Saturday, April 30, 2016

Peaks, Valleys, and Insecurities: Otherwise Known as "Life"

Last week I posted this on Facebook:

"Yesterday during 6th period, the kids were so awful I wanted to tear my hair out and go apply for a job as a coffee barista across the street.

Then, during 7th period, they worked hard and I had a few tremendously sweet moments with a few students.

So, I decided to go back today."

One of the best comments I got was from friend who is a teacher.

She wrote, "Otherwise known as a career in teaching."

This comment really gave me pause. She is so right.

Teaching is beautiful and hard, uplifting and disappointing, heart-filling and heart-breaking. I'm trying to be at peace with the peaks and valleys. Sometimes, I have to make myself stop and honor the wonderful- even in the smallest of moments. Here are a few moments of grace from this week:

1. Our newest student, after 3 days, came up to me at the end of the day. She got very close to me, and asked, "What you name?" Normal. Everything is so overwhelming at first. So, we practiced my name several times.  She was very earnest and serious about it.   Then, she said, "Thank you, Miss." and I knew instinctively that she meant, "Thank you for the day. Thank you for teaching me." Heart in throat.

Yesterday, she came up to me again at the end of the day. This time, she held a post-it note in her hand. She said sweetly, "Write you name." I wrote my name on her post-it and we practiced it again.

Then she carefully and thoughtfully folded the post-it into a small square and tucked it into her pocket.

I am honored beyond measure that one of the first things she is committed to knowing how to say in English is my name. I mean, really.

2. Another love brought me a glass of Sprite from their after-school program party. I don't even teach in the after-school program. She set it on my desk, and said, "Pepsi for you, Miss." I didn't correct the Pepsi part, because it was so cute. I thanked her and asked her why she brought it to me. Why did she leave the party and come all the way downstairs to give me a soda? "Because I love you, Miss."

3. A student who has been struggling mightily with anger, related to trauma, I think, has started to turn the corner. I have tried to be loving with her, while not allowing her to leave a wake of destruction in her path. Tough boundaries with love. And, it is paying off. I think she's starting to brighten a little, look a little happier. We were leaving for the zoo on Wednesday morning, and everyone was excited. She said to me, "Miss, today is beautiful." And, she spread her arms wide and high as she said it, as if grasping that maybe her new life would be okay after all.

Such small moments, but these are the things that as a teacher I need to pay attention to. And, I write it down, so I will never, ever forget it.

These are the peaks, but what about the valleys? What about those days that just feel like a miserable slog? I want to be real on this page, so here's the thing about the valleys for me. 

They can, at times, send me into a spiral of deep insecurity and unworthiness about my abilities as a teacher.

Sometimes things go so badly with a lesson- it's so uninspired or it falls flat or no one is paying attention to it. Or those times when an interaction goes so wrong with a kid- I get angry or find myself in a power struggle with a 13 year old. I wonder who ever saw fit to give me a teaching license. I wonder if I should even be in front of these sweet kids.

So, on the really bad days, I question my abilities deeply. I feel like a fraud. I even look at other teachers and feel terribly inadequate in comparison. Obviously, they are meant to be in the classroom. They have what it takes in spades.

And, I think, who am I to be doing what I'm doing? Who am I to be teaching these precious children? The thought, "I am just not up to this task" gnaws at me. It's simply just too hard.

I mean, I'm just some random, white, 46 year-old girl from Iowa. How can I possibly help a kid who has fled a war, lived in a refugee camp, and experienced a real insecurity that I will never really know?

And, yet..... And, yet, in moments of grace I think, "Why not me? Maybe I am exactly the person to help them right now."

I care about them. I'm passionate about lifting them up. Something led me here. Something put this work in front of me. I feel a fierce protectiveness for my students and I want everyone to know how amazing and strong they are.

So, maybe I am the one.

Marianne Williamson says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I love this, and it helps me. So, how do I get out of these valleys and insecurities?

