifted students at the middle school, but one strategy after another failed, and Stu was left to feel useless and stressed.  At the end of the year, he insisted that his schedule change because he had such a hard time with it.  Stu would never say that he made a difference for any of the kids in that class, but on Monday he received a note from a student he taught in English I that year.  She said: “I wanted to thank you personally for helping me enroll in honors and advanced classes, because without having done that I may not be going to USF now.”  Stu hadn’t been in contact with her at all in the years in between, but this student recognized that his involvement in her education changed the trajectory of her life.

Last week, I had visits from two of my favorite students (I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I can’t help it).  One student, Lauren, was in town to visit family before spending her summer working at an internship in DC and then heading off to NYU in August for law school.  I’m sorry, Lauren, if you’re reading this because I’m about to tell your story.  I taught Lauren as a freshman, sophomore, and senior in my first ever AP Literature class.  I knew she was something special from the day she walked into my classroom, and she has never proven me wrong.  Lauren was valedictorian of her senior class and attended Emory University where she did even more remarkable things.  I nearly peed my pants when Lauren announced that she had been accepted into Harvard Law School (cue Perfect Day lyrics here).  Ultimately, Lauren recently interviewed for, and earned, a very prestigious scholarship to NYU law school.  In fact, she interviewed in DC with Justice Clarence Thomas in his offices.  At the Supreme Court.  You know, because that’s normal.

Such a remarkable young woman seems like she can do all things on her own.  But Lauren has never let me forget how thankful she was to have had me for the majority of her English courses in high school.  I helped Lauren on her way (honestly though, she would have done brilliantly in anyone’s English classes; I’m just glad I was lucky enough to teach her).

It isn’t just teachers who make this kind of impact.  Our parents or children, our families and friends, our bosses or coworkers, our pastors, the random girl you speak to on a two-hour flight, all have the potential to make a difference.  If we let them.  And we have the potential to make a difference for anyone we come into contact with if we’re engaged enough to recognize the opportunity.

An open letter to my students, on your graduation day

My Facebook feed has shown little other than caps and gowns in the last month.  Many, many former students graduated from college in the last few weeks, and today many Cobras will become alumni.

Let’s face it: this year has been interesting.  New expectations of teachers in our school district — that we work in professional learning communities, that we align our teaching to the Common Core standards, that we demonstrate effective teaching through observations — well, your teachers have been more stressed than normal this year.  And you all know how well I deal with stress.  I was out so many days for various professional development activities, all with the hope that I would be a better teacher as a result; that seemed a bit counterintuitive, hm?

I’ve taught so many types of students this year.  Some of you made me nuts from the first day of school, challenging every word that came out of my mouth.  I managed to make some (many?) of you cry.  I’ve had near shouting matches with some of you in the hallway outside of my classroom.  Some of you hate me (although, I don’t think that those of you who hate me will actually read this).  Some of you don’t think I’m not worth listening to, while some of you think too highly of me.

You are a resilient, determined, snarky, spirited group.  Some of you have experienced more pain in 18 years than I have in 35.  Some of you are gifted, as thinkers, writers, or workers, above anything that I’m capable of.  Some of you make me want to cry for all the growth I’ve seen in the last four years.  You make me want to work harder and be better for you.

To the class of 2014, I couldn’t be more proud to have taught you.  Thank you for a year that caused me to grow, professionally and personally, above anything I could have expected.  Thank you for challenging me to be a better teacher.  Thank you for your words of encouragement.  Thank you for working hard.

Careless comments

Last week, I received an email that had my blood boiling.  Perhaps it was just the end of a long week and I was stressed; perhaps I was just so tired of endless emails that I couldn’t help but get mad.  Whatever the reason, I took the email too personally, and this notorious author of offending emails had gotten under my skin.  My vision blurred a little on the edges until I managed to get myself under control, demonstrating enough restraint to not respond immediately with some snarky comment.  I taught the rest of my day, but when the final bell rang, I walked next door to my teaching partner-in-crime (a reader) to ask him to intervene on my behalf.

