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.

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Getting an education

In 2006, when Stu started working on his undergrad again at PHCC and I started at Saint Leo, I had a sort of vague idea that I might, one day, want to leave the classroom to become an administrator.  I was brand new at Hudson, only teaching my second semester of classes when I was applying for graduate school.  I barely knew what it meant to be an administrator, but I probably thought I could do it easily.  I remember seeing my peers taking the classes and completing the projects required of the masters program, thinking that I could very successfully do the work they were being assigned.  So I entered the Masters in Education Leadership program at Saint Leo University.

I kept pace with Stu; as he was toiling away at the tedious prerequisites in math and science, I was taking one class at a time.  When he transferred his credits to Saint Leo, and started his Bachelors in Education program in earnest, driving to Saint Leo two or three nights a week on top of a full-time job and homework for several online classes, I plodded along as well, taking more classes online so I wasn’t out of the house any more than necessary.  We had Cari, after all, and she was still in daycare.

For those who knew us then, our family must have looked very scholarly, as if this intellectual pursuit was something so noble and pure.  We would stay after hours at school to complete our school assignments before picking up Cari.  Then I would take Cari home while Stu drove to Saint Leo for his three-hour classes, and I would grade papers at the kitchen table while Cari hung out in the other room.  Stu would finish up classes and nearly fall asleep on the long drive home along 52 because there isn’t anything to look at on 52 except cows and trees.  We managed this while serving as class sponsors and chaperones, attending football games on Friday nights or conducting fundraisers on Saturdays.  But the truth of our experience wasn’t nearly so noble.  When we were both in classes, Stu and I would bicker constantly, we really sucked as parents, and we allowed TV to parent Cari while we finished homework.  I have a sharp memory from this time: one Wednesday night, the night when discussions were due in every single class EVER, Stu sat in the bedroom struggling to complete an assignment, and I sat in the living room struggling to complete an assignment, while Cari cried and screamed hysterically from the bedroom.  I was certainly crying, too, blinking through my tears to focus my vision on a stupid, ridiculous, pointless, and meaningless discussion post before 11:59 so I could get the credit.

But in May 2010, at the same ceremony, Stu earned his bachelors degree in education, and I earned my masters degree in education leadership.  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Working through my masters program while my husband earned his bachelors revealed to me so much about what education really looks like for some people.  I thought, in my naiveté, that everyone’s college experience should be like mine.  I went to Mary Washington College, which I’ve mentioned here before, and experienced college in a stereotypical, but not very realistic, way.  I lived in the dorms for all four years.  I huddled into the library, pouring over thick, stinky books for obscure commentaries.  I wrote papers until the sun came up.  I worked impossibly hard, and I had the opportunity to delve deeply into Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Milton.  To this day I cannot recreate the level of analysis I was able to achieve in those days.  Lord, I was self-important!  But I never worked a job during college other than as a resident assistant or English Department assistant.  My only serious relationships were with my roommates and friends; I didn’t date seriously, and certainly didn’t have a child.  I had no idea what many, many others experience in getting their education.  But as a grown up, I was able to understand that just making it through was an accomplishment worthy of great praise, and one hell of a big party.

I consider myself lucky to have had both experiences: the stereotypical college experience and the adult learning experience.  As a stereotypical college student, I learned how to really, really work at something, content so challenging that I had to pick through it to understand every. single. word.  I learned how to speak with other smart people without making myself look like an idiot.  I learned how to operate under deadlines.  I learned how to BS like a pro, when necessary, and I learned that sometimes BS wasn’t going to cut it.  But as an adult going back to school, I learned to balance priorities that really count.  I learned how to support my husband selflessly.  I learned that sometimes Cari needs to see me work at something so she gets how important it is for her to work at something, too.  I learned that sometimes just getting something done was worth celebrating.  And I learned how to work impossibly hard, even when a million distractions are rattling around in my head fighting for attention.

So it isn’t only the content of my masters program that I will use one day as an administrator.  I will also use the grit and determination that I picked up while writing discussion posts while tears blurred my vision and my daughter cried in the other room.

Showdown.

In an average day, I encounter conflict pretty regularly.  Conflict, as in “an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, and interests.”  My opinion, for example, is that the students in my third period class should NOT use their cell phones during my recent lesson introducing The Crucible.  Their opinion, on the other hand, is that they should.  Thus, an incompatibility.  But I rarely allow my temper to flare in those moments; I don’t escalate arguments with kids.  I’ve learned that with high school students, a teacher shouldn’t ever cop an attitude that she wouldn’t want a kid to respond with.  So I calmly ask them to put their phones away, and while they may grumble, they *mostly* do as I say.

This is a pretty significant departure from how I responded to conflict when I was younger.  In those days, my parents would demand that I do something, and I would storm off, my vision blurring a little on the edges until I was out of earshot, and I would explode, picking up some laundry and throwing it against the wall.  I was never dumb enough to actually throw something that could cause damage.  Or I would scream into a pillow.  Lord, I got so mad.  The memories of those moments are clear as day…  I see the laundry area of the house I grew up in in Alexandria, I see the wooden stairs, I see the linoleum floors, but I don’t remember what made me so mad.  How is that?  I certainly had a lot of anger, but I always knew better than to explode at my parents.

But the conflict in my life is a much bigger deal now.  If I have conflict in my classroom, I make a hostile work environment for myself and my students.  I have to see them too often for that.  Plus, I really do love my job, and I wouldn’t want to HATE going there.  If I have conflict with Cari, as I often do because she’s sassy and I’m surly, I try to control my temper.  Sometimes I succeed, but other times, I fail miserably.  I’ve responded to her telling me “No” with ugliness I’m not proud of.  But I try to apologize if I’ve done that, mostly so she knows that I love her even when I’m not being loving.  If I have conflict in my marriage, I feel like a piece of my life is askew.  I can’t stand to be in conflict with Stu for long.  That means I apologize a lot sooner than I would like to because I know someone has to make the first move, and Stu has the most forgiving wife on the planet.  Stu would probably disagree.  While I’m getting my emotions out, I can be panicked, loud, irrational, even cruel.  He will shut down and refuse to talk to me.  We go to our separate corners, and calm down.  I often extend the olive branch to start up the conversation again, this time more peacefully.  I only mind a little that I’m often the first one to budge.  Winning an argument is a whole lot less important than being on good terms with my best friend.

How do you approach conflict?  Do you blow up?  Do you shut down?  Are you an eye roller?  Do you use the Hate word?

This post is in response to the Daily Post.