You’re Saved By What You Love

This is what I wasn’t brave enough to tell you because the force of your pain scared me when we saw each other last week:

Tell me who and what you love and I’ll show you that it’s the light when all others go out.

When it’s dark here in February and you feel like quitting. When you find yourself starting to envy the people you notice on your way to work. When you feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to just completely change careers because this – what you’re doing now – feels too big and too difficult to do for even one more day.

It feels big and difficult because it is. What you’re doing is where you need to be; where you are is where you’re supposed to be right now. It’s worth what it cost you to be here even if you can’t see that now.

Only work that call us to this kind of struggle is worth us giving our hearts to it.

But what we love saves us. Tell me again who you love. Because I notice that’s when your face changes, when your eyes get wet with tears. Who you love pulls you to speak, to show up when you don’t want to. When you’re afraid of “getting in trouble.” But that’s the kind of trouble worth getting into because that, my darling one, is called “advocacy.” Now you know why you have to speak up. It’s because who you love is counting on you to be brave.

What you love is calling you to keep going even though you feel like you’re waist deep in the middle of the big muddy river. You’re going to make it because what you love pulls you from the other side. This, this is what people mean when they throw around the term “leadership.” Now you know why you’re a leader. Everyone around you needs you to keep going because you give them hope.

I couldn’t find the words to say this so I just hugged you. I’m hugging you still and cheering you on. You’re a warrior. I believe in you – those who you love believe in you.

Go slay your dragons.

 

Image credit: Ian Schneider/Unsplash

Discomfort By Design

“Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table.” — Antionette Carroll

This quote, from the founder of the social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab, struck me as astute and succinct.

Top-down approaches are easy. They’re controlled, predictable, and efficient. Those aren’t bad things, but they risk becoming the central values and vision of any enterprise if you exclusively rely on them.

The second part of her quote — bringing the same individuals as always to the table — is another simple, but overlooked truth.

I like to surround myself with familiar faces, familiar opinions, because then I don’t have to feel discomfort or even inconvenience. I don’t have to truly listen because the familiarity lets me know what’s going to be said. And the repeated invitations to the table also creates a kind of entitlement for those invited. I begin to feel special, begin to feel ownership of my “chair” and become invested in protecting my spot rather than solving problems.

How can I design my next meeting, my next class, my next interaction with this in mind? Who do I need to hear from that will challenge me? Whose voice needs to be part of the solutions I’m seeking?

These are my new design-thinking questions — especially as I consider the huge work of education.

Image credit: Depia Nepriankhia/Unsplash

I #LoveTeaching Like This

Three days spent working with the 2017 cohort of State Teachers of the Year has solidified a feeling in me that I struggled to name two years ago. The feeling is a mix of relief and hope.

It’s easy to panic in this current climate, to believe that everyone is bolting for the exits and filing their resignations in teacher lounges across the country. So it is with grateful eyes that I see them as the next wave, the cavalry, the reinforcements. They are here. They will help. They will lend their voices to the voices already raised in defense of our students and our colleagues.

And as I thought about them, about my colleagues Sarah, Sean, Jeff, Emily, and Paul, I thought of this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The passion I feel for this profession finds expression in her words:

Modern Declaration

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers of their alert enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

 

Image Credit: National Network of State Teachers of the Year

#LoveTeaching

I love teaching because it is the hardest job I’ve ever had. I love teaching because it breaks my heart and makes me cry. I love teaching because it makes me so happy I feel like I swallowed a helium balloon on those days when a student owns his or her own power of expression. I love teaching because it is the only job I’ve ever had that hugs me back, that argues with me, that makes me feel like the one candle I can light in my little corner dispels a bit of darkness in the world. I love teaching because it calls on me to be smarter and braver than I ever want to be.

Yes, it’s hard. But then what do you ever commit to that isn’t hard? Yes, it can make you feel like you’re burnt to a crisp, but then isn’t that what happens when you really care? There’s a passage from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that I turn to when I feel like I can’t gin myself up for another day:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

And that’s one of the best things about being a teacher – you get to be a little bit smarter every day and learn something new every day. There is magic in that.

Get involved in the campaign – visit #LoveTeaching and share your story! 

Story As Political Act

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in a party, congress, in the university or whatever. That’s why. – Chinua Achebe

Stories have a unique power. They entertain even as they reveal truth. Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I would amend that to say that we, as teachers, must tell our stories in order that our students and our work may live in the public imagination.

