Several years ago I participated in my first Invitational Summer Institute with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. There are many things I still hold on to from that four week experience but the one that struck me yesterday was a model lesson from a high school English teacher. She shared about a unit she does with her students around profiles. They read a bunch of profiles of different people, some famous and some not, published in newspapers or magazines. Then they choose a member of their community, interview them, and write a profile of them. Those profiles are shared at a public event one evening at the end of the unit. It is inspirational and brilliant.
It came to mind yesterday as I was giving blood. I was donating platelets so the process, once the donation actually got started, lasted about an hour. Plenty of time to read and think.
At one point I glanced over at the monitor and noticed my blood type, B+, in the midst of all the information there. I can remember my blood type because I’ve always felt it fits me. Being positive is a goal in my life.
Sitting there, squeezing the little stress ball every few seconds until the monitor told me blood was being returned to my body and I needed to relax for a bit before squeezing again, I thought, “If someone were to write a profile of me they could start it with this.”
I sat there, mentally composing the beginning of that profile. The idea of having B+ blood as a metaphor for my personality and my regular blood donation as a spreading of that positivity to others.
from Howard Lake’s flickr
If you can give blood, please do. There are many reasons people can’t give blood. So if you can, your blood is much needed.
This has been months (maybe years, when I really think it through) in coming, but it is still hard for me to believe. I talked tonight with my editor (!) to create a plan and begin setting deadlines for a book I am writing. I am! Writing! A book!
If I keep saying it enough maybe I’ll actually believe it. Maybe.
I’ve drafted a detailed table of contents and written and revised one chapter before getting the contract. That was all quite a new experience but didn’t prepare me for the idea that I’m really going to do this.
In tonight’s conversation my editor (seriously!?!) wrapped up by pointing out to me that all writers (or at least nearly all) face impostor syndrome at some point. She took care to remind me of my more-than-two decades of teaching, the hundreds of kids I’ve taught, and my level of expertise. I told her I should have recorded that little speech for all the times I’ll need it in the future. She suggested I put a post-it note on my monitor that says, “My editor says I’m an expert.” We’ll see…
The book will be about teaching discussion skills to elementary students, the various skills they need to engage in meaningful conversations together and how to help them develop those. It’s something I’ve done a lot of thinking about and collaborating with others on in the past several years and it is something I love. So I’m excited.
And mildly (at a minimum) terrified. But I firmly believe I need to be a little bit terrified to be growing and learning. So here I go.
My current group of third graders range significantly in their understanding of place value. (I teach on a military post so my students will range in their understanding as any group of students will with the additional factor of having had quite different experiences in school previously.) A strong foundation in place value is critical so that students can continue on with computation and more complex math skills.
I’ve been mulling over an open middle problem to support this and I, finally, last week slowed down enough to think it through. This was the result:
I was concerned that some kids would be able to answer these two open middle problems quickly while others would take a while. It took all of my students a bit to explain their thinking even if they knew the answer quickly. But some definitely got to the answer more quickly than others. I had challenges ready for them.
Nearly half of my class got to the point of this challenge. For some this was super easy. For others it was a reasonable challenge.
A few students moved on to the final challenge.
In the time we had, no one solved this one accurately. They got close, but not quite.
It was, by far, the most engaged my students have been during a math workshop so far this year.
Somedays I am overwhelmed by how hard things are for some children in our society. I feel weighted down by the awful situations some children live in. I’ve seen this with students I’ve taught, other students I’ve known, and my daughters’ friends.
For some it is living in poverty and all of the difficulties that come with that. The lack of stability around housing and food. The difficulties getting places without a car.
For others it is health challenges, physical or mental. Kids who struggle to do things that we see as normal parts of childhood.
Those hurt me to see and I want to do all I can to help those children and I feel we, as a society, could often do better for them.
The kids that break me the most, however, are those in family situations that are harming them. Kids in the LGBTQ community whose families do not accept them. Kids who are being abused by someone who should be caring for them. I have enough anger when school is not a safe place for children. When it is home that isn’t safe, it is enough to drive me over the edge.
Far too often these children carry the weights of what life has given them without complaint. They do all they can to live a ‘normal’ life. The challenges, the pain, the trauma are all buried.
It is not acceptable. Children should be children. We, the adults in our society, need to ensure that is possible. We need to do what is necessary to guarantee that children can play, learn, love, and grow. That is a basic human right.
(In case you are worried about my students, I do not currently have a student who is making me feel this way. I have had, in the past. I’m sure I will have, in the future. I may have, right now, and just don’t know it yet. I have kids I worry about, of course, as I am a teacher, but not like this. This was not prompted by school. As unusual as that may be.)
I firmly believe the job of being a public school teacher is much harder now than it was when I began twenty-two years ago. There are far more meetings demanding your time. The expectations that teachers meet the needs of every student are much higher (which isn’t a bad thing but is seriously difficult to do). New teachers impress the heck out of me.
The job is easier for me, all these years in, because I have so many varied experiences to look back on and to use to make decisions and to see what is coming. I have a large toolbox full of options. It is that way because I’ve had two decades to develop it and to fill it.
