Sunday, November 13, 2016

Election 2016 and Cinnamon Toast Crunch

How many of us woke up this past week feeling unnerved, fearful, distraught?
If the media (social or otherwise) has any remaining credibility, about 50% of Americans heard the trumpet of doom this past week. Half of this country is experiencing a crisis of consciousness, engaging in some serious soul searching, lumbering through the stages of grief.
I need not state the obvious reasons why because, well, they are obvious...and because regardless of whether you’re on the mourning side of that 50% or the elated side of that 50%, I believe you could benefit from three words:
Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Seriously? What does Cinnamon Toast Crunch have to do with this...or anything?1001029_016000275072_a_400
Everything.
See, a couple weeks ago, I received an unexpected email at school:
Subject Line: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
It was an email sent by a former student of mine. Let's call her Alison. We hadn't crossed paths for 9 years, yet when I saw the email’s subject line, a smile of recognition snuck across my face. I knew immediately what this was about.
Alison began the email with some context: “You might remember that you once purchased a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for me. You also took the time after school to listen to my paper about my mom's mental health issues since I wasn't comfortable reading it in front of the class.”
She continued, “One day in class I was complaining about being hungry and never being able to eat breakfast since one of my parents always ate all of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then, I remember coming to class one day and you gave me a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I was SO grateful, happy, and shocked that someone cared. I know I didn't express much emotion when you did that for me but I cried later that day knowing that someone cared enough about me to do that. Back then I wasn't very good at expressing my emotions and I'm pretty sure I did my best to avoid you from that point on because I just wasn't used to that.
“Years later, especially after I graduated high school, I started to feel regretful about never really thanking you for that act of kindness and there were many times I started writing an email to you but would exit out. However, I couldn't forget that day and how much that impacted me even years later. Thank you so much Mrs. Felske for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I will never forget that! I went through a lot while in high school and every act of kindness that I received really mattered.”
Okay, THAT’S Part I of this blogpost, and here’s Part II (bear with me, it’ll all tie together, I promise).
A week ago (pre-election Nov. 4th) the Dalai Lama wrote an editorial in the New York Times. He discussed the global anxiety running throughout the US and across Europe, and suggested a solution. He said we must do good for others; we must “be of use.”
He cited research showing that people who feel useful are three times less likely to die prematurely as those who don't. “Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important.”
This makes sense to me.
Buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for Alison years ago was a small act. At the time, what she had said in class reminded of the time I received a jar of applesauce for my birthday. Being one of eight children in my family, that jar of applesauce (my favorite food and a whole jar to myself!) was, for me, sheer jubilation. And it was that childhood memory that landed me in the cereal aisle grabbing a box of cereal for Alison, knowing that she’d appreciate it, but not giving it much thought beyond that.
What I now know is how much that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch meant to Alison. Her email reminded me what all of those seemingly small moments we have with our students can potentially mean to them both in the moment and years later.
It’s what the Dalai Lama calls a “compassionate society” where ‘selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.”
dalailama_blogImportantly, he reminds us that this is not a liberal or conservative cause:  “What unites us...is not shared politics or the same religion. It is something simpler: a shared belief in compassion, in human dignity, in the intrinsic usefulness of every person to contribute positively for a better and more meaningful world.”
His solution for our anxiety and feelings of disconnectedness? Begin each day by consciously asking ourselves how we can be of use.
Like buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Or one of a million other small acts of kindness there for the doing. For educators, there are countless such opportunities. For all human beings there are countless such opportunities.
The take-away here, pretty obvious. We need to remember the words of the Dalai Lama, to remember Alison’s email, to remember Cinnamon Toast Crunch...as a verb---the antidote to resentment, anxiety, and despair by “being of use” to those we encounter in and out of the classroom.
Now, back to Alison. Perhaps you are wondering what she’s up to these days? She is a Behavioral Health Social Worker, paying it forward, distributing her own metaphorical boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch to those in need.  
As the Dalai Lama says, “The answer is not systematic; it’s personal.”
Cinnamon Toast Crunch.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

GORDIE IS SUCH A FOX!!! (or Why I read my childhood diary out loud in class!)