“You’re going to have to deal with this,” I said.  It wasn’t until I explained my request, that he speak with the author about her email transgressions, that I realized my mistake.  My partner-in-crime is guilty, too, and had gotten himself in trouble for a poorly timed suggestion sent to our department.

“You’re asking me to deal with this.  When I can’t avoid making people mad, either,” he said, smiling ironically.  “I just don’t read emails from that sender anymore.”

So I returned to my classroom, feeling little relief.  I’m too Type A to resort to auto-deleting emails from someone on the staff.  I was left to feel a little sad for my school.  By May, teachers are overwhelmed, tired, stressed, and very interested in catching up on TV they’ve missed over the last eight months.  So we’re abrupt, hurtful, and occasionally mean to one another, as if we’re not still on the same team.  There are moments in education (and I imagine in every profession) when the appropriate, professional solution to these issues is to take a deep breath and imagine that the offender didn’t mean to come across that way.  Perhaps she meant it as a joke? 

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself hurt and disrespected by colleagues.  During the Homecoming dance two years ago, I found an unsigned note taped to the wall above the copy machine.  It asked, “If we’re so concerned about student achievement, why do we waste a week of school on Homecoming?”  Apparently, the note had been taped there nearly the whole week, but I was too busy running Homecoming—selling dance tickets, organizing lunch activities, taking questions from students and sponsors—to notice.  But I noticed it the night of the dance, when Stu and I had a school filled with more than 500 students at an event that had taken months to plan.  I was running on very little sleep, had spent every night until 10 or later at school at one event or another.  I didn’t make it to the front office before I was sobbing, snotty, hysterical sobbing.  Ironically, it was the hall monitor who I don’t like very much (he fusses at me for not writing passes) who caught my tears and sent my assistant principal to take care of me.  I was so hurt that one of my colleagues had so little respect for the hours of work by dozens of people for such an important event.  When I got my tears under enough control to tell my AP what had happened and why I was so hurt, my AP, in her wisdom, explained to me that some people would never “get it.”  Would never get how much work goes into these events, how much these memories mean to so many kids, how precious the relationships formed while decorating for the Homecoming dance are for some kids, and for some sponsors.  Those who don’t get it, she said, would never get it, no matter how we try to explain.  So that note wasn’t worth the energy or the tears.  It was probably an offhand comment, likely stemming from a moment of annoyance, perhaps his students weren’t paying enough attention in class, and the writer simply blurted the very first thing that came to mind without considering anyone else’s feelings. 

If I’m honest with myself, I realize that I’m not innocent: I sat in a meeting this week and explained, with little compassion, that their plan was wrong, only realizing afterward that I was a *little* harsh.  I’ve made kids cry every year that I’ve taught.  I told a kid who seriously struggles with my class that under no circumstances would I allow him to videotape a speech to ease some of his stress over public speaking.  I have been impatient with people who don’t do their jobs as well as I expect them to.  I’m quick to take offense, but fail to realize when I’m being unsympathetic or cruel.  That’s a tough pill to swallow. 

The lesson, I guess, is that we’re destined to hurt one another, whether we mean to or not.  But we do control our reactions.  I don’t need to get twisted over a careless email; it doesn’t do me any good.  Nor will it change someone’s behavior.

Has anyone’s careless comment ever made you spittin’ mad?  Ever made you cry?

To share, or over share?

I realize that it seems a little late to consider the question of over sharing. I’ve spent the last month hoping people would read this blog despite the vomit stories. I get a little surge of pleasure to watch as I get more views on my stats page, and I’m thrilled when I get comments and likes.  But I’ve been going through something lately that I very much want to write about, if only to work out how I feel, but I can’t share here. If you were all faceless readers, perhaps… But I know, in real life, several of my readers, and that gives me pause.

