Wednesday, June 15, 2016

You get an A+!

Many years ago, I was in a job where the culture wasn't that great.  There was a lot of tension and pressure.  "Encouragement" came in the form of meetings where you were told how bad the students were failing and that it was pretty much your fault and you had to do better.  There was a hardness and a coldness to the message.  And....THIS DID NOT WORK FOR ME.

I am teacher who is never satisfied.  I am always trying to do better by my students.  I love learning about how I can relate better to them, what methods I can use to instruct them more effectively,  what activities might ignite their fire....  A good teacher is always learning and changing and growing in my opinion. You are never really done.

And, here's the thing- I am harder on myself than anybody else will ever be.  I challenge myself and criticize myself like nobody's business, I am well aware of the high stakes here.  I am  dealing with lives, human potential, and futures.  And, I know it's serious business.  I really get it with my whole heart and mind.

I don't want you to think I'm not okay with constructive criticism or being challenged.  I'm more than okay with it- I actually kind of like it.  But, I want it to be framed in the right way.  I want it to be framed with HOPE and INSPIRATION.

And, I also want to be acknowledged for the good work I am doing at times.  Everyone needs feedback. And, everyone needs validation.  Especially in the field of teaching, where there is a loud chorus of critics at times, we all need to be reminded that the work we are doing is important and valuable.

When I was in that negative culture many years ago, I decided that I would go on a one-woman crusade of making sure I told others they were  awesome when I saw them being awesome.  Let me be clear.  I am not talking about empty praise or causal compliments.  I'm talking about the real deal. Complimenting colleagues in a sincere and genuine way.

So, I started saying things to people when I noticed great work.  Or sometimes I sent an e-mail. Sometimes I even made sure their supervisors knew how incredible they were.

The campaign worked and it still works.  I try to keep following these principles.

So today I'll write about a few special people who graced my life this teaching year.  I think I already thanked them this year at some point and told them they made a difference to me.  But, just to make sure, here goes.   Since this blog is anonymous, they won't be named, but they know who they are.

The Boss

I have a  principal who has made it clear that he cares about the English learners in our building and follows through in his actions and his words.  I feel supported and valued and he inspires me to work even harder.

The Teacher-Leader

 You can always spot the teacher-leaders pretty easily in a group.  Others listen to them and respect them.  It's great when those teachers also happen to be smart, positive, and have a good sense of humor.

One such leader helped us see that our schedule needed fixing and then she made sure to follow up and ensure that it was fixed.  It might have seemed like a small gesture to her, but to me it was huge. She was willing to go to bat for us over what was the right thing to do, and that's a pretty remarkable thing in my mind.

Also, on the last day of school, I saw her hold her own in a political disagreement and that always impresses the hell out of me.  :)

The Heart

There's a lovely teacher who teaches the other English learners in the building and when we moved to this site two years ago, she was thrilled.  Some schools and teachers will look at our center as a drain on resources and with a deficit mind-set.  But not her.  Nope.  She told everyone that our group was the greatest thing since sliced bread and she paved the way for us.

She's a fierce advocate for all the English learners in the building and she's sensitive and she's all heart.  She tears up or cries easily and I really love that about her, being a fellow easy-crier myself.

She's often the first person who reads these posts because she's up as insanely early as I am and she's always generous with her comments and praise.

And, a week ago when I was stressed to the gills, we messaged on Facebook for a while in the morning and she helped me get out of my  pit.  So lovely.

Spanish Lady  (This is what some of the kids called her.)

We're always on the look-out for more help in our center because the needs are so great.  Really, we could have a one-on-one situation and still be busy.  Especially during math, where the needs and abilities are the biggest range I have ever seen in one classroom.  We have kids from refugees camps who need to learn the numbers in English, then counting, then adding.  And, we have kids from some countries who are far more advanced than the U.S. with math and need to take the highest math class in the building once they have enough English to handle it.