Especially now when language has been weaponized in service of power.

George Orwell was obsessed with this same idea. I taught his essay “Politics And The English Language” to my AP juniors, and it seems to grow more relevant every year.

Political language, according to Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

In Texas, we are hip deep in the kind of obfuscation best stepped over in a feedlot. Our lieutenant governor labels any teacher who dares to speak against the disastrous A-F grading system, itself a feat of political language, “educrats.” His plan to move tax dollars away from the kinds of schools I taught in, all Title I and serving the most vulnerable children, to private and for profit schools is “school choice.

Most deceptively, he uses civil rights language to frame this scheme to bleed money from the schools who serve predominately minority students, shedding crocodile tears for “the most underprivileged in our state.”  

That’s his story. And make no mistake that he is the hero in all of them. Just like our President-Elect, who, on Martin Luther King weekend denigrated civil rights hero John Lewis  – a man who had his skull fractured defying racism on the Edmund Pettus bridge – as being “all talk, talk, talk – no action.

That’s quite the story.

But I have one too.

In October, I joined ten of my colleagues in signing an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump because “Children are watching. They are listening. They are learning from the example we set as their parents and teachers—not only from what we say and do, but from what we accept when it comes to the words and actions of others. We have to show them that hatred, sexism, racism, disrespect, and threats of physical violence are not okay. They’re unacceptable at any age — for a kindergartener, a high school student, or a presidential candidate.”

People don’t like the term political, (and they sure don’t like it when a teacher voices a political opinion outside of class), but the root of the term simply means community.

As teachers, we represent our physical communities, but our most vital communities are those of our classrooms and campuses. In a sense, we are like Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, who famously “spoke for the trees because the trees have no tongues.” Similarly, teachers speak for those who are are not only politically voiceless, but are also some of the most vulnerable members of our society – children.

We need to be the ones telling our stories. Stories, in this regard, are a political decision because who we decide to speak about is who we are deciding to speak for.

And it can be scary to speak up. Fear, says author Seth Godin, “almost never goes away if you will it to, and it’s rarely a useful tool for your best work.” That fear can paralyze one of our most vital tools: our voice. If we simply maintain the status quo out of fears of being seen as difficult or impolite, then we are neglecting not only our classroom communities, but the wider communities we serve.

Some of us find ourselves at parties where people make racist jokes, share insulting comments about low-income families, or express ignorant opinions about immigrants. We must resist any narrative, whether it pops up in casual conversations at the grocery store or inside the office of an elected representative, that aims to make the families of our students “other.”

For teachers, it’s never “those kids” or “those people.” They are our kids, our students’ families, our colleagues – not “us” and “them.”

The good news about stories is that they create hope. And hope, Godin says, actively dissolves fear. “Hope…can be conjured. It arrives when we ask it to, it’s something we can give away to others again and again, and we can use it to build something bigger than ourselves.”

One of the most pernicious sentences I hear is a variation of: “I can’t do_____(fill in the blank), I’m just a teacher.”

But I believe that only a teacher can do the kinds of advocacy our students need. Because I was “just a teacher,” I was invited to speak to both the Israeli and the Palestinian ministers of education, the Governor and the Chairmen of the Education committees in my state house, and my state board of education.

You are not “just a teacher.” You are a warrior. Your sword is forged from every success you’ve ever had, every problem you’ve solved, every child you’ve helped. You are a stabilizing force for good, a fierce promoter and protector of our democracy.

Your stories are your sword. Your love is your shield.

For so many children, you are the difference between hope and despair. For so many teachers, you are the model of what a warrior teacher looks like, sounds like. To paraphrase an ancient text: “And who knows whether you have not become a teacher for such a time as this?”

This is your time. This is your task. If I were the tattooing type, I would tattoo these words from William Wordsworth on the inside of my arm:

[A version of this post appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Literacy Today]

Image: James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket/DKDMedia

A Football Coach Who Hates Football

Try a thought experiment with me.

Let’s say you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan – I live in Texas, but please insert the name of your favorite team – and a new owner replaces Jerry Jones. A new owner that comes from Hollywood. He’s seen movies about football, but on the whole, he thinks it’s a pretty dumb game. This new owner then brings in a coach to replace Jason Garrett. The new coach is a friend of the owner who’s done him some favors, loaned him some money to cover some bills. But get this, the coach doesn’t like football. Not only doesn’t like it, but he’s campaigned against it on the grounds that it’s dangerous for kids. This coach has never played football, nor have any of his kids. He’s given all his time and money to – the horror! – soccer because he believes it’s a better sport for the country overall.

