We Become Who People Say We Are

Everyone who arrives at your classroom door asks themselves a form of the question: Can I trust you? This is true even if they are an administrator, a parent, a colleague, or a student. How we answer that question is important because an essential part of trust is understanding that it carries the possibility of loss whether of tangible things or intangibles like respect, according to philosophy professor Carolyn McLeod. She writes that the act of trust involves four separate actions:

  1. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others
  2. Thinking well of others
  3. Believing that the other is competent to do what you ask
  4. Adopting a generous mindset about the motives of others (2015).

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Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:

To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.

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Stand Up To Stand Out

CBS This Morning introduced the 2017 National Teacher of the Year today and as I watched her poise and professionalism, I was proud to see such a great representative of our profession. But I also have to say that hearing Charlie Rose’s voice gave me a slight case of PTSD. It reminded me of the media training I’d gone through to sit in front of him, Nora, and Gayle in April, 2015.

To prepare me for the intensity of interviews, the Council of Chief State School Officers sent me to media training. This consisted of simulated interviews that were then recorded for playback to a panel for a critique. At the best of times, I am uncomfortable seeing and hearing myself on video; in this instance, it was excruciating.

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How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.

I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.

A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.

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There’s Always Enough Time

When I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher, against her better judgement, set up a record player for me during our third period (Can you imagine, kids – a time before Spotify and earbuds? When vinyl wasn’t just cool, it was literally the only music storage device we had?) This setup happened so I could play “Time”  & “The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd to illustrate my understanding of “stream of consciousness” as a literary device. I didn’t really know if the song met that criteria, I just wanted an excuse to play Pink Floyd at school.

The song spoke to me at 16 because it described a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words. Maybe I should’ve been reading more and maybe I would’ve found a deep river of melancholy in classic works. But I was a 16-year-old odd duck who read the liner notes on albums and thought the secrets of the universe reveal themselves through the stereo needle on each groove.

Both tracks take about 15 minutes to play, so I was doubly heroic to my classmates for both getting a famous stoner album played in class as well as taking up class time. I was clueless about its association with drugs, I just knew it haunted me in a way that other rock music didn’t. This is partly the genius of Alan Parsons, the album’s sound engineer, and partly because of  Clare Torry’s powerful wordless singing. Continue reading There’s Always Enough Time

Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself.  Continue reading Learning To Fight What Scares You

Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

Birthdays, in my experience, become more odd the older you get. My friend Gini, when I told her I would be 52 this year, said: “Your fifties – you just live them. You’re not old or young. I never remembered how old I was in my fifties.”

So, on this even birthday year, I decided to make it more memorable by writing about things I’ve learned. My inspiration for this came from Srinivas Rao and Eleanor RooseveltI’m always inspired by her and I decided to give myself time to reread her slim, yet profound book:  You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life . Written in 1960 when she was 76, Roosevelt positions her ideas around the practice of lifelong learning because, she writes, When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense.”

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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 on 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

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.

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What I Learned From 300,000 Miles of Travel in One Year

For someone who never really traveled much in her life, this past year spent traveling as the National Teacher of the Year has been a huge learning curve and “growth opportunity” for me. In short, I think travel made me a better human being. That’s certainly what Pico Iyer believes and writes about here.I’m not sure if travel made me richer or sexier, but it definitely taught me to think practically.

After reflecting on my year, I put together a list of stuff I learned for any of you who may be traveling a lot this summer (or year). Some of them may seem dumb, but I assure you, I learned each of them the hard way.

What I’ve Learned:

  1. Always pack flats or other comfortable shoes.
  2. Window seats let you see some cool stuff.
  3. Be nice to airport staff — you might do something really stupid like leave your carry on bag on the plane in Philadelphia and need their help.
  4. Stay calm and be nice to TSA agents — even if they are rude and yell at you like the ones in Newark. Don’t let that kind of behavior ruin your day or your trip. And often, TSA agents are kind and respond to kindness (and it would be hard to beat the sweetness of those in Manchester, NH).
  5. Be adventurous — use TripAdvisor, Yelp or other apps to find interesting things to see, to do and places to eat. Google Maps walking directions have taken me all over big cities and made me feel like a native.
  6. Be nice to fellow travelers — they feel the same as you. Many are flying for sad reasons. Little kindnesses, I’ve learned, have the biggest impact when you’re alone and vulnerable.
  7. Be nice to all hotel staff. You might get things like champagne and macaroons in your room, or chocolate covered strawberries.
  8. Drink lots of water — it makes a huge difference in your mood and energy level.
  9. Don’t drink booze on the plane. Just trust me on this.
  10. Exercise! Even if you can’t hit the gym, walk in the airports. You’ll feel 100% better, I promise. And stand as much as possible in the airport. Sitting makes you sad and tired.
  11. Pack a small Bluetooth speaker to make yourself feel at home in hotel rooms. Hearing my jazz music helped ground me on those nights when I suddenly awoke from a nightmare in a generic room and didn’t know where I was for a few minutes.
  12. Pack headphones and download your favorite music. I don’t think I could fly without it. Once, when my plane hit a vicious wind shear in Denver, I decided that if I were going to crash, Ella Fitzgerald would be the voice carrying me to the other side.
  13. Dress nicely to fly and smile at everyone, especially the crew. I’ve been surprised by the change in my treatment when I quit wearing sweat pants and frowning.
  14. Travel apps I love (for iPhone/Mac): TripIt (many times, it texted me flight updates before the pilot announced them or flight attendants knew what was happening), Signal, (which I use to text my family for free on international trips), Gate Guru (which always helps me find food in airports, and once helped me find a place that sells MacBook Air accessories when I left my power cord at a venue), Boingo (because I need stable, accessible wi-fi and this is the best, but a little pricey, option), CamScanner (a free app that turns receipts into pdfs for expense reports and then exports them to email — amazing), and Day One (a journaling app where I keep notes about this year along with pictures that spark my memory)
  15. Tweeting positive travel experiences at the businesses is a nice thing to do — especially if you get great service. One flight crew gave me free food and vodka (which I didn’t drink, but just collected in my back pack only to have it fall out in front of a community leader when I went to find my glasses).
  16. Sign up for reward programs — they’re worth it. Using a reward program got me the last seat on a flight home, a hotel room that magically appeared at a “no vacancy” hotel, and discounts on food.
  17. Life really does begin right outside your comfort zone. Take the risk of introducing yourself to someone new. Everyone knows something you don’t and what they know is often exactly what you need to learn. I’m an introvert, so I’ve had to push myself to interact with those I find seated next to me on various transportations or dinners. By doing one small thing and asking: What are you excited about right now? I’ve met fascinating writers who shared books with me, a man who’s spent his entire adult life traveling all over the world, a nice couple who showed me how to maneuver in the Beijing security line (who knew there were “secret security lines that magically open up?), speakers who shared their best pro tips with me (that’s for another post), and so on.

Image credit: Yimeng Wang, my host for a tour of Shandong Province, China in March, 2016. I’m with the Zhangqiu Middle School Journalism Club