So, when the principal told me that the Spanish teacher was willing to spend some time with us during math class, I jumped at the offer.   She probably told me 50 times that her math wasn't that great, but she handled what she needed to do beautifully.

And, what I cared about more than her math skills was the fact that she connected to our students. She loved them; she enjoyed them; she "got" them.   So, when she would stride in every day, a small, compact, happy bundle of energy, the students and I were always grateful to see her.

The Lifeguard

When our girls were about to have their swimming unit in P.E. the teacher got a little nervous.  She knew that it would be the first time some of them would learn to swim and she needed to make sure everyone was safe.  (when you flee a war-torn country and then live in a refugee camp, there isn't time for lessons at the local YMCA. )

So, the instructional coach in the building was enlisted to help with supervision (a.k.a. "let's make sure no one drowns")  After she had been doing this for a little while, I asked her how it was going.  I mean, I was a little worried- this wasn't exactly in her job description.

But, when she responded to me, I knew she had fallen in love with these kids- something that often happens when you spend a little time with them and really see them for who they are.  She enjoyed them, got a kick out of them.

 And, they loved her.  Kids are expert at spotting realness.  They know right away if you like them.  And, they knew she was on their side.    For the rest of the year, one girl would always make a bee line for her if she saw her in the hallway and give her a big hug.

She spent more time with us- on field trips and got to know the kids better.  On our last trip, one of our students, sat with her on the bus and told her some hard truths about her life and journey as a refugee.

They don't tell their story to just anyone.  I know that.  She had earned the trust and affection.

The Partner and Best Friend

Finally, I could never write a post about colleagues who are special to me without writing about my main colleague.  I have told her that if she is ever thinking about leaving this job, to please give me advance notice, because I will be right out the door behind her.  I could probably write a book about all of her good and amazing qualities, but this post is already long so I'll try to be succinct.

She has one of the biggest hearts I've ever encountered and she will never give up on a kid, no matter how much they challenge her.  I watch her teach sometimes or interact with kids and I am just blown always by her strengths and talents.   She lifts me up when I need lifting up and she makes me laugh when I need a laugh  I have cried to her more time than I can count.  I like to think we take turns being strong and needing help so that it all balances out.

During the school year, we spend more time with each other than with our families, so thank God we enjoy being together. Often at the end of the day, we sit at her computer and answer e-mails together. Sometimes we vent.  Sometimes we say snarky, inappropriate things we want to write and laugh hysterically.  And, then we gather ourselves together, and write a professional response.

You know how you're supposed to give specific praise to kids and tell them what they're doing well? Not just say, "Good job, Johnny."  Well, that's great.  But, when kids are first learning English, you have to sometimes revert to "Good job." So they understand you.

She likes to tell kids "That's an A+."  They adore this.

So, to all the people I wrote about here today:  YOU GET AN A+!!!!!

Now, do one thing for me, and pass it on.  Tell someone this week how much they mean to you and how much they helped you this year.  I promise, you will feel amazing and they will feel amazing  It's a win-win!  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Go ahead.  Lift each other up.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

That One Student.....

"Frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story," said the lovely Fred Rogers.

Well said, Mr. Rogers.  I completely agree and would even take it a step further, and say that the more we know someone's story- the heartbreak, the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the good, the bad, the ugly, the more wholeheartedly we will love them.

I guess that's why I created this blog.  To write about my students and their stories.  In stories, we find connection and meaning and love.

I've been kind of restless and crabby all week.  Feeling sick, exhausted, and overwhelmed with everything I need to get done before the end of the school year in one week.  I literally lost my voice which is like a nail in the coffin for a teacher.  I'm in that uncomfortable place where I know the end is coming and there IS a light at the end of the tunnel, but I still can't see beyond the piles of work demanding to be done.

I just got back from a walk.  The sunshine and the movement helped burn off some of the stress.

And, thoughts of students kept coming to the surface.