That’s the thing with social media today… In the interest of openness, we sometimes often manage to over share. I follow lots of my students on Twitter, and all the time I see stuff there that I would never, EVER want or need to know. One of my former students posted a picture of her fake ID. Another posted a picture of a friend pooping. A friend that was also a former student. I’ve seen pictures of fights, of illicit drinking, of entirely too much skin.  Facebook isn’t any better: I see (and, let’s face it, post) endless status updates about family and work drama, pictures of meals, comments about politicians or athletes.  But do those status updates, pictures, or comments replace real talk, real relationships?  We comment on our friends’s Facebook posts or like their pictures, but we so rarely speak to people. It’s like we only want to communicate with people in our own time, under circumstances that make sense to us, without thinking about the needs of the people we seek to communicate with.

As a result, we don’t know HOW to communicate. I think about the world of Pride and Prejudice sometimes, where people were forced to build relationships, in all their awkwardness, through conversation. And they couldn’t even share for real… They had to talk about the weather or state of the roads. They couldn’t hide behind their cell phones, and yet relationships flourished.  And those characters valued conversation.  Elizabeth Bennet “perfectly remembered everything that had passed in conversation between Wickham and herself, in their first evening at Mr. Phillips’s. Many of his expressions were still fresh in her memory.”  I’ve often wondered at Elizabeth’s perfect memory, but she can’t help it.  She doesn’t have nearly as much to remember.  Any interaction was a significant one.

Instead of relishing in the significance of conversation, we would rather do just about ANYTHING than speak with people that we don’t already know.  My students are notoriously guilty: I made the mistake of NOT changing seats in my AP Literature class for nearly a quarter, so today, when I wanted them to work with DIFFERENT people, there was nearly a mutiny.  The activity was needlessly challenging because they didn’t know how to express their own ideas without feeling insecure, and didn’t know how to express when they didn’t like how another person expressed a common idea.  I’ve had students come to me to address a problem with another student so minor I couldn’t believe they couldn’t handle it by themselves.  They are juniors and seniors in high school, and I have to ask them if they’re tattling.  So often a simple conversation will resolve all of the drama these students are experiencing, but my students would rather be mistrustful, skeptical, and wary.  I can be better at this communication than my students are, but I get awkward and nervous sometimes in speaking to people who are unfamiliar, or in handling conflict.  I struggle with building relationships beyond the early “Hey, how’s it going?” or “What do you do for a living?” questions.  As a result, I do most of my serious talking with a very few people, and find myself asking “Does that make sense?” because I don’t trust myself to communicate effectively.

I’ve been struggling with this since before college, but one of the best things that ever happened to me was going to Mary Washington College and rooming with two of the best girls in the world.  Chrissi, Casey, and I, along with Kim (who lived down the hall) forged relationships through chats that kept us up nearly all night.  We talked about silly things, about serious things, about hurts and high school, about boys and love and religion and school and favorite foods and everything.  I still value those relationships over almost all of the relationships I have made since, even though we don’t talk near enough and it’s been years since I’ve seen them and they have babies that I haven’t met yet.  Those are real relationships, but even those can suffer for lack of conversation.

This current embargo on talking has led me to feel a little alone and so hungry for real relationships, not the (sometimes) superficial relationships cultivated by Facebook and Twitter.

Land of Confusion

As a teacher, I’m pretty metacognitive about my own education.  I can recall, with painful clarity, some of my most memorable experiences in classes in elementary school, high school, and college (yes, I left out middle school…  I think I’ve blocked all of that out).

