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Never Ready: #TeacherConfessions #FirstDayofSchool

“No one is ever ready!” My father barks (1)

Today is the first day of school for millions of kids, parents and teachers across the country.  And for weeks, everyone has been getting ready.

Kids and their parents have been getting ready for weeks, tracking down items on the school supply list, watching carefully for those awesome sales at Staples, Target and Office Max. Last night, backpacks and lunch boxes were painstakingly loaded and uniforms were carefully laid out, ready for that early morning alarm and new school day schedule.

Teachers have been getting ready since the final day of school last June (yes, really). They have spent the summer recharging and planning for the year ahead – new units, fresh classroom management plans, and innovative strategies they learned at professional development over the summer (No, teachers do not get the summer off); they’ve carefully set up their classrooms and have worked to incorporate the expectations of the school administration that has never left the building over the summer. School custodians have cleaned the building from top to bottom (those floors are waxed!) and are ready to see their handiwork scuffed and fingerprinted by noon the first day.

Excitement fills the air. The first day is filled with great expectations. Everyone seems ready for the first day of school.

Except me. I was never ready. Not as a kid. Not as a parent. Not as a teacher. Try as I might, I was the teacher who was never ready for the first day of school. Not even at midnight the night before.

 I spent much of the summer honing my craft: reading, learning, going to professional development, creating units, gathering materials, and re-designing my classroom.  Oh, and constantly thinking and talking about my classroom (to my friends and family, I apologize).  The amount of planning and preparation I undertook, the amount of time I spent setting up my classroom, putting together my classroom library, writing letters to my students – it made no difference.

I was never ready.

I am talking about not just the first day of my first year in the classroom but each and every first day up to and including my last year in the classroom.

The more you teach, the more you know that Murphy’s Law applies with an unrelenting vengeance to classroom instruction: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” And, as the poet above points out, the “shoelaces” will ultimately wear out and break and you may have to make do with a “belt” that is not your best.

I tried so hard to be ready for that first day of school. But, alas, within 10 minutes, I discover that what I thought was the perfect morning meeting classroom rug shed like crazy, covering my students’ freshly ironed uniform pants with a layer of fuzz (yes, the one I paid $89 for at Crate & Barrel – we vacuumed that sucker every day, but still, it kept on shedding). By noon, there weren’t enough desks in my room, as I hadn’t planned for the steady flow of students sent from the school office who weren’t listed on my roster because they hadn’t registered until the first day of school (always forgetting that the classroom size limit in the union contract has no real meaning the first 20 days of school).

But somehow, despite the fuzz and lack of desks, despite not being ready for everything (including my sweet new student from West Africa who spoke no English except for “Hello” and “Thank You”), we are off to our “life-or-death destination”: another year of teaching and learning.

And somewhere in the middle of that first day chaos, I remember that I will never be ready for everything that happens – on the first day of school or each day that follows.

I won’t be ready for the moment when Quavonte, Joe and Conwanis bring me the Reader’s Theatre translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and request to use the original or “real” language in their fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, because, “like you said, Mrs. Dempsey, there’s nothing like iambic pentameter. Shakespeare just sounds better. He’s got the beats.” I won’t be ready for the January that every student turns in their “winter break” reading and writing packet because it was “kind of fun to write poetry and stuff.” Be still my heart.

I also won’t be ready for the moment when a student, in a flash of temper, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs another (minor flesh wounds, thank God). Or the morning my gifted writer and rapper shows up to school drunk out of his mind, having poured his mother’s cognac into a bottle of sunny delight (and still carrying the evidence with him into the classroom).

Despite Breathless Preparation, I

The first day of school preparations that leave us all breathless remind me that despite the fuzz, the wounds or the spiked sunny delight, my students and I will continue to learn as I teach. Preparation is critical. But so is bobbing and weaving, and incorporating and appreciating the unexpected.

And so, at the end of the first day, I have arrived. I finagle extra desks from the kind custodian, add and cross-off names in my no longer pristine gradebook, and I stop at the Dollar Store on my way home to buy multiple lint removers, so that we can be ready for the fuzz tomorrow after morning meeting.  And then I remind myself that no one, including me, is ever ready.

 –261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

Education PARENTING Teaching

You’re Doing It Right (At Least Some Of It)

The worst part of the first year of teaching is failing. Not failing once, or twice. No, failing hundreds of times, again and again.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Nothing I was doing was right. From the first day, not know how to respond when Tiara told me I had a nice ass, to the day before Christmas vacation when, in a moment of bonding I “walked it out” to Unk and Royal told me “I didn’t ever be needing to be doing that again,” I grasped desperately for each inch of progress, and mostly felt the rocks give way on my climb toward improvement.

