Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Hardest Part...

Dear Students,

Several weeks ago, you asked me what the hardest part of being a teacher was. I desperately wanted to blurt out that "You! You are the hardest part about being a teacher!" We were in the midst of another stranglehold on each other's patience, so I can't be held entirely at fault. But I didn't, and I'm glad because for just a moment, you seemed interested. Thoughtful, even.

I told you that getting kids to care about something that they think they don't care about was the hardest part. I'm sure I was right at that moment, but I'm not sure I'm right now. I've thought about your question often since then, wondering what I would say if you asked me again.

The hardest part is caring -- getting you to care, yes, but it's also hard for me to care about you without being consumed by it.

The hardest part is management. Every 51 minutes, 5 days a week, I am met with a new team of 15-27 employees in the midst of hormonal turmoil.

The hardest part is watching your faces and calculating the slump of your shoulders or the width of your smiles in order to plan our interactions for the day.

The hardest part is when I miscalculate and ruin both of our days with the wrong words, the wrong tone, the wrong first step.

The hardest part is saying "I'm sorry" and meaning it. For both the student and the teacher.

The hardest part is choosing a lesson that will interest you as well as educate you and then delivering it 17 different ways until it is perfect for you. For each of you. And sometimes 17 isn't enough.

The hardest part is juggling all of your needs. Yesterday, I cleaned up a vomiting student in the hall and did not stop teaching my lesson even as I tied up the biohazard bag from the doorway. Even in the midst of chaos, the show must go on. The show must always go on.

The hardest part is that vomit wasn't even the worst thing I had to hear yesterday.

The hardest part is watching you throw away your opportunities because you think it will get the attention of those who have proven they don't care.

The hardest part is the moment you realize that no matter what you do, no matter how you wreck yourself, they still don't care.

The hardest part is enduring your disrespect and anger because it's too hard for you to respect and love yourself.

The hardest part is letting you fail and hoping it becomes a wake-up call and not a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The hardest part is forgiving, even when it's not asked for.

The hardest part is telling the truth, even when it hurts.

The hardest part is holding my tongue, keeping my patience, and being kind when I'd rather just be human.

The hardest part is knowing when to stand firm and when to walk away.

The hardest part is trying to get you to think when all you want is to be fed, to live when all you can do is survive, to rise when all you've ever done is fall.

The hardest part is not really the paperwork or meetings or long hours grading. In fact, the hardest part of teaching usually has nothing to do with teaching.

But if it wasn't a hard job, then everyone could do it.

And the last thing I want to be like is everyone else in your lives.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog

Yesterday, my students were taking a quiz in class. I sat at my desk, responding to an email. Typically, students hear the typing of computer keys and assume that the teacher is not watching. They take that opportunity to talk or cheat or do something really silly. And, as if on cue yesterday, as soon as I started typing my response, one of my boys reached across the table to try to win her attention by stealing the pencil from her hand.

Before his hand even made it off his desk, I had called him out with a "Hands to yourself, Mr. Taylor" and told him to get back to work, all without stopping my typed response. He stared at me incredulously for almost a full minute, waiting for me to finish what I was doing. After the quiz was over, he asked me if he could see what I had been working on because he didn't believe I was typing "real words". I couldn't show him because it was a work email about another student, but I asked him if he'd like to test me.

The whole class watched as I sat at my laptop, transcribing his words without stopping. They were in awe that I could not only type without looking at keys but that I could also correct my mistakes without going back to look at them.

I am an excellent typist. Mainly, I'm an excellent typist because I had an excellent typing teacher. And, yes, I took typing. On an actual typewriter. It was the dark days, indeed.

Coach Smith was our small school's art teacher, typing teacher, and head football coach -- a man of many talents, if you will. He referred to us as his Sweathogs, a nickname I have forever loved and continue to use at times. He also was sneaky-brilliant. See, I was a bit of a perfectionist at schoolwork then, and in order to correct something on the typewriter, you had to stop, backspace, insert a white-out strip, re-type the mistake, backspace, and type the correct letter, word, or sentence. Making mistakes was a time-consuming and irritating process, so I had a terrible habit of looking at my keyboard. This would elicit a reprimand of "eyes up, Nazworth" from Coach Smith every time.