A first year teacher asked me recently if my classroom was rough my first year teaching. I burst out laughing. My mother did some substitute teaching for me in my first year and I think it took a decade to convince her it wasn’t like that anymore! (A decade in which I achieved my National Board Certification and was a part of several district-wide projects. I can remember my sister telling my mother, on more than one occasion, “You really should go back to her classroom. It isn’t like you remember.)
At this point in my career I’ve worked with so many different teachers, on teams, co-teaching, supporting preservice teachers, etc. I have learned so many tips, ideas, and big thinking about teaching from all of them. Some things I can pinpoint exactly who I learned it from. Other things have evolved so much over the years I don’t know where they began. I do know that the chance to work with so many educators has formed who I am.
At this point in my career I’ve taught hundreds of children. I’ve learned from each and every one of them. Each individual student has shown me new things about how kids learn and how they interact with others. That knowledge impacts how I work with new kids every year. I see similarities between current kiddos and past kiddos. I know what did and didn’t tend to work with kids over time.
At this point in my career I’ve been a parent for sixteen years. I am confident you don’t have to be a parent to be a phenomenal teacher (I’ve known too many of them to question that) but I also know that I became a better teacher after becoming a parent. The shift in perspective to viewing school as a parent was amazing for me. My own daughters’ interactions with teachers and experiences with school have changed how I deal with some things.
At this point in my career I’ve attended dozens of conferences and countless professional development opportunities. I’ve been through National Board Certification and renewed it a decade later. I’ve worked one-on-one with amazing instructional coaches. I’ve read many professional books and an immense number of blog posts and tweets. All of these things have pushed my thinking and helped me grow as a teacher.
I guess I’m trying to say that if I have strengths as a teacher, if I am, in any way, making it look easy, it is because of the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve encountered, and the time I’ve spent at this job. I can still see glimmers of the teacher I was twenty-two years ago but I am such a different professional now.
The job is hard. There are things I wish I didn’t have to do but on the whole I feel lucky to do this job every day.
Today was rough with a couple of my kiddos. Every year there are some kids it takes longer to build relationships with. Longer to convince them they can trust me. I know that. But I’m still struggling with these two. We’ve had lunch several times, just three kiddos and me. (I’ve done that now with all but one kid in my class and we’ll get to it this week.) I’ve worked to celebrate the positives. Both of these kids are whip smart, creative, fun kids. It isn’t hard for me to like them. But it does seem to be hard for me to like them at all times.
The morning went great with one and then the day fell apart after lunch. I can, with just enough time between me and the day, see how much of that was my fault. Not all. But definitely plenty.
I took my class to music at the end of the day and it was clear this student was going to be challenging there. I told the music teacher we’d had a rough afternoon and she asked for suggestions. I had nothing. No tips, no thoughts, no advice, totally blank. So instead, I had a chat with the child in the hall. I told this kid how I see them. How I see the brilliance, the creativity, the natural leadership. How strong I think this child’s character is. How much I really like this kid. I went on to tell them that I know they could be anything they want to be. A basketball star or president. An incredulous look showed up on this kid’s face. “Really?” “Really,” I answered. “No doubt in my mind.”
Then I did what I should have done earlier in the day. I asked, “What do you need to help you do your best in music?”
Immediately this student explained to me what they felt they needed. Within minutes we were able to get that rolling and send this student off to music in a completely different way than had been true ten minutes earlier.
I know that one of the things that made this possible was that the music teacher was working with the rest of my class. I could truly focus my attention on this one student. We could spend ten minutes talking and making a plan together. That’s a lot harder with twenty-two other students clamoring for attention or support.
I don’t know how tomorrow will go with this kiddo but I do know that when I greet them at the door it will be even more intentional than normal. It will be with a reminder of how I see them and how I believe in them. Some kids need to hear that a lot before they can really believe it. I don’t know if that’s true for this one or not, but I’m going to err on the side of overtelling them how amazing they are.
This morning I did my 25th sprint triathlon. I did my first race in May of 2008. Sprint triathlons, before you get impressed, are short. They may or may not be fast but that’s more about the triathlete than it is about the race. Typically they are a quarter mile swim, a twelve mile bike ride, and a five K run. Today’s race was about 15 miles on the bike, but otherwise was standard.
Pre and post race selfies. (I don’t look fabulous when I get up at 5 am, throw on clothes, brush my teeth, and hit the road with my bike and such. So the pre race selfie doesn’t look noticeably better than the post race selfie. It is what it is.)
I have never placed in a race. In fact, I am frequently last in my age group. In spite of doing this for a decade I do not seem to be improving. I have enough of a growth mindset to believe I could improve if I were willing to put in the time and energy. I am not. I exercise three to five times a week for thirty minutes to an hour. But that exercise routine isn’t really training for tris. I (mostly) eat healthy. When I race, which I do two or three times a year, most years, it is ugly. It is slow and it really isn’t impressive. But I keep doing it.
And, I realized today, I do it with a smile. I know this is true not because I am aware of it but because volunteers, police officers, and fellow racers remark on it. Every race multiple people say something to me about how I am smiling through it. I am not sure why this is true. There is nothing to convince me I am actually enjoying the process. I like having done triathlons, not actually doing them.