20161009_175024Last Thursday, I read my childhood journal out loud TO MY STUDENTS! 
These were not the “Dear Diary” scrawlings of an eight-year-old in a sparkly pink journal, secured by an adorably tiny lock. This was pure teen angst, an unfiltered look at my high school hangups.
My 15-year old self would have been mortified! In fact, one of my journal entries (November 13, 1985) confirms it: “I TOTALLY FREAKED OUT YESTERDAY!!! I thought this journal was gone! I would totally die if this got out!”
So why, 31 years later, did I (“totally”) betray the confidence of my 15-year-old self?  And what legitimate place, you may be wondering, does any of this have in my classroom?
Okay, fair question. My objective that day was to introduce my students to podcasting, as downloadeventually they’ll be recording their own podcasts. And since it was Homecoming week, the plan was to play for them Homecoming Ruined My Life, an episode detailing "The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben” - an entertaining look at the awkward inner and outer life of a high schooler trying to get a date to Homecoming. It was an episode from Mortified, a podcast in which adults share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts (diaries, letters, lyrics, poems, home movies)… in front of total strangers.”  
This episode would, I reasoned, serve both as an introduction to podcasting and a direct tie to their lives (a sort of “It gets better” reminder to students on this Homecoming week, a week filled with excitement, rejection, angst, and the whole roller coaster in between).
Duly inspired by Adam Ruben’s confessional, the night before class, I journeyed through some of my own high school journals, earmarking the passages relating to Gordie, my high school crush, and my homecoming disappointments.
And so, in Freshman English, before Adam Ruben read from “The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben,” I read to them from mine:
20161009_171428.jpg
I recited to my Freshmen confessions of my crush on Gordie, stress over homework and grades, my unhealthy fixation on losing 5 more pounds. As I did, I felt as vulnerable and sophomoric as I did back in 1985, and yes, a bit mortified. A classful of adolescent eyes were raptly fixed on me. There was a palpable mix of curiosity, surprise, and empathy in the air.
Why the intensity? Why were students glued, eyes and ears?
It turns out the private moments of teenage me were universal moments to my students decades later.  The word is authenticity.
To learn from us, students first need to see us as real people. When I read from my childhood journal, my students saw me as a real person who was once a self-conscious, conflicted, complicated teenager, not unlike themselves.
As an English teacher, I want words to do for my students what, looking back, they've done for me. I want my students to use words to express themselves, to relate to others, to feel less alone, maybe even to read years from now, as adults looking back with a more gentle understanding of their younger selves and a greater empathy for the teens in their own lives.  
Not until my 24th year of teaching did I read my journal aloud in class---perhaps it required precisely that much time and distance for me to be comfortable doing so. What I do know is that taking that risk and stepping into that potentially mortifying moment, childhood journal in-hand, will now be another tool in my teaching repertoire.
Teacher take-aways?
  1. podcast-imageIf you have a childhood journal or assignment from when you were in school that you can relate to what your teaching, use it! 
  2. It’s tricky to mix the private and the personal in your classroom, but if bring your teenage vulnerabilities into the classroom, your students will respect you for it.
  3. Podcasts are an untapped goldmine for our classrooms across the curriculum. (More on that, I suspect, in a future blogpost).