Dramatic? Maybe. But that first year was dramatic.

I’m coaching new teachers and it is the week before school starts. Tensions are high, and the consensus amongst everyone is that everything is overwhelming. Some are masking it more than others, some are grasping at the progress like I did my first year, others have let go of the cliffside altogether and are bracing for the crash at the bottom.

This summer I had two months of professional development about how to be a coach. There was a lot to learn. One of the components we were taught was to view coaching from a “strengths-based approach”. Amongst the other “learnings” of the summer, that one seemed a little unnecessary. Why was it worth mentioning that we believe in celebrating strengths? Duh. I am familiar with the compliment sandwich: start with a positive, then say what you really want to say, end with a positive.

Truthfully, I’ve always preferred the “Atkins-diet approach”. Give it to me straight. Tell me how I’m failing. Rip off the bandaid and stop the sugar coating. Leave off the bread.

I know, don’t you wish I was your coach?

But the importance of “strength-based coaching” was been reiterated to me this week in my professional and private life.

While I’ve been busy meeting teachers and helping set up classrooms, my son has been busy learning how to walk. He isn’t there yet, but he’s gotten very creative in finding props to use as walkers so he can move around the room. His favorite is the coffee table.

He’s been pulling himself up onto furniture for awhile now, but the newest development is to pull himself up, rock slightly forward and backward, and then let go of the table. For increasingly longer increments of time he has started to stand and then either puts his hands back on the table or falls on his butt.

The first time this happened he had such an incredible look of concentration, which was immediately broken by my exclamation of “YOU’RE STANDING! YOU’RE STANDING!!!” Grabbing back onto me, he grinned, sat down, and started clapping for himself.

And that, my friends, is the strengths-based model. Seeing something someone is doing well, and naming it for them so they know to keep doing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. How my idea of only thinking about the bad stuff so I can be better assumes that I know when I’m doing things well. And a lot of times I don’t. A lot of times I feel like there’s nothing but bad stuff. A lot of times I’m afraid to believe in the good stuff, because it makes me vulnerable to disappointment when something happens that shatters the image or calls my confidence into question.

When I watch my son let go of his grip and stand there proudly on his own, my first thought isn’t, “Well, there you go again, not able to stand up.” My first thought is jubilation. My first thought is fondness and pride and love. The same fondness and pride and love that I deny myself, because I’m so busy tearing myself down.

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What if instead I was willing to eat the bread? Instead of ignoring my husband when he says I’m beautiful, what if I let his opinion sink in, let his vote actually count? Lately I’ve been running an election and it hasn’t been a democracy. What if instead of barely listening to the good stuff from my boss because I’m so busy bracing myself for all the mistakes, I allowed myself to consider how those good things happened and take some time to think through how to continue to make them happen. What if I took a deep breath and said, “YOU’RE STANDING!” I’m still a beginner at this coaching and parenting thing, and sometimes standing is it’s own miracle.

As cynical as I am about the compliment sandwich and the strengths-based approach, is it worse than my inner critic?

As I walk through the halls of the school next Tuesday, I have no idea what I will see. I imagine it possible that more than one of my teachers will, like I did my first day, look at the clock at 10:00am and realize they are in for one of the longest, worst rides of their lives. Regardless, I want to be the person who can see the good in what they are doing it, name it, and encourage them to continue on (possibly after having a good cry and a glass of wine).

And then, when I come home, I want to think back on the day and not just cringe at the bad stuff, but smile at the good stuff, too. And then maybe I’ll have some wine, or maybe a sandwich, including the bread.

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P.S. The sandwich in the picture is from Little Goat restaurant here in Chicago, and was (I’m ashamed to admit) the picture I took to brag about my meal on Facebook. Regardless your feelings of this post or compliment sandwiches, let me highly recommend this pulled pork sandwich of deliciousness.

Education PARENTING

I am so sick of the ice bucket challenge

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I’m in the middle of a full blown carb and sugar bender. It started when, for my son’s first birthday, my husband and I made the decision to buy not one, not two, but THREE cakes from Costco. (Red Velvet, Key Lime, and Cheesecake). Oh, and we bought M&M’s, too, which I ate by the fist full until they were gone (actually, until I told my husband to take them to work, which is what happens to most of our junk food).

But the news this week has not made it any better. People are being beheaded by for their faith in Iraq and Syria. Over a thousand people have died in West Africa from Ebola. The country is blowing up in Ferguson, a nine-year-old boy was shot and killed yesterday evening in Chicago, and Robin Williams just committed suicide.

My Facebook feed has been reading like something out of a young adult dystopian novel.

This evening, while half way through my Costco sized bag of tortilla chips (but hey, they are ORGANIC!) I started thinking about the ice bucket challenge. There’s been some criticism of the challenge, mostly of people who are sick of seeing their entire newsfeed full of hard-to-load videos of friends dumping water over their heads. This is fair, especially considering the people who have used the challenge as an excuse to take video of themselves in bikinis. 

But on a serious note, I get the feeling of not wanting to engage. I get wanting to sit on my couch and watch episodes of my favorite TV show streaming on Netflix and zone out. I get wanting to believe that I am only one person, that I am only responsible for myself. 

Hence the eating binge. Maybe if I eat enough I can push down all the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and fear.

But I realized that the ice bucket challenge offers something unique. Unlike the situation in Ferguson, the murders in Chicago, the disappointing way we treat mental health in our country, the unbearably awful realities in countries whose names and geography are unfamiliar–unlike all of that, the ice bucket challenge is an opportunity to do something. Even if that “doing something” is as simple (or dumb) as dumping water on your head.

When I’m not stuffing my face with M&M’s, I want to do something, ANYTHING to help. And the ice bucket challenge did exactly that.

So I have spent the evening researching how to be helpful in the other problems, too. I don’t think that giving, compassion, prayer, involvement, and kindness are a zero sum game. I don’t think you have to avoid doing the ice bucket challenge because something more important or more devastating is happening somewhere else in the world. I want to believe there is enough room in the world and in our hearts to engage with many issues, to hold the idea that ALS is a horrifying disease and racism is, too, and many of us have the resources to help with both.

Even though it can feel overwhelming. Even though its easier to eat tortilla chips. (I’m sitting in the crumbs with you, friends.)

Warning: what I found isn’t necessarily as easy or sexy as the ice bucket challenge, and it certainly isn’t as viral. Some of the information took some digging to find. But a lot of the ways to get involved don’t involve any money, just some time, some concern, and a bigger belief that what is happening around the world, often to people who may look differently than me, believe differently than me, or speak differently than me, still can matter to me.   

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Some Ways To Help #Ferguson

1. Donate to the Bail and Legal Fund to help citizens who have been arrested.
2. Educate yourself about some of the issues: here
3. Donate to #feedthestudents to make sure school kids are getting enough to eat
4. If you’re white, consider reading some of the articles talking specifically about what white people can do about racism in the United States, like this one or this one

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Some Ways To Engage With What is Happening In Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

1. Change your twitter or Facebook picture to the Arabic letter N, which is the letter drawn on the doors of Christians, marking them to be killed. Join the #WeAreN movement to raise awareness.
2. Sign this petition to try to encourage UN involvement.
3. Write a letter to the editor to raise awareness of the issues in Syria.
4. Give money to one of the many charities providing aid and support for refugees and victims.

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Some Ways To Help End the Stigma of Mental Health Issues
1. Become educated. Check out Bring Change 2 Mind for lots more information and ways to contribute.
2. Don’t talk about suicide, or attempted suicide, as selfish.
3. Check out the suicide prevention lifeline for ways to help those you love, help yourself, and encourage the people around you.

ebola virus[4]

Some Ways to Help the Ebola Crisis

1. Become educated about the situation and the disease.
2. Give to organizations like Doctor’s Without Borders who are working in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea to help treat patients with ebola and prevent the disease from spreading farther.

If you’re like me, you may have your doubts about the usefulness of any of these activities. Point taken. But also if you’re like me, doing any of the above is probably more productive than going on a sugar/carb bender or sitting on your couch doing nothing. 

Now that my tortilla chips are gone, I’m springing into action with you. 

And don’t forget to contribute to help find a cure for ALS. (You can check out our Teacher Reader Mom “Post-it note ice bucket challenge” here) 

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

The Death of A Child

Five years ago, on the Saturday morning of my first day of winter vacation, I was woken up by a phone call from one of my best teacher friends, Erica. Sobbing into the phone, I could barely make out her words.

“He’s dead. Ashton is dead.”

Ashton, a sixth grade student in our school, had been shot and killed the night before while sitting in an idling car with his father. The spray from the shotgun hit him directly, killing him while critically injuring his father.

Returning to my third grade class two weeks later I knew that I had to provide my students opportunities to grieve their schoolmate and friend, though I had barely processed it myself. I spent most of my two weeks of vacation sitting in a numb hollowness, repeating Erica’s words over and over.

What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot.

On the day of the memorial for Ashton our class gathered together to share memories of Ashton. During one of our conversations the students talked about their fears, and how Ashton’s death had made them afraid for their own lives. Then Kelton said, “Why do they keep killing us kids?”

Without hesitating Miles replied, “Yeah, because I wanna know how tall I’m gonna be.”

I can’t tell this story without crying. I can’t type this story without crying.