Even if the man was reading the newspaper, he seemed to catch me.

And then one day, he sat a new student across from me. That student happened to be his son, Spencer, who happened to have the most gorgeous eyes on Earth. Now, I honestly don't know if Coach sat him across from me because it was the only open desk or because he knew I wouldn't talk to him (I was super-awkwardly shy AND a rule-follower while Spencer was an uber-popular cool kid). My guess is the latter, but what happened was I never looked at my keyboard again. I didn't necessarily stare at him, but I made sure to have my head up just in case I could sneak a quick peek or in case he needed to borrow a white-out strip. I didn't want to make mistakes, and I didn't want to miss a chance to gawk, so my only option was to become really, really good at typing.

And I did. Good enough to catch students doing all of the things they're not supposed to be doing when they assume I'm not looking.

See what I mean? Sneaky-brilliant.

So yesterday, as my class called out tricky words and phrases, trying to mess me up, this is the story I told. And then I reminded them that teachers really do always know what's best when it comes to seating charts.

Then I moved Mr. Flirty to a seat across from the starting center on the football team.

I'm kind of sneaky-brilliant too, now. Like I've said before, I learned from only the best.

(For all of you who haven't been exposed to the greatness that is
"Welcome Back, Kotter")

Friday, January 17, 2014

Teachable Moments

In my classroom, I try to follow just a few guidelines every day:

1. Don't speak in anger.
2. Never shy away from a teachable moment.
3. Find the funny. The funny will keep you alive.

That's it. I don't always accomplish all 3 every day, but I make the attempt and I apologize when I'm not successful. Especially when I don't accomplish #1. I've probably apologized to more 12 year olds than any other group of people on Earth.

I do believe, however, in the teachable moment, and I find myself sometimes teaching lessons that I never planned (see examples: here, here, and also here).  I also don't tend to shy away or ignore topics that kids seem to be/show to be misunderstanding. I like honest answers, and I don't think there's anything wrong with answering the "tough" questions as long as you speak respectfully, intelligently, and without personal bias. 

On Wednesday, my 3rd period had a 5 minute discussion on how one of the student's sentences -- 

"Joe, a black student, was sitting in class" was not a racist statement but that their continual assumption that I like country music and NASCAR because I'm white might be. 

(For the record, *Joe, is in fact, a black student, and he created that sentence himself. Also, for the record, it's a pretty funny story to tell, but in trying to recreate it in teleplay form, every last one of us just came off looking terrible.)

It's also how, during today's assignment, I discovered that my students didn't know the name of one of our mustachioed teachers and have been calling him "Dr. Phil" for the last 4 months.

You be the judge.

For the record, these kids don't have this teacher, so I don't really believe that they're trying to be mean-spirited. Unless he really hates Dr. Phil, I suppose. Then it would be mean.

Still... Tuesday's teachable moment is going to be all about introducing yourself and learning people's actual names as a sign of respect.

Never. A. Dull. Moment.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Just a Little Line-Jumping

I coached at my junior high for 13 years, and if there's one thing I learned in all that time it's this: when the End Times arrive, and all of our souls are sent to Heaven for Judgment Day, anyone who has ever coached B-team girls' basketball will move automatically to the front of the line. Junior high teachers, in general, will ascend in the carpool lane, but those coaches? Double sixes, buddy. Collect your eternal reward and understand that it was all worth it.

Seriously... saints, healers, people who give up their seats on the subway, three-legged dogs... you can all just wait your turn. Jesus knows the patient and virtuous when He sees 'em.

This is the first year in my entire career that I have not coached. After all, as I told my new principal last year, nobody gets their school out of AYP troubles with lay-ups and free throws. So, I stepped off the court and decided to devote myself to my classroom. All year long, people have asked me if I missed it. All year long, I couldn't decide if I truly did. I don't miss the 70 hour work weeks or the 6:30 AM practices. I don't miss keeping books and waiting on buses and hosting tournaments. I don't miss overly-enthusiastic parents yelling from the stands -- at me to play their kid (yes, I know she is unique and special), at their kid (no, they simply cannot box out), or at the refs (believe it or not, they DO know that they should "call it both ways").