Monday, September 12, 2016

Great Teachers, Mediocre Shoes

no-heels-2Would you rather have a great teacher with mediocre shoes or a mediocre teacher with great shoes?
I’m thinking (hoping) nearly 100% would choose the former.
Admittedly, the question is not quite fair: it’s not an either/or. One can, after all, be a great teacher with great shoes (I would offer my friend Kristin as a prime example). And, I would like to think that for much of my career, I too was a great teacher with great shoes.
Now, however, as I begin my 24th year in the classroom, I strive to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes. I am no longer in the business of donning spectacular shoes at school.  
You see, last year mid-December, I was at an out-of-town conference when my feet retaliated against 22 ½ years of daily heel wearing. For no reason clear to me at the time, by the end of the day, I  literally hopped back to my hotel room, my left foot painful to the touch.  Anti-inflammatories were my short term cure; sensible shoes have been my long term solution.
1239510_10208914570807900_8076274909337212317_n
My former workwear (no longer in my life): high heels and low support.
My teaching tip this month? Wear sensible shoes!
Why?
  1. Your feet are your foundation. The average teacher takes 4,726 steps per day at school, the equivalent of climbing the staircase in the Empire State Building three times! The realization that I made that trip, in heels, for 20+ years makes me feel more than a bit foolish.
  2. Girl Power: We know that becoming good at anything is the result of hard work, reflection, and incremental improvement, not great shoes. Let’s model for our female students that we are more than just our footwear. Astonishingly, the American Podiatric Medical Association found that 42% of women say they will wear a shoe they like even if it causes them pain. To that, we must say “Yikes!” and “Never again!”
  3. Be Good to Yourself. We try to drink more water, eat less processed foods, exercise, floss...why not also wear shoes that won’t hurt our long-term mobility?  
  4. K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple Stupid. Throwing on comfortable outfit and sensible shoes in the morning will get you to work fifteen minutes earlier which will make you more effective all day long.
  5. As educators, we are always looking at data to learn about student achievement and student needs. Why aren’t we also “data-driven” about ourselves. Data shows that the angle a high heel nullifies our natural shock absorbing abilities, stiffens our achilles tendons, shortens  ankle and calf tendons, and changes our natural gait (Women’s Health).  Dr. Sajid Surve of the American Osteopath Association writes “The effects aren’t limited to the feet; it’s not unusual for people who spend lots of time in high heels to have low back, neck and shoulder pain because the shoes disrupt the natural form of the body.” The data is clear: down with high heels, up with arch support.
20160911_204401-2
My new-and-improved school shoes: low heal, high support.
This is why, educators far and wide, I implore you to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Confessions of a Secret Montessorian