And, I realized that more than anything, I'm stressed about saying good-bye to them.  We get so close to our students throughout the year.  They're with us all day and like it or not, we're like a family.And, so, I see now that my stress is more about the anxiety of saying good-bey and trusting that they'll be okay, than anything else.

I worry about them.  I fret about those students exiting from our program.  I hope we prepared them enough for the next stage.  I know I have to let go, but it's very difficult.

And, I worry the most that other teachers will miss the genius and specialness of them.  I want to make sure that they have people on their side, who see how remarkable they are, to help them uncover their potential.

Of course,  I care about them all, but there are a few students who have wormed their way really deeply into my heart.

I feel a a particular lump in my throat when I think of one such student.

She came to us late last spring so stayed with us this school year as well.  She knew very little English, but from the beginning she seemed to be trying hard to connect to us and communicate with us.  She would cut up these strange little shapes and then fold them into tiny squares and write "I love you" all over them.

At first, we were pretty worried about her- we knew her family had fled a war, lived as refugees in a kind of awful limbo in another country, and she likely had experienced trauma.  Once she started to settle in and the culture shock started to ebb, and she had a little more English, we started to see her true little self emerge.

She's everything I love in a teenage girl-feisty, outspoken, passionate, spunky, hard-working, resilient, sweet, kind-hearted, funny, and even sarcastic.

I've seen her sweep a whole chess game onto the floor in anger and collapse sobbing in a corner because it wasn't fair that she lost a game. And then I saw her play a game for over an hour with patience and determination and grace at the state chess tournament.  The only hijab in the entire room that I could see bent over in concentration.

And, I've seen her do cannonballs into the school swimming pool with such glee and joy, you wished you could bottle that kind of enthusiasm.  And, I saw her glow and sparkle and light up when I chaperoned the chess team to the state tournament and we stayed in a hotel.  Everything was amazing to her- all the pillows, the Disney movies she could watch on TV, the swimming pool, eating take out in the room, making waffles for breakfast.   And, she made me appreciate these things  that I so take for granted.

She's the Muslim girl, who came to us one morning in December and said with huge and glowing eyes, "Miss, I loooooove Christmas!  Lights. Pretty."

Her favorite word is "cute",  And, at least once a week she tells me, "You so cute today, Miss."

This week we went on our big end of year picnic and I got to watch her enjoy s'mores for the first time in her life.  And, her mother made delicate little pastries for her to give the teachers and my mom, dad, and sister who helped us out.

When I lost my voice she talked incessantly to me about how to cure it-- googling images for words she didn't know in English like ginger.

And, then of course, the next morning, she came to school with a little thermos of some healing concoction her mother made for me- honey, ginger, and who knows what else???  I drank it, of course.  It was soothing and full of  love and concern.  Just the idea that a busy mom of five who doesn't have much would take the time to make her child's teacher a drink for her throat, makes my heart clench.

Most moving of all, is that in the last few weeks she has talked more about the dark side of her journey than ever before to us.

Her father had allowed her to bring his iPhone on the trip to take pictures.  On the bus to and from our field trip, she was interviewing her cousin in English- asking simple questions like "What's your name?  How old are you?"  They thought they were really hilarious- just like most middle-school girls.

She came and wedged herself into my bus seat on the way back, and said, "Can you talk?" Remember, I lost my voice.  I couldn't really, but I did it anyway.  She asked me a series of questions and then ended with "I love you."  "I love you too,"  I said and gave her arm a squeeze.

We started talking about her country and how her family fled as their city was being bombed.

She talked about walking to another country and only walking at night so they wouldn't be shot.

Surreal words to hear from a teenage girl on a school bus after a picnic on a beautiful sunny day.

I told her the only things I really could, "I'm so sorry that happened to you and your family.  You're all very brave.  It's very good for you to talk about it- to get it out.  I'm so happy you're here now and that you're safe."

"Are you happy?," I asked her.

"Yes, Miss, so happy,"  she said and leaned back in her seat and ever so lightly against my shoulder.