Would you tolerate this for even a second? Do you think the fans would tolerate it for a second? No fan would put up with such an absurd scenario.

Yet, this is what we’re watching with the looming appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. A woman who knows nothing about public education except the fact that she can’t stand it. A billionaire who never worked in education, never attended public school, never sent her kids to public school and has actively funded efforts to undermine public education.

If you’re outraged at the thought of a soccer-loving, football-hating head coach of your favorite team, imagine how furious the teachers of 50 million public school students and their administrators are right now.

 

Image credit: CowboysWire

How To Be A Dragonslayer

For some of us, the new year is also a new professional journey.

No one can tell you what’s ahead and that’s part of what’s exciting, but it’s also what’s scary. You wonder how you will battle the dragons ahead or handle the sea monsters that you can’t quite see, but that you know are there. Those monsters that regularly attack in the way of procrastination, inertia, and distraction.

Part of the journey is preparing for those monsters by having a plan for their attack or weapons to fight them. Every great story shows the heroes readying themselves for battle, whether it’s with a sword that turns blue for Orcs or a wooden stake to take down the Big Bad.

Taking inventory of your weapons, preparing yourself for the road ahead is a good practice. Verses that have been with me since childhood ask me to count the cost to see if I have the resources to meet whatever is ahead.

It’s hard on those around you because they want you to stay the person that you were when you left. They were comfortable with the “before the journey” you. Often, families dread and resist their children going to college because of this. Sometimes neighborhoods can conspire to “keep you in your place” by embroiling you in drama.

The illustration of crabs in a bucket is one I’ve used with my students because so many of them are the first to graduate from high school as well as being first for college. Your good fortune can threaten the status quo, so like crabs in a bucket, others may try to pull you down and hold you back.

                                             Image: Wonderlane/ CC BY 2.0

However, I often find that I’m the one pulling myself down. I give in to those dragons of inertia, distraction, and procrastination. But I’ve found that just like in fairy tales, dragons are defeated in threes. Here are three ways I’m going to prepare for the journey ahead this year:

  1. Exercise – It’s an old cliché off of Newton’s First Law of Motion, but that doesn’t make it less true: Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. For me, this means making myself get 30 minutes of cardio that I actually will repeat without hurting myself or easy strength training in every day. I keep telling myself: Do the thing you can repeat tomorrow. What good will it do me if I hurt myself or do something so painful that I hate it and won’t ever do it again? To help me keep this promise to myself, I sweeten the deal by loading up on podcasts I can listen to while I walk – either in my neighborhood (getting in nature is good for you, according to science) or on my treadmill, or making a motivating playlist to listen to (here’s one I’m partial to).
  2. Meditate/pray – this is one of those practices that’s important, but not urgent, so I put it off. It’s not like my clothes get tight if I don’t regularly engage in a spiritual practice. But I notice my mood gets worse if I don’t. There’s tons of science behind mindfulness and gratitude practices, but for my mind, it helps quiet the anxious monkeys of mayhem who regularly howl inside my skull. There are all kinds of ways to meditate/pray/focus on gratitude, but here’s some free resources I’ve incorporated into my day:  a meditation app, an app for centering prayer, and a quick link to tools to help build a mindset of gratitude.
  3. The 20/20 – this is something I’ve adapted from several places to not only help my students manage their time and attention, but to help me do everything from get a Master’s degree to write a book. It’s pretty simple: get a timer, set it for 20 minutes. Work on something that you really need to finish, but that you’ve been dreading. You only have to do it for 20 minutes, so it’s not so bad. Most dental procedures take longer than this, so it’s really a bargain, time and suffering-wise. After the timer goes off, reset it for 20 more minutes and do something you really enjoy. But here’s the catch – when the timer goes off, you have to reset it and go back to work for 20 more minutes. Viola! You’ve done a good hour that shouldn’t feel like drudgery. On weekends, I repeat the cycle 2 or 3 times if I’m working on a project. During the weekday, I not only wake up an hour early and use it to write, but I also pack this strategy with me to get my work done in the office.

Post image: Unsplash/John Jackson

Ripe For Ruin: Why Facts Matter

Does it matter if a fact or two gets messed up? I mean, does anyone really care if their name is misspelled or their business gets called by another name. It’s not that big a deal, right?

It was a big deal to get everything right – down to how we used numbers and spelled names – when I worked at the Amarillo Globe-News. I was thinking of that while I read this line from Charles M. Blow’s column:

The press may sometimes get things wrong, but it most often gets them right.

I made what I thought was a nothing mistake that wound up in print all over town. Because of it, I had to go into my editor’s office and sign a form that said I understood that I had made a mistake. Further, my signature certified that I understood that the paper would need to run a correction and  that I understood the need to be careful in the future. It was then put into my personnel file.

The paper ran the correction the next day, ending it with the boilerplate tagline: “The Globe-News regrets the error.”

What was corrected was the misidentification of a funeral home in an obituary. I was a substitute obituary clerk during times the actual clerk was not there. Being a substitute, it was easy for me to slide over the difference between two similar-sounding funeral homes.

The owner of the misnamed mortuary was furious. He picked up the phone and called my editor, demanding a correction. This was not unusual. In fact, corrections are always requested when there is a factual error.

I didn’t feel that it was that big a deal. It was just a name, for Pete’s sake.

The reason it was serious, my editor explained, is because we were the paper of record. We were literally writing history, so it had to be correct. I signed the form, embarrassed by and disappointed in myself for making the mistake.

I worked a few steps from what’s called “the morgue” in newsrooms. It’s the library housing back issues of the paper where you can go to research things before you write. We ran a weekly feature called “Good Neighbors” that was a puff piece for various Amarilloans. Imagine the surprise when a reporter found a file in the morgue that identified the prospective Good Neighbor as a petty criminal.

There were corrections in those old issues, in case any one needed to be assured that the truth, to the best of all available knowledge, was being printed.

Not all papers or media outlets are as diligent as my little hometown paper, but they should be. Because the truth matters. Facts matter. It’s not only human to make mistakes, it’s vital.

If we embrace, as Michiko Kakutani, in his review of “1984” called a “mixture of gullibility and cynicism” that quits caring what truth is, we are ripe for ruin.

 

Image credit: Bruno Martins/Unsplash

The Personal Spin Cycle: Blame

…we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain.The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.- Brene Brown 

 

Pain and discomfort are the ground of teaching and learning. So, to hear Brene Brown describe blame as the way to discharge that makes sense to me.

I don’t have to sit in too many meetings or listen to too many people, like the cardiac nurse who hooked me up to the treadmill for a stress test, to know how often blame is heaped on teachers or students. Sometimes both.

Why isn’t (fill in the blank) happening? Teachers.

And teachers will say: students. A few will say: administrators. Others will say: parents. And around and around it goes, the blame cycle picking up speed and creating enormous distance between people.

This graphic is from a post meant for construction contractors, but it elegantly describes what blame does and how it proliferates along its own vector.

Brown outlines, in her brilliant TED talk, a way out of the cycle. One that is initially much more painful and uncomfortable: the courage to be seen for who we really are:

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

 

Image credit: Patrick McManaman/Unsplash

 

What I’ve Learned From 21 Days Of The Whole 30 Diet

I’m day 21 on the Whole 30 diet and several things have occurred to me:

  1. I feel markedly better
  2. I am a massive sugar addict
  3. This diet masks a tremendous amount of privilege

Let’s start with the positive — I do feel a distinct difference in my mood and people have commented on the way I look. Not that I look so much skinnier as I look brighter, happier. I have more energy and am able to make better choices because of the discipline of such strict limits: no sugar, no grain, no dairy, no alcohol, no fake sugar.

That’s forced me to drink more water, which has forced me to have to get up from my desk much more to walk down the hall to the restroom. This has created a pleasant result of painlessly incorporating the advice from the NY Times to work for a bit, move around for a few minutes, work again, then repeat. And I do feel happier. That’s partly the diet and partly being able to stay with my intention to be more present.

Which leads me to the next item: sugar. To my horror, I’ve discovered that the stevia I dumped into literally everything, including coffee, tea, over grapefruits, and packed into the protein bars I was eating, is banned in the Whole 30 diet.