I also tend to be absurdly polite during races. Athletes and volunteers are, for the most part, some of the kindest, most encouraging people you’ll ever meet. They cheer everyone on and encourage each other. It’s a delightful community. They are still, at least some of them, pretty darn competitive. They don’t always warn you that they’re passing on the bike or the run (I am so grateful to those who do because it freaks me out when I don’t get a warning and someone flies past me) and aren’t always willing to let you pass in the pool. (Can you tell I’m better at the swim than the bike or run? It stinks that it’s the least amount of time, by a long shot, in the race.)
I warn folks if I’m passing. I thank folks who warn me. I thank the volunteers and police officers who are stopping traffic and encourage us all. I know I’m not going to win so it doesn’t really cost me anything to take a second to let others know I appreciate their efforts. Maybe I’d behave differently if I had a chance at placing…
Last weekend we saw What the Constitution Means to Me at the Kennedy Center. I had heard good things about it and was quite intrigued, without really knowing what to expect. That makes it feel strange to say it exceeded my expectations, but it did. By a long shot. It was an emotional roller coaster and intellectual journey. I have no interest or skill set for reviewing the show, but I will say it is definitely worth seeing if you have the opportunity.
At one point, a little beyond halfway through the show, Heidi Schreck, having told several stories of women who were abused by the men in their lives, says, “What does it mean if this document does not protect us from the violence of men?”
I grabbed a pen from my purse and, in the darkness of the theater in which I really couldn’t see what I was doing, I wrote that line down on the envelope that held our tickets. It hit me so hard and I was terrified I would forget it as the show continued. I had to hang on to it.
It had never occurred to me that I, as a woman, don’t really feel protected by the laws in our country. I had thought about this for people of color. For parents of Black boys who have to teach them how to respond to a police officer to minimize the chance that they’ll be harmed. (And for girls, but overwhelmingly for boys.) For brown folks who fear being deported. As a woman I hadn’t thought about the legal structures that harm me.
Even though I know I was raped at 16 and never reported it. (Didn’t tell anyone for nearly two years.) Why bother? It wouldn’t have resulted in anything and would have been hell for me. I’ve watched many women in my life face similar situations. Situations in which they don’t feel it is worth the trauma to try to get justice from the legal system. We see it play out in the media time and time again.
“What does it mean if this document does not protect us from the violence of men?”
Over the past couple of years I have been reading all of the books in Anne Perry‘s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and William Monk series. Both series are set in the late 1800s in London. Both series have prominent and strong female characters. Again and again as I read these books taking place 150 years ago I am struck by how little has changed for women and people of color. We have made progress. There is no question. But it is astounding how easy it is to see how far we have to go when we look to the past. The progress has been so slow and so small.
This past week, when Cokie Roberts died, I heard a lot of tributes to her on NPR. I was struck, not surprisingly, by this quote.
We did have the right. And yet…
So. “What does it mean if this document does not protect us from the violence of men?”
Some years ago, after ten years of teaching fourth and fifth graders I moved to teaching first graders. In my 11th year of teaching I suddenly felt like a novice. I felt incompetent. I can vividly remember thinking, “I used to be a good teacher. I got my National Board Certification. Now I suck.” It was rough. It took at least half that first year in the primary grades before I began to feel I could stand. That was significantly thanks to teammates and two teachers who co-taught with me and carried me.
This is my 22nd year of teaching. I am back to feeling like a novice, feeling incompetent. This change of school has been much, much harder than I anticipated. I am not certain I have ever worked this hard. From the time the first student walks into our classroom at 9:00 am until I drop them off at specials at 2:45 pm I am working. Seriously working. (And then I often have meetings while they are at specials and then back on when I pick them up and get them all headed home, usually by about 4:30 pm.) I officially get paid for a 7.5 hour day and I am not wasting a minute of that time.
I am really counting on starting to feel on top of things by midyear.
I taught my husband to drive a stick shift when he was 25. He complained about how he used to be a good driver and now sucked. I keep thinking about that. (It should be noted that the next car he bought was a stick shift. It gives me hope.) from Alvin Trusty’s flickr
(Before anyone contacts me with their kind and caring concern, I do love this job. I love my kids. Their families are wonderful. I am excited by the challenges of this year. At this point my husband and daughters likely need all the help anyone can offer them as I drop balls all around and am unusually cranky…)
On Monday one of my munchkins was having a rough day. It was just one of those days when things keep going wrong. She arrived at school with a headache and a friend had been bugging her on the bus. At lunchtime her lunchbox was dripping. Something in it had leaked and her whole lunch was soaked. It was just that kind of day.
At recess I brought out Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst for her to read. She was unfamiliar with it. Sitting beside her on the bench at the playground I felt great. Her day was far from perfect, but connecting her to that book in that moment was wonderful as it definitely lifted her spirits, at least temporarily.
This job feels really hard this year. I feel as though my students need more than I am able to give them. But then there are those moments. Moments when I connect with one of these fabulous kids. In those moments I think we’ll be just fine.