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.”

Continue reading Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

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.

Continue reading How To Be A Dragonslayer

5 Ways for Teachers To Be Kind To Themselves

Sometimes the best way to #LoveTeaching is to love yourself by being kind to yourself.

When I was in my 20’s, I regularly startled awake with terror, grabbed a small paper bag, and hyperventilated into it until I began to feel myself become lightheaded. In my 30’s, I went to the emergency room twice for panic attacks so severe I thought I was having a heart attack. Is there a coincidence between the fact that I traded one high-stress job – journalism – for another: teaching?

I kept my panic and anxiety a secret, ashamed of the fact that “nothing was wrong with me.” Clearly, something was wrong, and the root of it was the driven nature of my personality. A driven nature rewarded for workaholism, yet had the side effects of severe anxiety and self-loathing.

Kindness was something I could give to anyone else but myself. And I see quite a few teachers who seem to have the same problem. Maybe it’s because the dark side of the profession can encourage codependency, martyrdom, toxic levels of guilt, and self-blame. Teachers, as a rule, aren’t kind to themselves.

In Othello, Shakespeare wrote: “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.” In other words, we are the ones who control what grows within us, for good or for bad. So, let’s start by being kind to ourselves. Without that base, it doesn’t matter what techniques you use, what strategies you employ – you’re going to burn yourself out like a played-out plot of land and be of no use to anyone.  

I resisted the temptation to write this post at the new year to keep it far enough away from Jan. 1 so as not to confuse it with a resolution. In February, it seems that diets die, all the Christmas bills come in, the weather turns nasty, and everything seems dark and depressing. Now feels like a  good time to prepare for the storms ahead, particularly the hurricane of stress that comes from spring testing.

Inspired by two writers, here’s a list of five concrete actions you can take to be kind to yourself that I’ve adapted for teachers. Each of the links lead to resources I’ve relied upon to keep me happier, more grounded, and more kind to myself – and others.

  1. Schedule a conference with yourself.

Give yourself “planning & preparation time.”  Deliberately plan to spend 15-30 minutes at the beginning or end of your day on just you. Feed your head and heart by reading, listening to music or watching something that inspires you, or helps you to understand yourself, or points you to topics that make you wonder, make you curious, and make you know that there is goodness in the world.

  1.  Nurture your inner coach.

Most everyone has an inner voice that runs game tape on everything, pointing out failures and flaws. Few of us have an inner coach, a voice that cheers us on and points out what we did well. When faced with inner or outer criticism, try to cultivate a voice that reminds you how much better you’ve gotten since this time last year. It takes practice to nurture that positive voice, but imagine your coach having the voice of someone who’s always loved you. Ask yourself: what would that person say to you in tough times? Then have your coach repeat that to you.

  1.  Develop a reflective practice.

Use a digital or physical journal to process your day. I try to do this once everyone clears out of the building and before I go home for the day. Start by setting a timer for ten minutes then thinking through three questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What do I want to do?

The questions help you to remember your successes, which we often forget to credit ourselves for, plus ground you in the reality of what can improve. The final question keeps you from ruminating on what went wrong, cultivates a sense of hopefulness, and creates a more accurate picture of your practice.

  1. Do something small and good.

Because teachers make hundreds of decisions each day, it can sometimes be paralyzing to make decisions for yourself. On those days when you feel, to paraphrase Herman Melville, a dark, gray November in your soul, choose one of these to take one step towards the light:

  • On your lunch break, go to your car, drive out of the parking lot, put on your favorite song, and sing. Sing like no one’s listening – because they aren’t.
  • Or, turn your lights off, shut and lock your door with you on the inside, then put in your headphones and your best dance mix. Dance like no one’s watching – because they aren’t.
  • If the weather permits, eat lunch outside. This is something my dept. chair used to do to give herself a break – and to make herself scarce for a bit so she could have some moments to herself.  
  • Don’t feel guilty – this actually makes you a better teacher, plus there’s research supporting small breaks.
  1. Take a brain break.

I love videos of baby otters, of baby goats, or really any kind of baby. I also love clips from comedians who make me laugh, humor writers, and the pictures people send in to Awkward Family Photos. And I schedule 5 – 10 minutes to watch one in my day. Friends and students make suggestions, which introduces me to even more funny stuff, and the goodness of this is compounded when they’re watching and laughing with me.

When things get particularly stressful, I’ve noticed that even watching the video of the otter stacking cups for the 50th time can still make me smile, or that looking at really bad Christmas family photos makes me laugh. And again, science shows multiple benefits from laughter, so consider it a healthy practice.

Image: Good Friends by Juliana Coutinho via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0


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.


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!”


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.


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)


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.”


“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


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

Flickr’s Akos Varadi

Wikimedia Commons’ Ida Waugh

David Shankbone