1. I write down stories from the days I feel brilliant and I go back and read and re-read them until I remember.

2. I read inspiring thoughts like the one above.

3. I reach out to others- especially those who know me and love me best. And, I share my struggles, and I ask them if they ever feel this way.

I don't know about you but I feel immense relief when I see that others are struggling too, and I don't feel so alone. Am I the only one who doesn't have it all together? NO, but I might be one of the few willing to admit it publicly in writing. :)

And, here's the thing- we need others to remind us that even if today was a bad day, a valley of the worst kind, tomorrow might be a great day, a glorious peak. And, we need them to hit us over the head with all the wonderful about us and shout down those insecurities.

One day, I was going on and on about the few mistakes I had made during a presentation for a group of teachers. My colleague, who is a very gentle soul, actually raised her voice and held her hand in front of me, and said, "Stop it!!!!" And, she helped me come out of this ridiculous spiral.

Some days, I admit, I still look at that cozy, calm, quiet coffee shop across the street and fantasize about working there. 

But, then I really think it through, and I don't think I'd be so good with all the levers, the steaming. And, I know I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes at the customers who ordered half-decaf, extra hot, skinny lattes, with an extra shot of ridiculousness.

I think in the end what I really want to do is just sit in that coffee shop all day, drinking delicious, strong, black coffee, and read a novel. But, as good as that sounds, it would not be very fulfilling after a while.

So, for the time being, I'll just stay exactly where I am.

I'll stay right with these beautiful souls.

Exactly where I am-with all its peak, valleys, and insecurities.

Otherwise known as a career in teaching.

And, really, otherwise known as life.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What do I have to be Grateful for? (Turns out Plenty)

So, I'm taking a class on mindfulness and meditation right now.  Last week the topics were compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.  One of the assignments was to list all the things I am grateful for and do this for 5 minutes straight.

Now, I have heard about gratitude journals and this practice many times before.  Never done it.  I think about things I am grateful for all the time, but I never write them down.  I didn't see how it could be so helpful.  Even though Oprah herself recommended it, I always resisted it.

But, because this was an assignment and I'm nothing if not an obedient student, I did it.

What was my experience?  The minutes flew.  I started slowly, but soon the ideas were flying out and when the chime rang at the end, I was surprised and I still had so many more things I could have put down.

Then I read the list back, and then I felt GREAT.  Contented, peaceful, calm, filled with positive energy.

My gratitude list included some things about being a teacher and my students.  And, it gave me a lift when I re-read those things and it enabled me to have a more positive outlook that day when I went into the classroom.   I noticed more of the good stuff that day.  And, I was a lot less bothered by the annoying stuff.

"The present moment is filled with joy and happiness.  If you are attentive, you will see it."
Thich Nhat Hanh- Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet, and peace activist.

So, I decided to do a gratitude list focused on my work as a teacher for 5 minutes.  I wrote down 21 things, but I'm going to tell you about my 5 favorite.  So, in no particular order, here are 5 things about being a teacher that I have gratitude for.

1.  We live in a country where all children get to attend school for free.  It doesn't matter what your social class is, whether you're a boy or a girl, what your religion is, what your first language is. You get to come.  You have to come.  

Do we have still have enormous problems with achievement gaps, gender equity, and cultural understanding in U.S. schools?  Yes, Yes, Yes.  And, I'm not satisfied.  We have a lot of work to do; we can always get better.  

But, we do have certain protections and laws in place and I am glad to be a teacher in the United States, and in particular, this state I live and work in.

You can find lots of horrifying statistics about education in other parts of the world.  You can read about Malala, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan for demanding that girls have the right to an education.  You can read about how some girls are being  forced into marriage at tender ages, when they should be giggling with their friends as they skip into school every day.

Recently I sat across from a parent at a conference asking questions and trying to find answers about his daughter's struggle to learn and her slow progress.  And, the puzzle pieces of her life started to fit together  as I realized that she had missed out on years of education.  There was only money to send some of the kids in the family to school, and so the boys went.

I felt a deep pang in my heart for this precious girl, a renewed commitment to help her in any way I could, and a deep gratitude to see her bounce into my classroom every day.  She was here now, in my classroom, and that's what matters.

