Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

EQ, IQ, I Quit

People who care about me say that I am too hard on myself. Relentless perfectionism is something I rail against in students. I encourage them, make them smile, and then refocus on healthy mental choices. Why then is it so hard for me to take my advice?

We haven’t had a full week of classes in weeks. From scheduled half-days for professional development to field trips, the hurricane, and student-led conferences, my days have been packed with meetings, paperwork, preparations, bag lunches, late nights, shortened preps, report cards due, observations, and the technological resistentialism of broken copiers and spotty internet access. I’m frazzled–and the kids who miss the comfort of routine–are itching for more breaks. The school year honeymoon is over and reality is setting in: seventh grade isn’t going to just let you show up and get an A. This is going to take some effort.

Today, though, was a last straw. Not because of any one particular moment, but the weight of caring for so many at the expense of my own mental health overtook me. Teaching requires human connections and being real, being human with someone who is in a heightened state of emotion requires self-possession and an ability to compartmentalize that I lose when my batteries are low. One of those conversations? Ok. Two…and we’re stretching it. Three? Four? More. Relentless need. Relentless want. And I want to say, “Yes, I teach your child, but I spend less than five hours a week in your child’s presence. The average American spends more time in front of the television in a week than I spend with your child in a month. My attention and energy is divided among all the students I have in every class. Yes, your child is important to me, but so are all the rest.” But I don’t say that. How can I?

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of this teacher role, I have a day, a week, a month like this last one that leaves me gasping for breath and wanting to turn in my classroom key. I know it will be better, so all I can do is dust off the remains of the day and seek comfort in the oblivion of exhaustion-induced sleep.

My Ninth First Day

All the anxiety melted away as I greeted my new seventh grade classes today. After hiring on last week and getting the whirlwind introduction to my new school, it was a relief to stand in front of a class again–a place where I feel at home. It was everything I hoped for from a first day and I want to build on the excitement and energy of my new students.

This is the ninth school year when I’ve kicked off an opening day and each time it gets more and more comfortable. I’m keeping a list of To Do/Don’t Do Again in my desk drawer to remind me for next year. So far, the To Dos are running away with themselves. If I can do all this with barely a week to learn all the protocols and even the closest faculty neighbor names, what can’t I do this year?

Of course, I’m flying high right now. I’m in love: new classes, new school, new faces, new opportunities. There will be bumps and uglies coming very soon, as they always do–because human beings are messy. Still, I’m going to enjoy the extra burst of energy and enthusiasm and plan for a great year learning with my students.

Today I thought back to my very first day in the classroom. I also taught seventh grade–and I was also hired on with barely a week to prepare. I’m such a different teacher now and I keep learning more about what it means to be a good teacher. In a way, it reminds me of Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven.” In the story, the main character Rachel describes the way she feels about age–that all the years grow one inside the other like tree rings or nesting dolls. Perhaps that’s true for teachers, too, as we face each year both with experience and with fresh beginnings.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to what the year has to bring and all the ways my students are going to grow.

Happy New School Year to you all!

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse

Saying “Yes” To What Scares Me

The first time I said yes to fear instead of what scares me was during a family trip to Kings Island. I was seven and old enough to ride some of the rides, but not all of them. I watched as cousins, uncles, aunts, and even my grandmother got in line to ride roller coasters with names like “The Beast” or “The King Cobra.” I spent my time with bumper cars and flying swings, secretly wishing I were old enough to ride the roller coasters and, at the same time, relieved I had an excuse not to go.

There was one small problem with my plan. In one area of the park–dedicated to kids–there was a reproduction of “The Beast” that was kid-sized.

The Beastie, image courtesy of Jay Hull on Flickr

I would be allowed to ride that roller coaster.

I watched as the filled cars inched their way up the first incline. Each click and clack of the cars sounded to me like the bolts breaking loose. For a moment, as the cars reached the top, they glided in an arc to the left before plunging down the first hill, washing over the crowd with a roar and a sustained, gleeful scream from those delighted riders. The shrieks would peak and fall with the hills and curves before the train rumbled back to the platform. Some riders’ faces were flushed, others were laughing.

I watched and was afraid.

I got as far as the top of the platform only to turn around when it was my turn to step into the waiting car. My fear told me that no matter how many times I watched others ride safely, it was too dangerous for me and I should stay on the ground. Weighted with shame and embarrassment, I plodded back down the ramp, going the wrong way past other riders and into the blinding summer sunlight while my father and older brother waved from the ascent. I watched with envy as my older brother and my dad sat side-by-side, throwing their arms up in the air. I could hear my father’s carefree laughter through the screams and cheers.

I held my breath, knowing they would be safe, but still afraid to trust the ride would not crash or fly from the tracks. When the ride ended and they came back to where my mother and I were waiting, my dad offered one more time to wait in line with me, but this would be my last chance before we had to leave the park. I stared at my shoes and said “No.”

My brother laughed and called me a chicken–because that’s what eight year-old brothers do–and I hated him for it. I was a chicken. A coward.

The rest of the day I followed along with my mother and brother, riding the kiddie rides and getting sunburned. I listened to the gleeful cheers and screams throughout the park, piecing my courage together to ask for one last chance to ride the Beastie. By the time I was ready, it was also time to leave the park. My parents would not be swayed by tears or protests. I’d had my chance and chose not to ride. Now I would have to wait until the next trip to Kings Island in a couple of years.

When to Say No to Fear and Yes to Opportunity

A few years later I visited another theme park but this time I left nothing to regret. I rode my first, second, third, and fourth roller coasters–wooden coasters and metal coasters and tracks with loops and cars that went forward and backward. I had learned my lesson. Was I still afraid to take the chance? Yes, but I wasn’t going to say yes to my unreasonable fear. In fact, the more coasters I rode, the more I conquered my fear.

It was a good life lesson for me. As I’ve grown older there have been more opportunities that have come my way and I’ve had to choose whether or not to go along for the ride or to stay safely in one place. I’ve learned to differentiate between good risks and real danger, and I’ve learned that those opportunities in my life that are tinged with the fear of the unknown are usually the opportunities that have the most potential for me to grow.

This summer, I am taking a chance and working in an administrative role for the first time. I tend to gravitate toward supporting roles when it comes to leadership, so to take on the responsibility for leading a staff as well as students is definitely outside my comfort zone. When the position was offered to me, there were so many reasons to say no: I didn’t know enough about the position. I had no administrative experience. I’m too young. I’m not young enough.

I had thousands of excuses.

The opportunity was there in front of me: a chance to grow and to test my leadership in a new way. It scared me, but in the same way all good opportunities come wrapped in a fear of the unknown. I knew I had to say yes and take the chance. It’s going to demand my best and I know the students and staff will test my skills as a leader, but in a way it feels like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride: anticipation, excitement, and nervous energy soon to be released in a gloriously wild ride.

Armadillos

He had the frightened look of a trapped animal–a bullied runt who was used to abuse at the hands of cruel classmates. As we talked he ducked his head lower, turned away from me, and seemed to fold in on himself along the midline–as though he could pull his left and right shoulders together to shield his body from my questions or curl himself into a protective ball.

Armadillo

Image courtesy of Rich Anderson on Flickr

I was not his usual tutor and had not been able to build any kind of trust with him since he had joined our after school program. From the first time we met, this young man showed me only defiance and passive-aggressive behavior. I started our work time together as every session usually starts. We checked his online grade book to look for missing work or plan for upcoming assignments. As we flipped through the pages, some classes only had a few grades posted for the midterm progress report. I praised him for having no missing work in most of his classes, but then I saw his English class. There were only four grades for the first part of the quarter. Two were homework grades. One was a quiz. The other was a test. Each assignment was worth 100 points. Unfortunately for this student, both homework assignments earned 0 points. Shaking my head in disbelief that four grades were enough to determine how this student was learning, I asked him what he knew about the zero grades. Did he forget to turn in an assignment or was there something incomplete or incorrect? Did he want me to come with him to ask his teacher if he needed to reattempt something with me–his tutor?

No.

And then the walls went flying up in every direction. No, he didn’t want to speak to his teacher. No, he didn’t want to explain the assignments to me. No, he really wasn’t interested in finding out what he needed to do to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. No. No. No.

A frightened Brazillian Armadillo

Frightened Brazilian Armadillo, image courtesy of mtsofan on Flickr

In the classroom, this kind of defiance used to set off my blood pressure, but here in the tutoring lab things felt different. I saw him take this defensive stance out of self-preservation. What was at the root of it? Shame? Embarrassment? Fear? I had no way to know, so I sat beside him. I waited. I spoke softly and soothingly. And then I listened.

He told me about his third grade teacher. In his words: a jerk who didn’t help him understand, so he quit trying to understand Language Arts from then on. He would rely on summer school for the credit he needed to reach seventh grade. And eighth grade. And so on.