The meaning and poignancy of Miles words hit home in a new way one year ago when I gave birth to my own son. With his birth I joined the ranks of women all over the world who watch their hearts walk around outside their body.

Becoming a mom took gasoline to the flame of love in my heart.

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When news of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri hit my newsfeed, I knew what I was supposed to do. An unarmed black teenager shot by the police. I’m supposed to shake my head and think, “What a shame.” I’m supposed to like the status updates of my liberal friends who post articles that shed light on the racial tensions present in our country, acted out in the riots that have broken out since Michael’s death. I’m supposed to be outraged.

And then I’m supposed to let it go. Because people don’t want to see that shit in their newsfeeds.

But I can’t let it go.

Because of Ashton. Because of Miles. Because of Michael.

How tall would Michael have become? Where would the aging lines have formed on his face and around his eyes? What songs would he have sung to his children?

I can’t stop thinking about Michael’s mother and the gasoline flame of love she has for her son. The same love that burns in my heart.

What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police.

And I think about all the people for whom this news never goes away. I think about all the mothers who aren’t given the option of deciding whether or not to “let it go”. I think about all the children who grow up scared.

“Why do they keep killing us kids?”

I still don’t know how to answer Kelton.

Shouldn’t every child get to see how tall they will be? Doesn’t every mother grieve for her lost child? Isn’t it time we stop killing kids?

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education friendship Teaching

5 Tips I’ve Learned About Work From My Mentor

I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.

I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.

I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.

In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.

Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)

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1. Sit in the Front

When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.

We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.

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2. Read the Mass E-mails

Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.

But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.

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3. Contribute to the Team

Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.

I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.

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4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities

While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.

There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.

Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.

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5. Give it Something Extra

It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”

We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.

By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.

I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education PARENTING

It Takes A Butthead to Know One

A little over a month ago I was at the point of collapse. I knew I was leaving my job, but I didn’t know what was coming next. I was living in the perpetual sleep deficit fog that has become my life as a mother. I was starting to fantasize about winning a trip to pretty much anywhere in the world for a break from my life.

Enter the advice of a good friend: It’s time to go get a massage.

Massages are religious experiences. In an hour a massage therapist can work out tension and stress that weeks, nay months of yoga classes (which I do not attend, btw) cannot. A salon near my house could squeeze me in for a same-day massage, so I ran out of the school building in time to make my appointment.

In a hurry I parked my car, jogged to the store, slowed down enough to pretend I wasn’t winded from the block-long trek, and walked casually into the salon.

The massage was perfect.

The message I received after the massage was not. When I returned to my car there was a note stuck to the window. In silver sharpie (such a waste for such an amazing product) someone had scrawled:

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(Park it strait Butthead)

Truthfully, I could have parked my car much better. It was at a slant that barely, barely, put the butt of my car into the space next to it. I could have taken the time to back up, pull forward, back up, pull forward (repeat 11 more times) so that I fit into the allotted rectangle evenly. But I didn’t. I was in a hurry.

And, I want to remind you, I was at the point of meltdown.

I sat there stunned. There was the spelling issue, obviously, but I couldn’t believe that someone had been so upset with me that they ripped up an envelope in their car, found a marker, then gotten back out of their car to leave me a note under my wipers. Who has time for that?

When we’re driving together, my husband has to regularly remind me that the other drivers on the road are not driving with the intention of making me angry. For example, to my, “what the &@#% is that person doing” my husband might say, “They’re probably just in a hurry.” To my, “THAT IDIOT JUST CUT ME OFF!” he might say, “I’m sure they’re just as frustrated with traffic as you are.”

Rereading that it sounds a little patronizing, but his tone and intent are anything but patronizing. My husband lives by the phrase, “Everyone is just doing the best that they can.” And he offers me the grace implied by those words.

Sometimes I think about the lessons I want to teach our son. I have lofty goals of writing them down and making a family creed. And I have to say that this note on my car got me thinking about rule number one: Don’t be mean. (Well, technically, don’t be an a**hole, but I should probably introduce the rule as “Don’t Be Mean”, since another rule is “Watch What You Say”.)

In my new job as a coach, the coaching team takes the task of “coach” quite seriously, including coaching one another. One of the areas in which I’ve gotten feedback is that not everything I think needs to be said. For those who are my personal friends, this might make you laugh. I have a way of speaking “no filter” that can get me into trouble.

Put another way, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

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So I kinda of feel for the man who left me that note. I can guess at the anger he felt upon seeing the last available spot in the lot, only to realize he would have to wedge his car back and forth to fit into it. Maybe there was a line of cars behind him, honking to get past. Maybe he was coming from work, or leaving to go to work, and this made him late. Maybe he, like me, has a child, and the way I parked made it impossible for him to squeeze the carseat out of the door, so he had to walk around the car. Or maybe he’s just a meany. Maybe he wrote that note to feel the rush of indignation while sliding it onto my windshield.

I will never know.

Just like that man, I have a tendency to get lost in the moment and cuss at the car in front of me. Or to speak my mind without thinking through the ways it might hurt the people around me. (I can always apologize later.) Or to leave a scathing comment on a blogpost. (I don’t know the person, who cares?)

Thanks to my new job I’ve been practicing the art of holding my tongue. Keeping my job is good motivation. In true elementary school fashion, the walls of the school we meet in has the acronym “THINK” posted throughout the building: THINK before you speak: Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary, Kind? It’s cliche and I rolled my eyes the first forty times I walked past it.

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But like so many of those overused phrases, it’s got a point. Maybe before I pick up the sharpie to write my comment, it is worth taking a pregnant pause to consider that everyone is just trying to do the best they can. Even when driving. (Or parking.)

It’s kind of shocking how much less I’ve been saying lately.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education PARENTING

There’s No Such Thing As a Runner’s High

Everyone sit down and take a deep breath, because I have some startling news to share.

I’ve started running again.

For everyone who looks to me as the person with whom they can commiserate about sitting on the couch, I apologize. And I still support couch sitting. You do you, girl (or boy). And for those who need me as a companion in the battle to get back the pre-baby body, don’t worry. I’m a long way from pre-baby body. If you’re the competitive type, you have awhile before you need to start to worry. Also, for those who are avid runners and anticipate your daily run with the enthusiasm of a dog greeting his long-lost owner, bless you. I doubt we have much in common. You can read this entry with pity, or leave me some unsolicited advice below about how I can change what I’m doing to become more like you.

However, it might also help to insert here that when I say, “I’ve started running again” what I mean is “I ran this past week”.

Once.

I defend myself by noting that I would have run more, but my body has been invaded by the summer head-cold of misery. I went to start a workout video yesterday (yes, I’m doing those, too) and after the snazzy opening and making sure I had my full water-bottle, the video instructor said to start “jump roping” (in quotes because neither they nor I had an actual rope). I attempted to shuffle my body in a convincing up and down manner for a total of 3.2 seconds before deciding there was no way that that was going to continue. My whole body already ached with cold and fever. No need to add fake jump roping to the mix.

My intentions are in the right place, though. I decided it was time to make a change: the polar vortex has taken away my excuse of the weather being too hot, a new beginning in my job warrants a new beginning in other habits, and I actually sometimes enjoy the feeling of not being able to move my muscles for a week after a tough workout. However, after a week of faithfully hitting my video workouts and also running, we decided to start sleep training our son.

The thing about sleep training is that it has all the guise of being about sleep and is actually about being awake. All through the night. If you’re someone who has a child who sleeps through the night, falling asleep independently with minimal or no fussing, drifting gently into the hands of the Sand Man and his good dreams, bless you. You can read this entry with pity, or leave me some unsolicited advice below about how I can change what I’m doing to become more like you.

Anyway, the lack of sleep combined with whatever it is that makes people sick in the beautiful days of summer has put a major wrench in my plans of becoming an olympic athlete and well-rested mom. (My son is also sick, so that adds to the futility of sleep training, since he wakes with every cough. Every. cough.)

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Let it be known that I have, in the past, considered myself a person who enjoys running. I have completed a good number of races, and I have fond memories of those moments. There was once a time when a five mile jog was normal. Yeah. It’s okay to barf here.

That time is not this time.

I know there are a million reasons why people run, but one that was always motivated me was “THE RUNNER’S HIGH”. When I asked someone what that was, it was always defined as a euphoria similar to doing recreational drugs, achieved by running distances usually suitable only for reliable vehicles.

I don’t know that I have ever really reached that state of nirvana in my running career [snort], but I’ve certainly had moments in the past when running was enjoyable. Or at least, when I enjoyed completing a run. I’ve had moments of hitting a stride when the run didn’t feel like every step was bringing me one step closer to needing knee surgery. And once or twice I’ve even thought to myself during a run, “Hey, this doesn’t suck too bad.”

Why does any of this even matter? Well, I’m facing a lot of new beginnings. I’m still a new mom, I’m new at my job, I’m new at this running routine. And new is so exciting. But it can also be incredibly exhausting trying to make sure that I am putting the best foot forward, making time for my intended exercise, remembering all the right times for helping my son sleep through the night. Sometimes I long for the days when I could easily run a few miles, or walk into my school and know everyone and everything and how it all worked and where I stand with each staff member. Sometimes I long for those nights when my son would sleep eight hour stretches, albeit in his swing.

But that’s not where I am right now. I’m in transition, I’m in new. New, new, new. And in typical Rachel fashion, I have decided to change everything all at once. Because what’s the point of pacing myself?

I think it would be fantastic if at the end of my running training I could reach a place of runner’s high. I don’t know how likely it is to happen any time soon, since right now my running is taking place in minute-long increments with ninety second walking breaks. Also, that’s assuming there is even such a thing as a runner’s high, something I’m not so sure about when my neighbor looks me up and down in my spandex pants. At that point I believe in the Runner’s “Hi I’m gonna punch you in the face.”

For the record I would also be very open to having a “mom high”, something I’m willing to now define as my son sleeping through the night independently. Or a “work high”, which I will define as finally feeling like I have started to get the hang of things. (I must…ask…less…questions…)

In the meantime, I’m working really, really, really hard to be patient, trust the process, live in the moment, [insert your cliche here]. And maybe if I’m really lucky, I’ll find some people around me who love me enough to give me solicited encouragement as I make the transition. Bless you. You can comment below. 🙂

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(P.S. Let it be known here that even in my “running days” of the past, I was beaten in a half-marathon by ketchup and mustard. ‘Nuff said.)

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education Teaching

The Hustle Is Sold Separately

I like signing up for things. I like the feeling of anticipation when I commit to doing something new. I love making new goals. When I was in college, my favorite time of year was signing up for classes. I would pour over the course catalog for days, looking at every possible new course offering, thinking this might be the semester to try international relations, or economics, or political science.

I like signing up for things. But follow through is hard.

This is something I am thinking about with some regularity as I start my new job. It’s been awhile since I’ve changed jobs, and an even longer while since I’ve worked in a job that isn’t teaching. There’s something incredibly satisfying and exciting about being part of new. But even in the first three days of the job I am already aware that what isn’t new is me. I’m still me. I can wear business clothing, put on makeup, do my hair, recreate an image, but the core of who I am is not changed. Which means that despite my new beginning and all the possibilities it holds for change and growth, I still stand face to face with my strengths and weaknesses. I still have to do the hard work of becoming a better me.

One of my big challenges is that I give up before I try.

When I walked into school on Tuesday for my first day of reporting to work, I saw a quote written on the wall that made me stop, backtrack, and stand and stare. In script it read, “In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.” (Bill Cosby)

There was literal writing on the wall. For me. Okay, not just for me. But I internalized it as a sign from above.

About a month ago my friend Lenora and I were talking, and I was crying to her about how hard it was to leave my job, how scary it was to accept a role of leadership, how hurt I have been by past bosses, and how easy it would be to hold back, to stay in stasis, to allow the circumstances of my life to happen to me instead of being the agent of change in my situation. Maybe what I have right now is good enough. Maybe my dreams and visions are foolish. After a lot of talk Lenora said, “I’ve had to face the fact that sometimes my biggest enemy is me.”

Mic drop.

I’m so scared to fail. What if my bosses don’t like me? What if the teachers I work with don’t like me? What if I can’t stay organized? What if I am revealed to be the faker I am, making things up as I go? What if I can’t make friends?

In other words, what if I fail?

A week before my last day at my charter school I went with the fifth and sixth graders to a team building nature center. Of the activities we did, the one that the students were most excited to participate in was the climbing wall. We did this activity last, and the students, most of whom had been my students two years earlier, were understandably eager to know if I was going to be climbing.

I think we’re all aware of my feelings about my body lately. The group leader came up to me privately to see if I was going to climb, and I told her that I would just let the kids climb. I made a comment about how I wanted to make sure they all had time to climb. I said something about not being sure if the harness would fit. I said a few other nonsense, pathetic reasons why I wouldn’t be able to climb the wall. The leader didn’t push me, but simply said, “Well, if you change your mind, I need you to fill out this waiver.”

I stood there as I watched my students climb. A few made it to the top. Others stopped half way. Then Sonya got up. Sonya has a physical disability that makes it very challenging for her to do gross and fine motor activities. But she marched up to that wall with the confidence of an olympic athlete. In a moment that makes me cry to just remember, she grabbed the hand holds and started to climb. She made it up one hand hold, pushing her feet a foot off the ground, and then fell down.

We cheered. There wasn’t a person there that didn’t see what an incredible accomplishment this was for Sonya. Her classmates gave her high fives as she made her way back to the group, smile a mile wide, screaming, “Did you see me? Did you see me? Did you see me?”

In that moment I decided that regardless of the size of my butt hanging out of the harness for all my students to see, regardless of whether or not I could get myself off the ground, regardless of the million reasons why I “can’t”, I was going to climb. And I did. And I made it to the top. Not such a failure after all.

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I have a dream. I want to become a principal. I want to open a school and I want to change a community. I want to change the lives of hundreds of children. Becoming a teacher coach is one step in the direction of achieving that dream. And it scares the snot out of me. It scares me to even type it.

It scares me to let you see that part of me. I am not like Sonya, I do not want you to see me. Because that makes failing so much more humiliating. Because that sets me apart from others. Because that makes it so much harder to take back if everything comes crashing down around me. Because I don’t always believe I deserve to succeed.

I may fail. I may never become a principal, or I may become a principal and totally suck at it. And as I go farther down the road toward this dream, each role becomes a little more public and  a little more open to ridicule. As I climb toward this dream, the fall gets more and more treacherous. And my fear cave is never far, giving me the reasons why it won’t work.

But what if it does?

My friend posted on Facebook recently, “The dream is free, the hustle is sold separately.”

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This is the hustle. I have my exciting fresh start, my new beginning. I’ve signed up for the race. I’ve picked my courses. Now comes the hard work. Now comes the battle against the fears and the reasons not to try. And while there may be people along the way who prove difficult, I think the biggest battle will be with myself, giving myself permission to fail, but also giving myself permission to succeed.

I’m grabbing the first hand hold, and I’m pulling myself up on the wall. And I’m praying for the courage of Sonya, to do my very best, to give it my all, no matter the risk.

“Did you see me? Did you see me? Did you see me?”

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

Education Grief Teaching

Forgive Me For This Crappy Goodbye

When I was little we went to visit my grandmother every summer in the small town of Gilby, North Dakota. We bought penny candy and played on the teeter-totters at the playground in the one block main street that consisted of a bank, post office, grocery store, hardware store, and bar. What else does a town even need?

I have a million fond memories of that place, and even more of my grandmother. My grandma was a strong, playful, extremely hardworking woman. And she hated to say goodbye.

When it was time for our family to leave my grandmother found it of utmost importance to begin trimming her hollyhocks. Or hanging the laundry to dry. Or cleaning out the pantry.

It was an ongoing joke in our family to talk about where we might find Grandma when it came time to leave. But it is also an inheritance. One shared by my mother, and then me; a deeply-seated avoidance of goodbye.

Today is my last day at school and I would much rather talk to you about dropping my dog off at the vet this morning, or going to Starbucks to get an iced tea than I would like to process how I feel about leaving. It’s the last day of school and I am hiding in my room writing a blog instead of going to say goodbye to the hundred students I have taught over the last four years.

But I also remember that this time of year is never what I expect.

The endings, the goodbyes, are rarely the celebrations or rituals or pomp and circumstance that I think they will be, want them to be. Instead of the meaningful goodbye ritual I create in my head, the last day of school is usually spent cramming the trunk of my car full to bursting with the “last few items” from my classroom that I swore was only one armful, and turns out to be a car-full.

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I forget that trying to get nine-year-olds to sit in a circle and tell stories they remember about the year is about as easy as trying to run a cat circus. So the last day of school often looks like me popping DVD after DVD into the computer, projected onto the scrubbed-clean white board, telling my students, “SHHHHHH! We can’t hear the movie!!!!”

I forget the frustration of trying to hunt down the people necessary to sign off my checklist, showing I’ve completed all the necessary documentation to end the year. I forget that there is always, always, always more paperwork thrown at me that needs to be completed before I can sign out of the building.

I forget that last day of school is usually punctuated with a staff event that is cheesy, with the teachers sitting exhausted, hair pulled up in messy ponytails, barely present to eat a hot dog or luke-warm pasta. I forget that sometimes teachers forgo the party altogether, opting instead to start the summer vacation early, sitting in front of their TV to binge watch the television shows they’ve missed for the last ten months.

I forget that goodbyes are hard for everyone, including my students, and therefore it’s so easy to leave on the wrong terms, saying “Sit down!” and “Stop talking” instead of saying all the things you meant to say, like “I love you” and “I’m going to miss you.”

I forget how quickly I turn into my grandmother, more concerned with the work of cleaning and emptying a classroom than with saying goodbye.

And I forget that the goodbye is one moment, only one moment, but the time before the goodbye is full of thousands and thousands of moments and memories. I forget that we don’t build toward a goodbye. We live. We live. We live.

When I got the call that my grandmother had had a stroke, ten years ago, everything stopped. The family flew in and gathered by her bedside to sing her songs and brush her hair. We told her stories and kissed her head. I had to leave to go back home before she passed away, and so I said my final goodbye to her on a gray Easter Sunday, and then drove the seven hours home to Saint Paul to catch a flight back to my home in Philadelphia.

I cannot for the life of me remember saying goodbye to her.