2.  I have the privilege of working with kids, families, and colleagues who come from different countries, cultures, social classes, religions, languages.   They expand my world view.  They teach ME and I am a better person for having known them.  

In this particular time, April of 2016, a lot of careless things are being said about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, people from certain countries. These are the humans I interact with on a daily basis. and, these are the people who inspire me with  their courage, their heart, and their resilience. 

They generously teach me about their countries, their languages, their cultures, their religions. I try to be open, ask smart questions, and be a good listener. They have taught me more than I will ever get from a book on these subjects. And, I realize, for all our differences, we have so very much in common. We all want to be happy, to be safe, to follow our passions, and to achieve our goals.

Mother Teresa says, "We have forgotten that we belong to each other." I am not fearful of these people, because I know them. I work with them and teach them. They are not an abstraction to me. They are not "the other" to me. We are here in a world together.

Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has done amazing work with gangs in Los Angeles, has a lot of profound things to say on this topic:

"For the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them, in mutuality. "

"There is an idea that has taken root in the world, and the idea is at the root of all that is wrong- that there are lives out there  that matter less than other lives. And, how do we stand against that?"

"My answer is we get to know people. We listen to their stories. We ask them about their life, their journey, their pain, their joy. Humans can't demonize people they know."

3. I have the pleasure and joy of seeing things through my students' eyes. 

I take so much for granted in my daily life. My students will bring me back beautifully to the joy of simple things. I get to experience a freshness, an awe, a wonder with them. I see eyes light up and I am reminded of how lovely life can be.

Recently I chaperoned some of our students to a chess tournament out of town and we spent a night in a hotel. There were 2 girls that I was watching over in particular. One had never stayed at a hotel and the other had, but she asked if this was a hotel for rich people (it wasn't :)) , so apparently she had never stayed at one this nice.

I saw their eyes grow wide with amazement when they saw the swimming pool, the hot tub, the big beds, all the pillows, the giant TV,and even the little coffee maker in the room. I watched them hurtle themselves into the pool with abandon and savor every last bit of that "rich people's" hotel.

In the morning, I went to knock on their door and wake them up. The door zinged open, "Miss! We make coffee!"

"I see that. " They made me realize how much I have.   A reminder to breathe in all of the good stuff, no matter how small, more often.

4. I have problem solvers and helpers at my work. Change is possible. There are lots of people who I can turn to for help. I don't need to figure everything out on my own. I'm not alone.

We have a great new principal this year. A few months ago, he said that he would like to meet monthly with our EL team to make sure the issues and needs of our students were on the front burner. WHAAAAAAAAAT?????!!!!! That was a first for me.

We met with him and our instructional coach last week to try to solve a problem that we had. I'm normally pretty optimistic, but this particular issue seemed too thorny to resolve. I had very low expectations going in to the meeting.

They came up with a solution.

It didn't even take very long.

Yes. Wow. My colleague and I were amazed. Giddy even.

When you're stuck, ask someone for help. Chances are they'll have some ideas.  And, then you can thank them. 

5. My deepest desire is to make a difference for my students, and in a bigger sense, to make my life count. Sometimes I get lovely reminders that reinforce that what I'm doing matters, and for that, I am immensely grateful.

Beautiful notes from my students thanking me for teaching them.

Immense gratitude from so many of the parents and families. 

Constant support, care, and appreciation from my co-teacher.

Breakthroughs in my students' learning and English that only I can see really clearly, since I spend 6 hours a day with them.

Seeing the light of understanding and pride in their eyes when they master a new skill.

Witnessing kids from vastly different cultures find ways to connect and form friendships.

Big, joyful hugs.


I would encourage you to do a gratitude journal.  Especially on a day when you are hating life.  But, any day, really,will do.  

If you are a teacher, I would encourage you to do a gratitude journal related to your job. Especially after a tough day in the classroom. 

You might just fall in love with teaching all over again. 

For a beautiful and stunning video on gratitude:

For Father Gregory Boyle's TED talk: