The F-Word

Last month, I went to Washington, D.C. to interview as a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year. The process was quite intense.98408751_b5a5712914_z

Like diving into ice water full of bitey little fish

The interview portion began with a mini-keynote speech. I’ve been asked to share that and so this post is a bit longer than usual. If you’re interested, I’ve reprinted it below with some modifications (removing student names/editing for space):

I don’t want to offend you, but I have to tell you that I will be talking about the f-word today.

And that f-word is a four-letter word that’s as obscene as any you’re likely to be exposed to because that f-word is fear.

And I know a lot about fear. I was raised in it by a father who drank to escape it and a mother so fearful of life that she isolated herself from even her children. I come from the fallout of fear: domestic violence, addiction, abuse and neglect. However, what I know about fear is that even though my parents were both strangled by it, they encouraged me to be brave where they could not. And thankfully, I had teachers who made school my sanctuary.

Like Mrs. Belton, my seventh-grade teacher, who taught me to write when I wanted to scream, or hit back or quit. Because I lived in a small town, I’m sure she’d heard about my parents’ very messy, very violent divorce – one of the first in our community. I heard strangers talking about them in the grocery store, so I’m sure she knew. So when I came to her in tears one day, telling her that my mother was uprooting us from everything and everyone we knew, she said, “You’re still part of this class, Shanna. You’re still my student. You write us a letter every day and tell us everything.”

I’ve never forgotten that kindness. It went deep into me and shaped the kind of teacher I am. In fact, I repeated her words to [one of my students] when I signed her drop sheet last week.

And in this story are the lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve done battle with fear throughout my life: we defeat fear with authenticity and connection. I mention this because to me, the greatest obstacle we are facing in public education is fear.

As teachers, we have to face down normal fears of a lesson falling apart or the possibility of losing control of a class. But the fear I’m talking about as a problem goes beyond that to the fear of judgement over student scores or fear of being the one who will tank the school’s performance rating…

The fear is compounded by critics who insinuate that teachers – especially those who work with students in poverty, students in trauma and students who struggle with language and learning disabilities – are bad teachers because their students don’t perform as well as other students. As Parker Palmer has written, this fear manifests in a deep insecurity that whispers, “You’re not just a bad teacher, you’re a bad person” because for so many of us, our identity is so knit to our work as teachers.

Our students are likewise worried by fears of failing and not understanding. They fear being the one who won’t graduate, who will look dumb if they have to have extra help. They fear that in a fundamental sense, they will lose at life. This is why so many decide that the surer bet is to drop out.

Palmer warned that this toxic mix of student and teacher fears creates paralysis in education. And this paralysis comes at just the time when we need our best selves, our best ideas, our creativity  and innovation to face the challenges inherent in our complex world.

But the good news is that we can overcome this paralyzing fear. We overcome it with authenticity and connection. Teachers and students need to know that we CAN because that is our history as Americans, as educators, as students who overcome the odds. Together, we can co-create classrooms that ignite both teachers’ passions and students’ promise. I know that this can be done because of my experience – all in Title I schools – as well as the experiences of innovative and dynamic teachers across this great country.

We are our best selves when we risk being real. Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher, says that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And she’s right. Teachers are artists of human potential. And like art, learning is messy. At my school, we’re two years into a special collaborative partnership driven by inquiry where small teams of teachers examine their practice and research, experiment and find solutions.

…When we risk being real, when we do one small brave thing by saying to each other, “Here’s what I’ve tried, what have you tried?” That vulnerability is what saves us. It’s what’s always saved us. It’s why, at my school, we don’t give up when a student doesn’t get it from the 19th or 20th way. It’s what brings us together to co-create the 21st way. This is the best of teaching … that encourages teachers to step up and be brave for each other.

We also need to be authentic in our products…At my school, I created the conditions for students to apply the standards to real problems in our communities. They generated solutions that no one else had tried. One of the most effective projects was created by a group of bilingual students. Their breast health presentation helped a Spanish-speaking woman to get her malignancy treated. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

…When we teach from curiosity, hope, empathy and honesty, we are embracing real courage. And that’s what our students have to see. Because it’s what they’ve lived. Right now, there’s a 6’3” linebacker… waiting for me back in Amarillo who has major problems with reading comprehension. He’s down to his last chance on a test in April that if he doesn’t pass, he won’t graduate. I owe him my courage, my collaboration with others, my stubbornness that won’t let this fear take us into paralysis. If he can show up every day willing to face this fear of failing, then I have to honor his courage with my own. I have to be a gladiator for him. All of us have to be gladiators for these students. We honor their courage with our own. We must give them the courage to keep moving forward in their struggles because this is who we are and this is the most important work there is.

If students like …, or like …, a 17-year-old who reads on a third grade level can keep coming back to school, if …, a refugee student whose parents handed her over a razor-wire fence into Thailand to immigrate to America because they believed in our ability to teach her, can be vulnerable enough to make myriad mistakes in her English on her way to graduating, if …, who walked past addicts and prostitutes to enter [college], if …, a student born in the dark of a hospital with no electricity can be admitted to [college] because he didn’t let fear of being from a Title I school in the Texas Panhandle hold him back, then surely we can be courage for all students.

…When we risk being authentic in our process, our products and our purpose, we teach our students faith rather than fear. We make a way for our best selves and their limitless possibility. We teach them the most important lesson: it can be done.

 

Image Credits

The Fear (Homage to Francisco Goya) by Corneliu Baba

Reene’s Swan Dive by Nelson De Witt

“Wherever I am/To be blessed”

On Fridays, my students and I write for extended time that is uninterrupted. To minimize distractions, I’ve always asked students to think of this time as a “sacred space” in their day. It’s often a throwaway line for me – teacher talk that I’ve used so often that I don’t notice it. Yet, on Friday, I entered a sacred space for real, thanks to a student whose voice called me out of my trance.

In the middle of some leaden sentence, I heard a child shrieking outside in the breezeway. It was jarring because it sounded as if the screamer were under assault. The sound bounced off the courtyard at regular intervals all the way down the long stretch of concrete. But I knew this voice. It’s a voice that’s been in the background of most of my days for over a year. It belongs to a teenaged boy in a wheelchair who has developmental delays and cognitive complications that keep him from speaking. His voice is strong, however, and he definitely communicates – though not with sentences. He shrieks – and really, it is a shriek like something off the moors, three times a day.

I think of his voice as my chime, and much like church bells, he has become a signal for various parts of my day. He always makes me smile, whatever I’m doing, when I hear him. The shriek is one of pure delight, pure joy at being outside, at movement, at freedom to look and listen all around him.

He calls me to remember, always, that public schools exist for students like him. He will never pass a standardized test, never go to college, but that doesn’t mean that his deeply committed teachers in the special education department don’t work to help him increase his knowledge and skills. Within that class, students are trained to shred documents, do laundry services and make trophies, posters and plaques. If certain critics had their way, these opportunities would be closed to students like him.

As I heard his joyful shrieking yesterday, I thought: Without public school, who would accept him as a student? Who would give him that three-times-a-day joyride down the breezeway to look at snow, to dodge the fat squirrels, to feel the wind and sun on his face?

I’m sitting here in our state capitol thinking about him on a Sunday and hoping that as our legislators take up the important educational bills this session, they remember that public schools exist for hardworking and gifted students. But they also exist for refugee students, for students leaving bad choices that landed them in jail, for pregnant girls who are trying to graduate for their baby’s sake, for students who struggle to form sentences on paper and who take seven tries to pass an end-of-course test – and yes, for the boy who calls me to compassion three times a day.

Post title taken from Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver

“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Snow Patrol

There’s something about being snowed in, especially on a school day, which makes me reflective. Today I’m thinking a lot about Monday and the parade I was invited to be in. Specifically, I was on a float representing education in Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s inaugural parade. Not having well, any float experience, I had no idea what to expect.

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Unexpected #1: Giant sign with my name on it

 We were situated right behind the energetic University of Texas Longhorn band that didn’t seem to sweat in the unusual January heat. As we began moving down the avenue, I noticed that there were more people lining the street than I would have imagined on a holiday. Then, they began clapping, cheering and yelling my name and waving little Texas and American flags. Pearl Cruz, the lovely young intern for Sen. Kel Seliger, turned to me and said, “Wow Shanna, you’re really getting cheers!”

And that’s when I thought, “Not really – this is not about me. These people don’t even know me.”

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Not pictured: the man mocking me with an exaggerated pageant wave

 No, these people were cheering what I represented: a teacher that they loved and who had loved them or their child. “I wish I could bottle this and give it to every teacher,” I thought. “Every teacher needs a parade.”

What often gets lost under a sea of criticism of and pressure on teachers is that those who love us have no megaphone. There are few chances for public cheering of teachers and most of us suffice with the notes and drawings that our students give us.

But we are loved. Truly, madly, deeply in a way that makes strangers cheer for us. We are loved beyond what we can know on dark days in January. We are loved in the permanent files on little hard drives that sit inside our students.