He told me about being bullied on the bus and at home, about learning the only way to solve a problem with someone else is to use force, and about hating school because it was boring.

This boy is one of many armadillos I’ve seen in my classroom over the years who show their tough exterior as a way to shield themselves from pain, hurt, or betrayal. I wish I could say we had a breakthrough, that he opened up just a tiny bit and trusted me to help him confront his fear or shame or whatever it was that was making him so upset, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I wondered what happens to some children as they pass through school from year to year that leaves them so damaged and afraid of adults.

Children Will Listen: On Voldemort and Bin Ladin

When I heard the news on Facebook–“Osama Bin Ladin is dead”–I turned to Twitter while traditional media lagged behind the story. For over an hour, I waited for the President’s statement, reading tweet reactions and listening to a live stream from CBS. The tweets were raw–ranging from Hemmingway-esque bursts of “AP Confirmed: Bin Ladin is dead” to tweets dealing with the complex emotional reactions we were all having. Was it wrong to cheer the death of a man so focused on destroying innocent lives–who had taken so many American lives on 9/11 and was largely responsible for so many deaths of our soldiers? What was that feeling? Relief? Catharsis? Justice?

The experts and pundits chattered on in the background, dissecting the President’s yet-unmade speech, and speculating on what the news might mean. I knew what it meant to me.

I was a student teacher in 2001, hundreds of miles away from New York City in the Midwestern city of Evansville. September was test-time for my sophomore students and while they were sequestered in classrooms in a wing of the building that would not be disturbed by other students changing classes, my supervising teacher and I were shuffled off to the teacher work-room. I was grading my way through a pile of quizzes when another teacher came into the room and told us to turn on the television. A plane had hit one of the buildings in New York City.

I imagined a Cessna, a tiny bird, wildly off course–an unconscious pilot, a horrible accident, no doubt. When the image appeared on the screen, I felt my stomach harden. At that moment, live, we saw the second plane strike and knew our country was at war.

The rest of the day–spent on lockdown–is a blur. I remember students laughing at the idea of a plane flying into a building, stunned by their lack of understanding and compassion. I now understand they had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend the way the world had shifted under them. I saw and understood in a way they would come to know how the world would not be the same for them or for me anymore. On campus at the University of Evansville, our student newspaper lamented: “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see a world without our country at war.” We, on the cusp of our adult, professional lives knew it would be years and many more lives lost before our country would ever feel safe again. There was a profound sense among us that when those planes struck, our innocence died and was buried in the rubble.

Last night, too, was full of what some called “inappropriate” reactions to the announcement of Bin Ladin’s demise. The crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA” and celebrating as though we had won an Olympic victory. In scanning the faces of the crowd, I was struck with how young they were. If I, at 30, had lived one-third of my life with the War on Terror and I felt sober relief at the news, how must it feel to someone in their late teens or early twenties who had known war and the specter of Osama Bin Ladin for half of their lives or more. These young people have been steeped in the rhetoric of war and America’s righteous vengeance. They know the names of the enemies and who to fear. The whole story has been told and calcified into legend. Washington crossing the Delaware? Just as remote and iconic as the crumbling Twin Towers and President Bush with his bullhorn.

For the youngest Americans–the children who watched the adults around them react to 9/11 and the many years of being told who and what to fear–Osama Bin Ladin was a character in a story, not a real human being. He was the bogeyman, a symbol of evil, an unknown danger lurking somewhere in a country far away, the ultimate bad-guy from the cartoons. He had no humanity anymore–both because his actions were so heinous and because the man himself became a folk tale. On Twitter, I read: “Sure hope it wasn’t just one of [Bin Ladin’s] horcruxes.” For our students, and those young people celebrating and chanting, perhaps the Voldemort/Bin Ladin connection isn’t too far off. How else do we expect them to react to the news that the most evil villain of their childhood has been killed at last?

Young people celebrate outside the White House.

As we move forward and step into our classrooms to have more conversations about war, terror, good, evil, justice, and humanity, we must be careful how to speak and react with our students as the story takes shape. Stephen Sondheim knew the power of stories and warned through song in his musical Into the Woods: “Children Will Listen.” All we have are stories and the adult leaders we want will be shaped by what they see and hear as children.

“Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,
Not free.

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you see
And turn against you…

Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…

Guide them then step away
Children will glisten.
Temper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Children will listen.
Children will listen.