Getting rid of stevia hurt almost as much as getting rid of chocolate, which hurt as bad as giving up red wine. And when I say “hurt,” I mean made me feel physical withdrawals worse than the nicotine I gave up eight years ago. Headaches, trouble sleeping and concentrating, irritability, and a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction centered of feeling like I was missing something or deprived of something. And I was. I was deprived of sugar in all of its forms except fruit. It’s cold comfort to drink peppermint tea and eat blueberries when I want dark chocolate and glass of red wine.

More than anything, this diet has revealed the extent of my dependence on sugar to cope with stress, boredom, sadness, and as a prop for social gatherings. It’s been quite literally, a shock to the system.

However, that sense of deprivation has sensitized me in a way I haven’t been and in a way that makes me feel ashamed and selfish. It’s created an awareness of deprivation in others and heightened my empathy.

I wasn’t aware of how much I’ve been numbing myself, particularly in the wake of the election. The more I numbed, the more I wanted to be numb. That all seems well and good until you realize that those feelings go somewhere. They’re an energy that gets stored inside my brain and pushes to be noticed. Deliberately numbing them is somewhat like deliberately blinding myself to the pain and need of others.

And I do that to not only my detriment, but to the detriment of any sense of community or peace or healing I might desire. And as it turns out, the Whole 30 has forced me to see how much privilege it masks. To do the diet well enough to fit it into my schedule, I’ve had to reconnect with cooking meals. It’s a good thing I not only like to cook, but know how to cook and how to shop for the lesser-bought foods it calls for like Swiss chard, spaghetti squash, beets, nut butters and coconut oil.

Being able to shop for and cook these meals means I have the privilege of time, which I hadn’t really noticed as a luxury before. I have time on the weekends and work a normal day with time left over to make food for the next day. Even having the time to plan such an endeavor as a restrictive diet is a privilege, not to mention the means to purchase all of it.

The restrictions mask another privilege — the ability to choose my calories. I live within walking distance of a grocery store and a health food store, both of which stock organic produce and meat in addition to their regular counterparts. Both of these combine in the privilege of having the financial means to buy more expensive food. To have the choice of eating a sweet potato, the privilege of an education that taught me to read and be able to navigate nutritional information. To think critically about how chemicals affect my body.

Finally, this diet has had the unintended consequence of being a spiritual practice for me, and no one is more surprised about that than me. I don’t mean to sound preachy or self-righteous. I know how easily I fall for and develop new interests, passions, and obsessions. I don’t expect to enter a monastery and become Pema Chodron anytime soon. I don’t even expect to stay a halfway decent version of my petty, anxious self. But most of all, I’m grateful for the spiritual cleanse of this diet.

Image Credit: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Face The Monster & Fight Back

The story of Hansel and Gretel has long been my guide, but only recently have I consciously been aware of it. It seemed to describe my life so well: adults who couldn’t be trusted, or adults who abandoned you, or adults who would, given the chance, eat you up whole.

Teaching it to bored, jittery seventh-graders helped me remember that it’s a story about conjuring hope in the midst of fear.

What I love about the story is that it centers on the bravery of children. Of their courage, their ingenuity, and their resistance. The first time they’re abandoned, well, it’s to be expected in their crazy family. Hansel knew that, which is why he picked up the stones to guide them back.

Hansel’s reaction to overhearing his parents’ plans to abandon him and Gretel always spoke to me. He models acceptance of what is, but plans for contingencies.

My anxiety — when it’s bad — makes me catastrophize. But in my better Hansel-mind, I remember that I can guide myself out. I can find home, no matter where I’m at. It’s in my power to pay attention, to be brave, to accept that the circumstances of fear and pain and panic are temporary.

Also, Hansel didn’t act alone. And I suspect a lot of his courage was a response to needing to protect his sister. She returns the favor for him when she pushes the witch into the oven.

It’s Gretel who really calls me to courage. She faced down a cannibal witch without the muscle of her brother. Like Hansel, she decided to plan rather than despair. And when it came time to do the thing she didn’t think she could do: BAM! Into the oven went the monster.

The witch underestimated Gretel. She thought, since she was complying with her orders to feed Hansel, along with her willingness to eat crab shells, that she had broken Gretel. But she didn’t. She just made Gretel more creative, more disciplined, more committed to the plan. But it’s that act of final resistance — that act under her own strength — of pushing the witch into the oven — that’s what sticks with me. That’s what I imagine, even five decades on in my life, when I have to do the thing that scares me.

I channel Gretel. I face the monster. And I fight back.

Image: Theodor Hosemann/Wikimedia Commons