For example, when I was in fourth grade, I went to school one day close to Christmas with a tightness in my belly that I recognize now, even though I didn’t recognize it then.  My mom and I had spent the night before making shortbread cookies and watching White Christmas, the very best Christmas movie EVER.  The next morning, I went to school without much warning that I didn’t feel well except that my pants felt too tight.  Every single pair of pants.  I wasn’t in the classroom long before I felt sick.  Epically sick.  I ran for the classroom door on my way to the bathroom but I didn’t make it, vomiting spectacularly all over the floor of the hallway, where students were still milling about on their way to class and teachers were chatting, unaware that a student was going to go all Linda Blair on them.  The teacher from the room across the hall was an innocent victim (later, when I was waiting for my mom to come get me, I overheard her whispering to the front office secretary that she would need coverage for the rest of the day so she could change her clothes).  I realized that I wasn’t going to make to the bathroom down the hall, so I ran back into the classroom to be sick into the classroom sink.  But I didn’t make it there, either.  I threw up on Tamika Logan’s jacket.  Sorry, Tamika.  My classmates didn’t come into the classroom that morning, but the PE teacher was sent to me from the front office to escort me down to the clinic, which she did at arm’s length.  I wanted to tell her that I was done throwing up, that she didn’t need to worry about me getting her multi-colored track suit dirty.  Isn’t it funny how clear some memories are?  Also, doesn’t it feel like I talk about vomit a lot in this blog?

In high school, I had an incredible teacher, Mr. Majeske.  He was my English 9 GT teacher and my AP US Government teacher, so he had the unique opportunity to teach me twice in high school.  (I’ve had that opportunity, too, and I’m grateful for it.  Sometimes teaching ninth graders is enough to make you lose all hope in humanity, so to see that ninth graders become rational, tolerable human beings, well, it’s a relief).  Mr. Majeske is perhaps the most obsessive compulsive person I’ve ever met.  He always kept three writing implements on his desk: a red pen, a blue pen, and a pencil.  And he would order them alphabetically.  Anyways, when I was a senior, he assigned a senior research paper on a governmental issue.  I chose the line item veto.  Among his many provisos, a stipulation that required students to be on time to class the day the paper was due.  If a student was late, Mr. Majeske wouldn’t take the paper.  Of course, I worked my tail off on that paper and barely slept the night before it was due.  It also happened that I signed up to present my paper the day it was due.  I printed a copy of my paper and assembled the manilla folder Mr. Majeske required for submissions, then printed a second copy of the paper to deliver my presentation from but somehow forgot the second copy at home in a rush to get to school early.  Thank goodness I planned to get to school early because that left me time to make a copy in the library before class.  I made it to class with just moments to spare.  My friend Beney, number four in the class and already admitted to UPenn, wasn’t so lucky.  Mr. Majeske had to write a letter to the university to explain why Beney’s grade went from an A to a D for the third quarter.

Then in college, I took the science class required by my liberal arts college, Rocks for Jocks Geology.  I don’t know why I thought Geology was the best choice for me…  I guess it was the least of the evils (by evils, I mean biology, chemistry, and physics… those were the only science classes offered at Mary Washington).  For weeks, I attended lectures and 8 am labs, never really making the very necessary effort to learn material that was so foreign to me; I was bored and hated that I was wasting space in my schedule for something dumb.  But I managed to do well enough.  When I sat for the final, I knew I needed to perform well or I couldn’t earn above a C, so I studied, even getting help from my science major roommates.  I sat, confidently answering multiple choice questions and the essay question, even finishing early, before all but one student in the lecture hall classroom.  Walking to the lectern, I practically preened with pride at my accomplishment, not noticing the dubious looks from my classmates as I turned in my test and walked out, an hour and a half after I started.  It wasn’t until I got home and spoke to my friends in the class that I realized that there were three required essays and I had only completed one.  Hysteria ensued.  I called my professor urgently, emailed, left a note for him at his office, stalker style.  By the time he finally contacted me, I was resolved to my inevitable failure on the exam.  I hadn’t guessed wrong…  He wouldn’t let me retake the test.  Ah well.  I ended up passing the class with a C, I believe.

Despite the apparent drama in these stories, I had a pretty awesome educational experience.  I love learning, even when I was young, and valued my teachers (most of them, anyway).  It seems obvious that I would enter the education profession with the hope of providing similar (positive) experiences for my students.  Of course, I’ve probably provided similarly terrifying experiences, too.  That comes with the territory.

What experiences do you have from school?  Was there a class that you dreaded more than the others?

This blog post was written as a response to the Daily Prompt: Land of Confusion.