Believe me. There are lots of things I don't miss.

Last week, I kept the scoreboard at the 8th grade girls' game. The A-game was exciting, fast-paced, push-and-pull. It was hard to keep my mouth shut, but I left them in good hands, and although they lost, I know that they'll be okay the next time around. I was sad to have missed out on their talent, but I did not feel the pang of regret that I feared I might.

And then, came the B-team.

When I first started coaching, my friends would come to my games, not to watch the kids but to watch me on the sideline as I, their most competitive friend, tore at my hair, pinched the bridge of my nose, watched kids shoot at the wrong basket on multiple occasions, and released a torrent of expletives into the back of my hand.

For the record, no one can hear you scream in your hand. Also, no one is ever really sure which basket is theirs. Ever.

As I watched those girls play, I was reminded of some of my most notable B-team adventures, including a tournament game whereupon I had 5 players total, and we won 9-6 in double overtime.

NINE. TO SIX. DOUBLE OVERTIME. For real, that's seven baskets (plus a free throw) in 42 minutes. At the end of the first overtime, when it was 6-6, the tournament hosts and the opposing coach wanted to just end the game, but I was all, "I did not just survive that mess for a tie. No way. SOMEBODY is going to win this freakin' game."  And then we did. My girls went on to dub it as their "Miracle Game".  I saw one of them at her high school last year. She is still talking about that game 5 years later.

B-team basketball is not for the faint of heart. The closest approximation I can make for it is to attempt to drive a bumper car, blindfolded, while holding an egg, without cracking it or your own skull. It is 32 minutes of collisions and near-misses and close calls. It is a series of wrong turns and panicked throws and unforced errors and at least two dozen switches of the possession arrow. It's more than enough to lead a coach to buy stock in hair dye and blood pressure meds.

It is also all heart and hustle and Hail Mary's. It's celebration and nervous energy and second chances. What I realized in my many journeys, navigating the wilds of B-team athletics, is that there are few people willing to work harder. There are few kids who find more joy in a steal or a rebound or, God forbid, a made free throw. There are few moments I have found more frustrating or funny.

But there are also few moments where I have found myself as a better or more patient teacher.

I've coached many incredible athletes who have gone on to set scoring records and secure scholarships and, yes, even win national titles. Yet their smiles are not always the first I remember in my heart; their one shining moment simply cannot hold a candle to scoring the winning basket in a miracle game. 

And tonight, as I watched those same girls play their guts out, I looked over to the bench. There were hot tears and hurt feelings and the pains of coming so close. I watched the coaches lean in to explain, to console, to teach, and I felt a little ding in my heart.

I checked the time. I listened to the parents yell a little more, and I wondered:

Do I miss it? Not really.

But do I miss them? Absolutely.

Was it worth it? Without a doubt.

Even if I didn't get my line-jump in Heaven.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bloom Where You're Planted

This was my writer's response topic for my classes last week.

I gave it to them on the day I was assigning them to new seats and new teams. This is always a day filled with gnashing of teeth, lamenting wails, and other various expressions of teenage angst meant to drive adults so insane that they wind up giving in.

But I am no mere mortal adult, and I do not give in. I am well-versed in the art of guilt and inspirational quoting. This also happens to be one of my favorite expressions -- one that I tend to remind myself of when life takes a turn that makes me unhappy or overwhelmed.

My kids did fairly well at deciphering the meaning of the quote and VERY well at my intentions behind it. A new semester, new start... all of that. The angst level never rose above DEFCON 3, and for a week now, stability and *gasp* improvement have been the norm.

I felt pretty proud for about 6 hours. Then, I got in my car, looked in the mirror, and realized that everything I had just preached at my kids hasn't really been practiced by me lately.