Andy Rooney once said, “Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”

Keep all those notes and drawings. Imagine the hands and hearts that bind them all together. Picture your own parade of those authors because if you could put all of their memories together, that’s what you’d see: Clapping and cheering and smiling. For you. Wonderful you who works in what often feels like anonymity. Fabulous you who has the patience of a yogi. Awesome you whose heart stretches and stretches into tomorrow when you will go back into your class and face what looks like sullenness.

But don’t be fooled.

You are loved.

 

To end, a song by the band who inspired the post’s title –

“And when the worrying starts to hurt
And the world feels like graves of dirt
Just close your eyes until
You can imagine this place”

Images credits

Child Art by Zeimusu (Wikicommons)

Inaugural Parade by Jennifer Garrido

 

 

 

Grace In Small Spaces

I’m still processing the staggering news from last week about being selected as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. This on top of a series of lightning strikes this past year: campus, district, regional, then incomprehensibly: Texas Teacher of the Year.

Emotionally, it’s so much to take in, like going from being invisible to suddenly visible. That transition is stunning. Stunning as in rendered mute. Stunning as in feeling your brain melt. Stunning as in seeing your picture on the district website and realizing that you should’ve paid to have some discreet airbrushing.

As I sat in the silence of a school emptied for the weekend last Friday, I remembered a story from my first year of teaching.

My first week of teaching was disastrous: I cried every day driving home and grabbed the phone to call my editor to beg for my job back more than once. The only job opening at the time was for a 7th grade writing teacher, and I took it with the kind of hubris that only a non-teacher would. Any delusions of being like a teacher in the movies were quickly dismantled by the realities of facing street-wise and suspicious 12 year olds. For those of you seeking to deny your ego by going on a retreat to Tibet, I can save you some money. Go teach middle school and find out just how quickly your ego can disappear.

About two months into the job however, I finally ginned up my courage to make my first parent phone call to express concern about their son’s behavior in class. Juan, (not his real name), had acted just like you’d expect a jittery, hormonal, bored boy to do: drawing genitalia on his desk, spending most of the class writing love notes to the girl two rows over, wrestling and shadow-boxing his two pals during read-alouds, and rolling his eyes and making a sucking noise with his teeth as a response to most of what I said.

So I was surprised when he and his father came to my room after school. Juan’s father stepped in, stooped from hard labor, his hands raw, his face lined from years of squinting. I was afraid that he had come to tell me that I was a fraud and to demand that his son be transferred to another class. But my defensiveness quickly dropped when he took off his snap-back ball hat, speaking to me in the tones usually reserved for those in power.

“Ms. Peeples,” he began, “I come to apologize for Juan’s disrespect to you.” He pulled Juan forward and looked at him. “This lady is one you respect. This is La Maestra. She is teaching you so you don’t be like me. You respect La Maestra and you apologize.”

La Maestra.

I’d never heard the term before. He called me La Maestra.

The Teacher.

Whether he knew it or not, Juan’s father reversed all my resentment and self-pity. All I could do was respond by smiling and thanking him profusely.

“No, I thank you,” he said.

I stood there staring at the spot they’d left, feeling my heart squeezing inside me. Juan’s father gave me a title and an identity that day that I carry as an honor, as a burden, as a responsibility, as a noble title, as the description of my life’s work.

La Maestra. Yo soy La Maestra.

 

Image credit: Hoverfish, Monumento a la Maestra, Uruguay

Take Five

Why is the first week back from Christmas break so hard? Is it because we’re forced to wear clothes again and not just pajamas? Is it the feeling of freedom to binge watch three and four seasons of a tv show at one sitting? Whatever the case, the first week back seems like the longest week of the year.

geograph-580417-by-sarah-white

Just add pajamas and Apple TV

It also seems like everyone wants everything all at once, which makes it easy to become nearly hysterical with feelings of being overwhelmed. Or maybe that’s just me. My sweet colleagues who happened to see one of my meltdowns on Tuesday would say that “hysterical” is a nice way to describe the tsunami of words they were the unfortunate bystanders of just because they were in the same room. For all my desire to swagger like a cool girl, I am a shaky mess in sad pants most days.

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Pictured: Original Sad Pants

Because of my tendency to say certain words whenever I see certain emails in my workflow, I’m attempting to deal with trouble before it begins by trying to be mindful. A great source, I’ve found, is Deborah Schoeberlein’s Mindful Teaching & Teaching Mindfulness (2009). I really like her advice to set an intention for the day, it tends to make you a better, more present – and pleasant – teacher. It can be as simple as setting an intention to greet students with a smile and welcome them by name as they enter the room. This is really helpful if you have a class that tends to drain you every day.