I’ll be sharing a right of passage with my son this year: he’ll be entering high school, and in a few short weeks, I’ll be his teacher. (I suspect you’ll be reading a post or two about how that goes!) He’ll also face another transition as he leaves behind 11 years of Montessori and takes his first step into public education, a slew of new beginnings for mother and son.  
Wait, did you catch that? You might want to re-read the previous paragraph because couched among some fairly cliche sentiments about rights of passage was a raw admission. Did you detect the hypocrisy? Did you smell the sacrilege? A public school teacher blogging all this time about public education while sending her own child to a Montessori school! The shame!
ncm group
I remember the first time I tried to explain it to someone. I was on lunch duty, standing next to a colleague and friend of mine who asked where Eliot would be going to school. He was maybe 5 at the time. “He’ll keep going to Nature’s Classroom Montessori for now,” I remarked, going on to explain how we had never planned on sending him to a private school, but that because Montessori had been such a perfect fit for him, we couldn’t imagine pulling him from a place that had become home. I explained how I felt hypocritical about it as a public school teacher who believes in public education. I added, hoping for redemption, that he would likely be coming to our high school when the time came. She laughed at my very long and defensive answer. “Sounds like the perfect place for him," she said and meant it. I exhaled.   
It’s true that Eliot has the questionable fortune of being born to two public school teachers. It’s true that we never planned on going the Montessori route. It’s also true that initially we felt like traders sending him to Montessori over our local school district. See, here’s what happened: when Eliot was 3, counting ceiling tiles when we picked him from daycare, it was clear he was ready for a more challenging environment. When a friend told us about Nature’s Classroom Montessori, we went for an observation and never left.
4
That day, we observed Miss Erin’s room, which we quickly dubbed “The Zen Room.” It was an amazing sight: 3, 4 and 5-year-olds manipulating objects to learn numeric concepts, tracing and placing alphabetic letters into stories, preparing their own snacks, cleaning their work spaces. The level of independence and engagement was astounding. It was an environment in which Eliot soon thrived.
As parents and as teachers, what we saw that day was what we both had struggled to create in our own classrooms: independent learners fully engaged and invested in their own learning. And what we saw wasn’t the doing of an individual teacher; it was the systemic use of Montessori methods in the Montessori environment. We were in awe.  
3
We watched Eliot’s first class concert later that year. As his classmates proudly belted out their songs, some clapping, some waving to their parents, there stood Eliot, not saying or singing a word. When we talked to his teacher afterwards, she was not at all concerned. He’ll come around when he’s ready, and she was right. And that’s what it his Montessori experience has been like: we’ve watched him grow through the years from a non-singer to concert emcee his final year. This was a school where his social-emotional well being was as important as his academics: through the years we all worked (teacher, parents, and Eliot) on his ability to work in groups, take responsibility for his actions, and organize his work.
How could we pull him from Montessori? We couldn’t, and didn’t. It was simply the best place for him. Maria Montessori said “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.” And by that measure, he wasn’t going anywhere.
You may be asking yourself What exactly is Montessori? Here’s a crash course: In the early 1900’s Maria Montessori, an Italian physician studied children who had been deemed non-learners.  Through careful observation, she created an environment in which they thrived. Her method, now known as Montessori, provides flexible and carefully constructed work space and materials, utilizing a constructivist philosophy where children engage in “practical play,” learning through discovery with teacher guidance rather than direct teacher instruction.
7I asked Eliot today what Montessori did for him. “It made me, me,” he said, with an implied “duh!” (he is 14 after all). Details that stick with him? Journaling in nature. Being farm manager. Playing William Shakespeare. Studying marine biology in the Florida Keys, and indigenous cultures in New Mexico. Explaining the cube of quadrinomials. Historical simulations. Writing and acting in plays. His magnum opus paper.
So here’s the strange part, where past meets present, alternative meets traditional, mother meets son.  Any teacher or administrator in education today will recognize the following buzzwords (causing some perhaps to shudder a bit): personalizationstudent-centered classroomproblem-based learningstandards-based grading. Open any educational journal or attend any educational conference, and these words will dominate the articles written and the sessions offered. These concepts---here’s the weird part---are and always have been evident, in mastery form, in the Montessori classroom. They are the pmf-wordle-largerreasons my husband and I were in awe that day when we observed “The Zen Room.”
The truth is Montessori has much to teach us. As a teacher, It is my hope that as personalizationstudent-centered classrooms, and problem-based learning continue to be examined, the best of Montessori will trickle into the public school realm. As a mother, it is my hope that they will continue to be part of Eliot’s high school  experience in my classroom and others. 
Ready or not, Eliot, here we go.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Not-So-Good Blogpost


Warning: This is not a good blogpost. A few days ago, I was good to go. I had this month’s blogpost in draft form, in need of a little polish, but it was done---it was timely, relevant, I felt pretty good about it-----and then I decided to chuck it.

You see, a few days ago, my life as a blogger, a teacher, a human being was different, all of our lives were different. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the subsequent deaths of Officers Lorne Abrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa have changed everything. They have me reeling. They have me recognizing the gross insufficiency of my blogpost, and so I’ve chucked it to make way for my not-so-good blogpost, not so good because the right words to process this tragedy are simply unavailable, and the full-circle format so satisfying in a blogpost (problem and solution, question and answer) won’t happen this time around. No pat answers or easy solutions here.   

After all, how do we even talk about this? Gun violence. Racial injustice. It’s an understatement to say that these are difficult issues to talk about. Do you dare talk about them with your extended family, your co-workers, your students? They are mired in layers of history, race, identity, and socioeconomics. I’m certain that I’m not the only one, fingers on keyboard right now, not knowing which keys to tap, what words to use. But the very fact that these subjects are so hard to broach underscores their complexity and the urgency with which they must be tackled.  

So, how can we tackle them? Here’s my not-so-good attempt:

First, Get Upset

The easiest thing to do is nothing: do nothing, say nothing. News happens and life goes on. If you do nothing and say nothing, none of your Facebook friends will be offended; no one will be arguing at the dinner table; there will be no weirdness in the break room at work. But doing nothing and saying nothing is akin to accepting the horrors of last week as “the new norm” as US Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned.  Doing nothing and saying nothing is complicity.  Our membership in the human race requires more of us.