But I remember sitting with her on the porch and laughing with her as she told stories of the past. I remember the spicy cinnamon gum she chewed, which over the years changed to doublemint. I remember riding bikes around her town, bikes she spent weeks scrounging up for our visit. I remember the smell of the bread she made, “Grandma’s buns”, just out of the oven. If Grandma was to be believed, they were always her worst batch yet. I remember the cards she sent on every birthday and every milestone, telling me how proud she was of me.

And I think my grandma is okay with me not remembering our goodbye. I think she probably prefers it that way. Maybe she somehow managed to arrange it.

Maybe it’s okay to be bad at goodbyes. Maybe it’s okay to not get them right, to say the wrong things, to not say enough, to not say all that needs to be said. Maybe all the good things before the goodbye is enough. Maybe it has to be, even when it isn’t enough.

I’m gonna miss this place, I’m gonna miss these people, I’m going to miss this time.

If you need me, I’ll be hiding in my room.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

 

Education PARENTING Teaching

Angry ‘Cuz You’re Moving On Without Me

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“You can only love what you got while you got it.” -Kate DiCamillo

I’m leaving.

I have one week left at a school that I helped open four years ago. And I have no idea how to feel about it. Relief that the year is almost over, obvious sadness to say goodbye to a community that has embraced me and a community that I love.

I go back to stories and people and find new reasons why I don’t want to leave, and why I do.

And I find myself angry about everything. Anger. Such a useful emotion, and so dangerous because it is so hard to control. But anger, useful in the way it helps me to disconnect, to push away, to let go.

I wish that instead of anger I felt acceptance. I wish I felt mindfulness. I wish I felt calm. But I’m not that enlightened. And it’s the end of the school year. I’m exhausted.

The secret I’ve been keeping is that I want everything to fall apart without me there. I want the whole school to fail. I want scores to plummet next year and everyone to miss me. Because I want to be that important and that amazing. I want everything to be about me.

When talking with my principal about leaving she told me not to feel badly. And I said, “I am just sad.” I know everyone. I know all the cafeteria workers and all the custodians. I bring Christmas presents for the engineer and she leaves me bags of oranges on my desk chair. One of my favorite parents came to my house during my maternity leave to teach me how to wrap my stomach. I’ve taught half of the students in the school. How can I possibly leave?

My principal said, “It really is your school.”

And it is. And it isn’t. Because people and schools don’t belong to one person, shouldn’t belong to one person. Can’t belong to one person.

I’ve been working on this in parenting. I’ve been reminding myself over and over my son doesn’t belong to me. Now I’m having to do the same in regards to my job.

The same part of me that wants my son to love and adore only me also wants my school to cease to exist without me there. Which is ridiculous for so many reasons, the biggest reason being that it is my choice to leave, no one is kicking me out. It’s a self-imposed exile and I’m all kinds of grumpy about it.

I’ve had good friends leave the school and the school has gone on without them, as it will without me. I hope that everyone will miss me next year, but in two, three, five years very few people will know my name.

In five years, when no one remembers me, what is my legacy?

Yesterday I was in my classroom, working on planning the school carnival. While I was there student after student came in. Some wanted to play a game, other wanted candy, others had stories to tell. But Natasha came in just for a hug. She walked in, arms outstretched, and said, “I just wanted a hug.” I hugged her, and then she left.

I’m angry because I’m leaving. Because I won’t be able to control what happens in our school from here on out. I won’t be the voice of dissent or assent in the leadership meetings. I’m angry because leaving means letting go. And I don’t want to let go.

But I’m also angry because leaving doesn’t make me care any less. Instead, leaving makes the small moments, like the hugs from Natasha, even more powerful and even more painful.

And it’s easier to be angry than to be sad.

At lunch today three second graders came up to my room. I asked them what they wanted to do. I expected them to say they wanted to play on my iPads. (The possession of the iPads makes me infinitely more popular.) Instead, they said, “We just wanted to tell you about our weekends.”

If I have any choice in how I leave, any choice in how I’m remembered, I hope my students remember me as a teacher who took the time to listen to the stories of their weekends. In the craziness of testing and Common Core, the decisions about what curriculum to use and how to structure our literacy block, I hope that listening to stories never stops being my priority, regardless of the school I am teaching in, regardless of whether I’m teaching or not.

I’m leaving. And my school is going to move on, with or without me. I want to want this and want to be happy about this. Eventually I think I will be. I’m trying to be thankful for the lesson I’m learning about how I am not the center of the universe, probably not even the center of my school. I’m trying to once again open up my clenched fists and let go.

With open hands or clenched fists, next Thursday will come. Angry or grateful, selfish or gracious, the goodbye is here. One more week left to leave my legacy.

I plan to give lots of hugs.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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