470px-Medusa_by_Carvaggio

Not even head snakes scare the class into being quiet

Schoeberlein writes:

With mindfulness, you’re more likely to view a really challenging class as just that, ‘a really challenging class,’ instead of feeling that the experience has somehow ruined your entire day. Purposefully taking a mental step back, in order to notice what happened without immediately engaging with intense emotions and reactions, provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses and the self-criticism that can slip out and make a hard thing even harder… It’s an attitude of, ‘Oh, here are some thoughts about work (or a relationship or something else), but I’m not going to get into them now.’ Be gentle with yourself, and patient, and kind.

I’m trying that, especially this week. Schoeberlein explains a concrete method for mindfulness practice that she calls “Take 5”

TAKE 5: Mindful Breathing
Breathe normally, paying attention to the feeling of the breath as it fills your lungs and then flows up and back out the way it came.
Notice when you lose awareness of the breath and start thinking about something else, daydreaming, worrying, or snoozing.
Return your attention to the breath, with kindness toward yourself and as little commentary as possible.

Try making a deal with yourself: you’ll take five minutes every school day morning for one month to practice mindful breathing.

If you’d like a more guided meditation, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center here or more in-depth guided meditations at Audio Dharma

Image credits:
Cypress Tree Byobu, folding screen by Kano Eitoku, 1590

Lazy Cow by Sarah White

19th Century Algerian Woman

Medusa by Caravaggio

On A Sunday She Thought It Through

Sundays are hard for me. Even though I love my job, I’m seized with panic, dread and worry on most Sundays about 3 p.m. This is amplified today because my luxurious and wonderful two-week break is coming to an end and I will begin the stress and pressure of a new semester tomorrow.

abstract-158517_1280

This is what happened after I looked at my lesson plans

Because I’m an English major, I thought about re-reading Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville because it features the famous refrain: “I prefer not to.” Which sounds better than the voice in my head wheedling like a toddler, “I don’t waaaaannnntttt to!”

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I don’t care if this hoodie makes me look like a conehead

But Melville, while entertaining, didn’t really help me. So, I turned to another book at the site that I’ve known to work wonders on my resistance and worry: The Enchiridion by Epictetus. If you don’t know this slim masterpiece, you should. The epigrammatic structure of the work makes it perfect for those of us who have shortened attention spans and shudder at long blocks of type.

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This wasp has more patience than me

 Epictetus was born into slavery around A.D. 55 in Phrygia (modern Turkey), then the easternmost lands of the Roman Empire. Because he was such a curious and intelligent boy, his master, Epaphroditus, sent him to Rome to study. He continued to shine and was eventually freed from slavery and began his own teaching career. However, because philosophers and teachers threatened the emperor Domitian, he banished Epictetus to the northwest coast of Greece. Epictetus, much like the honey badger, didn’t let that slow him down. He established a school of Stoicism where he taught how to be virtuous, effective and happy. In his mind, philosophy was most suited to helping ordinary people face life and its inevitable losses, disappointments and sorrow. (Lebell, 1995)

Disappointment

My typical Sunday posture

He begins his work with advice to understand that some things are within our power and some are not and the quicker we understand that basic fact, the more content we’ll be:

Remove [the habit] of aversion, then, from all things that are not within our power, and apply it to things undesirable which are within our power…Where it is practically necessary for you to pursue or avoid anything, do even this with discretion and gentleness and moderation.

In other words, I tell myself, stop resisting the fact that it’s Sunday and that your weekend is over. Face it, but maybe you might want to listen to some jazz or watch an episode of “Parks & Recreation” to make it “gentle” and “moderate.”

Amy_Poehler_2_by_David_Shankbone

“One time I accidentally drank an entire bottle of vinegar. I thought it was terrible wine.”

The most striking advice, echoed throughout many wisdom texts and religious work is one of Epictetus’ best lessons:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things…Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Which is to say, when I get all crabby it’s because I’ve put my own ideas and desires on the evening and how it should go. And then projecting forward onto Monday and how I’m positive it will be awful and the kids will demand a new teacher. The more I think this, Epictetus says, the more likely I am to become angry and depressed as well as create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’ll just accept this minute and the next as it comes, I’ll be happier. Especially if I’m choosing to laugh or do something I know I enjoy.

There’s so much more, but I’m going to crank up some Horace Silver and roast a chicken because cooking to jazz makes me very happy. What about you? What makes you happy? Do that. Embrace the sunset. Listen to your music. Make yourself something nice.