I've been absent from this little space of the internet for a while now -- over a month by date alone, longer if you start looking closely at effort. I didn't stop writing; I still try to do that every day. My goal, after all, was to find a place to spill and drop the stress and worry and anxiety I found building up. My goal was to find something that made me happier and freer. I don't always accomplish that every day. Never have, never will.

The holidays were hard. I knew they would be because they are every year. By November, I am exhausted physically and mentally from work which has been exceptionally difficult this year.  And the brightness and light and commercial drain slapping me in the face each time I take a walk through Target tends to exhaust me spiritually as well. This Christmas brought a little extra emotional quicksand as I watched and waited through another leap off the deep end with my dad's health. And, in true Deana fashion, his backslide caused my own backslide because I am nothing if not my father's daughter.

Even as I felt myself fraying, I kept trying to write my way out of it, to use my words as my nightlight, to throw the puzzle pieces on the screen and the page and wait for them to fall into place. I kept writing and people kept reading and friends kept supporting. But one day, someone, in passing relayed a concern from someone else. "Deana just seems SO... SAD."

And I froze.

Granted, the ellipsis and the capital letters... maybe those are my own hearing; maybe not. All words are open to interpretation and strike different chords in different people at all sorts of different times. This is what makes words so dangerously beautiful. It's not that, at that very moment, I disagreed. In fact, in that moment, I wholeheartedly agreed. I was very sad some days, but not every day and certainly not CAPITAL LETTER sad.

But in the message of "I am concerned (and also saddened) by this", I received "Deana just seems so... pitiful (and frankly, it's a little much)."  And then... someone else said it, to my face, with a full-on sympathetic head tilt. Oh, sweet Jesus, the head tilt. That's when you know there's trouble.

I didn't stop writing, but I stopped posting. I stopped sharing me with anyone else and just closed up. I thought that maybe if I just stopped telling then people would stop hearing and then they would stop worrying/judging. If I didn't fill my timeline with links then people wouldn't feel compelled to click them and then I wouldn't feel so bad when anyone tilted their head in my general direction, even if it was a well-intentioned, heartfelt head-tilt.

And then I stopped writing altogether. Don't act shocked; it's the next logical step in the shut-down process. After all, the reason I began posting was so that when I tried to vanish (and I knew I would), there'd be some accountability. I took all TWO of those possibly (probably) innocent statements, and I spun them out of control until they absolutely dominated all of my self-esteem with questions and hesitation. Because this is my Achilles' heel -- wondering and doubting how people actually feel about me. Waiting for people to lose interest, find me tiresome, and walk away. It's nonsensical and overly dramatic and has virtually no basis in reality, but for some reason, none of that logic ever rears its head in those moments. So instead, my sad becomes too big, and others' happy becomes too loud, and it gives me the perfect excuse to shrivel up and fade and prove myself exactly right.

I amaze myself at my inability to identify my nonsense as it occurs.

So, last week, when I looked in the mirror, I knew that I had not been living what I was selling. I felt no better than a snake oil salesman promising new health and a new start. I came home, sat in front of my screen and stared. Nothing happened. No pieces fell into place; no lights magically came back on. But that's not how it works, and I know that. I still couldn't shake that doubt, so slyly tugging at my pocket, so I went back. I went back and read everything I've written here, and then I went back and read my journal. And then I went back to those links I posted; I read all the kind comments I could find from all the people I trust. I hoped that seeing would lead to believing and I would suddenly trust all of the good from others and ignore all of the bad brewing within.

And I sat in front of my blank screen last night, and I stared. Nothing happened. No pieces fell into place. No lights magically came back on.

Because that's just not how it works. Flowers don't blossom in the cracks of concrete jungles because anyone planted them there. Cactus blooms don't appear because someone else hauls water through the desert to feed them each day. Dandelion seeds scatter accidentally on the winds far more often than on the wishful whispers of a child. Bluebonnets cannot reappear year after year without dying and withering first.

They don't bloom because someone wants them to or even because someone wills them to.

They bloom because they can.

They bloom because they persevere.

They bloom in spite of their circumstances and not because of them.

And they bloom because sometimes, strangely enough, the very best thing for the strongest and most beautiful flowers is a truckload of shit thrown on them.