Second: Say Something, Do Something

As a wife and mother, this means taking about it at the dinner table. As a citizen, this means picking up the phone and calling my representatives to voice my concerns about gun legislation (a topic I find tragically tied to these events). As a teacher, this means necessarily complicating my teaching of Huck Finn, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, Othello---to include the gamut of voices on contemporary race issues (Michael Eric Dyson’s recent “Death in Black and White” and others). It means giving my students the tools and the uncomfortable but important opportunity to process these issues in a safe, rational setting (a complex task, but one sorely needed in our world of increasingly uncivil and unbalanced discourse). As an American, this means being a part of a larger conversation, a larger action. And while I’m not certain what that will look like, I’m committed to being a part of it, as difficult and uncomfortable as it’s sure to be.

As teachers, we have many moments of truth. I’m reminded of one such moment faced by a colleague of mine during our Homecoming Parade several years ago. He stepped into the road, preventing two students in a truck donning a giant confederate flag from joining the tail end of our homecoming parade. Aside from being a physical risk, it was a social and professional one. There he was out in the community in which he taught---no time to consult with the principal, superintendent or lawyers---he decided to step in front of the truck and stop a symbol of oppression and racism from being associated with our school and community.

I’m reminded of another more recent moment of truth by Robert, a former student of mine (how frequently our students become our teachers). Reading his post on Facebook shortly after finishing my original blogpost is what prompted my rewrite. Here are his words:
I don't know what to say about it, and I don't know if I'm qualified to say anything about it. But damn it, staying quiet doesn't feel right: I am 4 times LESS likely to be killed by the cops than any random black person is. This is not an opinion, this is fact. Because I was born with pasty white pigment, I've always felt safe during routine traffic stops. I've never carried a weapon, but I'm sure if I did I would be given credit by many for "exercising my second amendment rights." Of course in a perfect world we should all (no matter our pigment) respect and admire the police. But you do not gain respect and admiration by also being feared. There is no doubt (just look at the stats and our ugly history) black communities have good reason to FEAR the police while white communities largely don't. Now, I'm not saying all (or even most) cops are racist. What I am saying though, is that there is a systemic problem and police killings of black people happen at a disproportionate rate. And it must stop. If you're white and this status makes you uncomfortable, it should do more than that. We all should be in this together to demand better.
I’m proud of his words. I’m proud that he had the courage to struggle with words and contradictions and the complexity of what we cannot allow to become the new norm.

Third: Ask Uncomfortable Questions.

My building principal has a saying that I’ve always found helpful. He says that part of his job is to make people uncomfortable. To change, to improve, to grow, we must be uncomfortable with the status quo. I can think of little that’s more uncomfortable than discussing these ideas in a classroom, but the classroom is a microcosm of the world, and choosing silence means accepting the events of last week the status quo.  


We have little choice, then, but to ask uncomfortable questions, and there are many:
  • What does it mean that President Obama, US District Attorney Loretta Lynch, Dallas Chief of Police David Brown are all African Americans in the highest positions of power in politics, law enforcement and justice, yet our politics and law enforcement and justice systems are mired in racial tensions and disparities?
  • How do we come to terms with the progress we’ve made and the problems that remain?
  • What is the relationship between our gun laws and violence? Between patrons bearing arms and police violence perpetrated against them? Between police deaths and gun proliferation?
  • What is the majority opinion in America regarding background checks and the legality of assault-type weapons?  Is this voice being represented by our legislators?
  • What happens when violence escalates, but conditions don’t change? What have other countries---historically and contemporarily---done to curb gun violence?
  • What initiatives are in place to examine and improve race relations?  What role does segregation play in race relations?
  • What role/responsibility does social media play in peace-keeping, accountability, and inciting violence? What role/responsibility do television and radio media play?

I want to live in a country where we ask the uncomfortable questions, where we relentlessly strive for social justice, where we respect and protect our institutions of law enforcement and justice, where we do what’s required of us as citizens in a democracy.