The song that inspired the post’s title:

Lebell, S. (1995). The art of living: The classical manual on virtue, happiness, and effectiveness. New York: HarperOne.

Images credits:

Un Dimanche Apres-Midi a L’Ile de la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Pixabay

Statue of a sleeping child (Creative Commons/Google Images)

Flickr’s Akos Varadi

Wikimedia Commons’ Ida Waugh

David Shankbone

Wikiquote

5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year

I love end of the year self-improvement articles – especially if they come in list form. Imagine my surprise when I found teaching advice that’s more than 100 years old, yet still pretty fresh as well as easy to listify.

Among the many wonders of the Internet is Project Gutenberg where you can download several lifetimes’ worth of free ebooks. Which is how I came to know Craftsmanship in Teaching by William C. Bagley, published in 1912.

Bagley was an elementary teacher before becoming a professor of education at the University of Illinois and later Teachers College at Columbia. 

Surely, I thought, this old book would be something to laugh at over a glass of champagne while I keep myself warm burning worksheets in my fireplace. Continue reading 5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year

Just One More Hit Off CrackBook

So, here I am on a bright, shiny morning and what am I doing? Scanning Facebook. That I just scanned 20 minutes ago. And I checked it before I fell asleep. I’m feeling queasy in that way that feels very much like when I eat raw cookie dough. The beginnings of shame and sadness begin to bloat within me. Why? It’s just post after post of happiness, right?

mullet shame

 This is shame in hair form

I can see why Facebook makes people more depressed. It’s easy to compare yourself to not only a handful of acquaintances, but 40 or 50 at one scroll. And make no mistake that our culture encourages comparison and its current offshoot, the humblebrag. You know what I’m talking about: So didn’t get the right size luggage for this trip to Spain! #notgoodwithestimating #hadtocheckit #hopeinVuitton. And I’m only slightly altering a real post from my feed.

Christmas is a ripe season for humblebragging about where you’re vacationing, what cool stuff you got, how attractive your family is, how attractive you are and how intelligent you are because you’re writing your own blog post and not just linking to someone else’s take on the same topic.

Oh yes, when I point the finger, three more point back at me – me, me, me so cute.

Narcissus-admiring-his-own-reflection

But dang, those are some gorgeous fingers

I’ve noticed that Facebook is replacing those commonalities that I used to have with other people like tv shows, songs on the radio, etc. Our new common reader is Facebook. I get a lot of local news from Facebook as well as tips on really great reads and funny stuff. Maybe the all the humblebragging and such is the price I pay, kind of like annoying local advertising, to get to the good stuff. The accumulation of it, however, is still depressing. And being constantly updated and notified that someone is commenting or liking something creates a sense of  the junior high lunchroom. Why are you liking her post but not mine? Why do you never acknowledge my comments? Why did you accept her friend request, but not mine? And so on. I’d like to say that I’m above this, but I’m not. I’m still a 12 year old at heart. Yet here I am clicking back on it to see if I have any notifications. Why WON’T you accept me?

Jealousy_and_Flirtation

Why her? Is is because of my hat? My cholera? 

There’s actually good neuroscientific reason for my feelings. In a troubling article, researcher David Rainoshek explains how Facebook creates a dopamine loop that makes our brains feel like we’ve just eaten something we love, had sex, or taken really good drugs, or a combination of all three. And Harvard researchers found that talking about ourselves feels pretty dang awesome too. Add to that the semi-horrifying research that shows that Facebook also rewires our brains to shorten our attention spans while increasing our proclivities to narcissism.

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A helpful scientific graphic

What’s an envious narcissistic squirrel to do? Maybe unplug for a minute and look out the window. Or put on some shoes and go for a walk. Or call someone I haven’t talked to in a while. Or pet my big fat cat. Or sit for a moment, breathe and be grateful that I am here, in this shaft of sunlight on a gorgeous December morning.

But I know good and well I’ll be back here in an hour or so checking to see if anyone read this.

 

Images courtesy of Flickr’s Beth Kanter, Jennifer Boyer, and Wikipedia

Be Here Now

One of the biggest differences between teaching and other careers I’ve had is the sheer amount of decisions to make. When I was a journalist, I had a few decisions for an entire day: Which story will I work on first? Who do I need to call? Should I leave this lede or change it? This is not the case with teaching. Teachers sometimes make as many as five decisions a minute: Yes you can. No you can’t. Let’s start here. It’s right there. Get into your groups. Do you remember where we stopped yesterday? And on and on.

Continue reading Be Here Now