That’s why as a blogger, a mother, a teacher, a citizen, and a human being, I was required to write this not-so-good blogpost.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fel's Regret List: my attempt to live vicariously through my students as they head off to college

Graduation-HatsThe last day of class with my AP English Seniors is always an emotional one. I've come to adore these scholars over the course of their high school careers. As I bid them farewell, I leave them with two final handouts: a reading list: Fel's Kicking and Screaming List and a list of college advice: Fel's Regret List, which is the content of my blogpost this month:
Fel's Regret List: Wisdom in Hindsight from a College Grad
  1. Foreign Language. The more, the better. My do-over would include Latin (for a solid knowledge of roots and etymology). Never again will you have an opportunity to REALLY Learn foreign languages, and doing so will vastly improve your language and vocabulary facility in deep and authentic ways.
  2. Travel. Even though you will inevitably be broke in college, never again will it be as cheap to travel, nor will you ever be able to immerse yourself in a foreign culture for a prolonged period of time as you will if you study abroad in college. Trust me on this one.
  3. Don’t work too much. During the school year, work for petty cash, but not for tuition. College debt is both the best debt you will ever accrue and the best investment you’ll ever make. Dive in head first. Don’t spend all of your time studying and working (see #8 below).
  4. Take some weird, interesting classes, making yourself a little more weird and interesting in the process---consider judo, basic drawing, African literature, art history, Japanese, fencing, music theory, ballroom dancing...you get the idea. And (this is a beautiful thing) you can audit classes, so you can simply enjoy them without the stress of credits or grades.
  5. Cavort with your profs. Use their office hours. Most are pretty brilliant and fascinating creatures who love talking with their students one-on-one. Get help thinking through a paper you’re writing, ask for clarification of a concept in class, or just ask them their views on your latest ponderance about the universe. I have ALWAYS left professors’ offices glad that I had made the effort, and I saw almost all of my prof’s during their office hours at least once.
  6. Set an artificial deadline for your papers (1-2 days before they’re actually due). If you stick to that deadline, allowing yourself a day to polish, you’ll receive a higher grade, and more importantly, your paper will be significantly more focussed and eloquent, cementing the impression that you are a good thinker and an effective communicator.
  7. Pursue a scandalous love affair with your University Library. Need I say that these palaces of wisdom are oozing with morsels of knowledge yet unknown to your noggin? I’m talking about millions of books; thousands of magazines. So rummage around; shake up your thinking: humble your ego; get lost in the stacks! Play Fel by spending a couple hours in the library on Friday afternoons perusing magazines and journals you never knew existed.
  8. Read and heed kiosks. The free-standing bulletin-board-like things with about 10,000 staples in each, located all over campus? They will alert you to the notable, the cool, the quirky---the campus goings on. Carve time out of your life to experience some of these things---never again will there be so much going on around you, and most of it’s free. This is your chance to become even more interesting, cultured, and worldly than you already are: musicians, foreign film festivals, poets, radical thinkers, foreign dignitaries, etc...they show up on college campuses. Take advantage of this phenomenon!
  9. Check out the local arts scene. Repertory theatres, symphonies, art museums, etc...Most have obscenely reduced ticket prices for students. You’ll never have a cheaper opportunity for high culture!
  10. Disco on Fridays, climb a tree and stay there for a while, drop your backpack mid-campus and do a cartwheel, travel via pogo stick, have a stare down with a stranger...you get the idea. A direct correlation between the intellectual and the irreverent makes for a happy, balanced scholar.
  11. Keep a notebook of all the things you want to do, use, or remember (and start now!): striking quotes, “to-read” book titles, irresistible words, phrases, descriptions, facts, jokes, goals, anecdotes, anything, everything. The alternative is to forget many unforgettable things and/or spend countless minutes of your life searching in vain for little scraps of paper you jotted things down on. When you add to your notebook, read what was written before, massaging the dendrites. When  you fill one notebook, start another, and keep them all (and use the Evernote App if you’d rather be paper-free).
  12. Socrates says, “Know Thyself”; Fel says, “Challenge Thyself. Take control of your intellectual destiny.  If you’re at a school or in a program that isn’t adequately challenging or beneficial, make a change!  You are at the helm of your own boat, dear scholars, steer accordingly!
  13. Lastly, and most importantly: that little voice inside you? Listen to it! Call it what you will---your conscience, your soul, your deep-down gut instinct. It’s there, and if you really listen to it, it will lead you to the right place. Though I sometimes ignored it when convenient, ultimately, I did listen, and it led me to you, oh scholarly ones (a.k.a. a fulfilling career), my husband (the soulmate thing) and other unmentionables (that Fel, so mysterious).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Teacher’s Reflection on Mother’s Day

Today was a bizarre day for me – my first Mother’s Day as a mother without my son around. No, he’s not studying abroad; no he doesn’t have a career halfway across the country. Lucky for me, he’s still a teenager and still a member of our household, but he’s on a class trip this week, and Mother’s Day feels more than a bit strange without him. No breakfast-in-bed, no handmade card.

I missed my breakfast-in-bed fruit plate this Mother's Day!


And my Mother’s Day malaise is doubled this year with my husband one day out of ankle surgery, non-ambulatory and sleeping most of the day.

I remember feeling this way at an earlier time in my life: mid-to-late June during my first few years of teaching. After school let out, a certain melancholy took over – life was a little too quiet, too calm, to unharried. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feeling of not having stacks of essays, tests, and lesson plans looming, but I missed my students: their energy, their goofiness, their joie de vivre.
I can practically hear the response of some reading this (“Are you SERIOUS?! Summer means you survived! It’s the game-winning shot, the final touch down, the hole-in-one!") But yes I am serious, which I suppose, makes me one of two things: a loser ("Get a Life!”) or a person whose identity is deeply tied to teaching, not unlike motherhood to a mother.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mother’s Day comes at the tail end of Teacher Appreciation Week as now that I think about it, motherhood and teaching have much in common:
Love.  Sit down with a teacher and ask them why they teach. Knowing the formidable challenges in education today, this is a fair question. If it were for money, benefits, status, or respect, we’d have left the profession years ago (and some have). The only logical reason to stay is because we love our students, not unlike the unconditional love celebrated on Mother’s Day. When everything else is stripped away, love of students and love of teaching are what remain.  
Heartache.  The flip side of love is heartache, and any educator worth his/her salt feels it. I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t lost sleep worrying about students—their home lives, their challenges, their choices. That sick-to-your-stomach feeling you have at 3 a.m. as a mother? Imagine having 125 kids and you’ll have a sense of how difficult it is to “leave-it-at-work.”
Commitment.  No such thing as part-time parenting, right? Welcome to teaching. Students spend more of their waking hours at school than any other place, and so do teachers. We invest our lives in the lives of our students. This commitment bleeds into our nights and weekends. And the commitment of teachers who also advise and coach is exponential as they help students develop a positive future. Sound a bit like parenthood?
Identity: I’ve been asked why I haven’t become an administrator, and the answer is easy: I’m a teacher. As sure as I’m a daughter, sister, wife, and mother, I’m a teacher. And just as I couldn’t drop any of those other titles, I couldn’t simply drop my identity as a teacher. Unthinkable.  
Value: We know what happens to kids when parents check out. We know what happens to classrooms when teachers check out. Likewise, we know what happens to kids when parents and teachers and schools are fully invested them. It is an awesome responsibility and honor to play that role in students’ lives.  



Interesting that since becoming a mother, my June blues have faded – that withdrawal I felt when school let out? My summers as a mother have enough teaching in them to quell the melancholy.
And when Eliot leaves for college in 5 years, I suspect the reverse will also happen and the fact that I’m still teaching will mitigate my empty nesthood. For what teacher’s nest is ever truly empty?
Henceforth, I shall celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day together, a natural pairing.  
Being a teacher has made me a better mother, and being a mother has made me a better teacher.
And both have made me a better person and given value to my life. 
Double bonus. Lucky me.