Tests Can’t Tell The Future So Quit Giving Them So Much Power

He looked like a 7th-grader’s version of a gangster. Skinny as a minute, practice tattoos from his friend dotting the tops of his fingers, laughing at everything. He wore lots of red: a flat-brimmed baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a red basketball jersey over a white T-shirt, red shoes, his neck roped with silver chains.

“Hey hey, Miss Gangsta Teacher, what’s up?”

His laugh, high and silly. And charming. I found myself looking forward to the fact that he would laugh at even my worst jokes.

“Mrs. Loughlin IS a gangster,” I said, laughing with him, teasing my friend and colleague, Elaine, who’d brought me over to the high school to help her teach night class.

“I’m not Miss Gangster Teacher, I’m Mrs. Loughlin,” she said, thoroughly unamused.

“No, you Miss Gangsta because you teach me to pass the test.”

Continue reading Tests Can’t Tell The Future So Quit Giving Them So Much Power

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).

Continue reading We Become Who People Say We Are

Slap A Smile On Your Face And Get Out There

You can tell the depth of my fear based on how big my smile is. The bigger the smile, the bigger the fear. It’s an odd defense mechanism, but one that’s served me in all the places and in front of all the faces that scare me.

“What are you doing on this side of town, white lady. You lost?”

This, from a six-foot-tall, seventh-grader on my first day of teaching. It was almost like he could see the fear radiating from me in little shock waves, like a cartoon. And certainly, I looked cartoonish. Dressed in an ill-fitting “ladies suit” from a department store, I resembled nothing so much as a frumpy bank teller.

Continue reading Slap A Smile On Your Face And Get Out There

Here’s a Crazy Idea – Let Students Go To The Bathroom!

This whole conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

Continue reading Here’s a Crazy Idea – Let Students Go To The Bathroom!

What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

A favorite opening question of mine in professional development workshops is: What do you struggle with the most as a teacher?

The answers are almost always:
1. Students’ lack of motivation
2. Students don’t value education
3. Parents aren’t supportive
4. Students don’t believe in themselves
5. Technology distracts students

These comments are not facts, and viewed differently, they become design questions: Continue reading What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

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.

Continue reading You’re Saved By What You Love

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.

Continue reading Discomfort By Design

#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: Continue reading #LoveTeaching

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

 

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 Gretel was complying with her orders to feed Hansel, and her willingness to eat crab shells, proved that she broke Gretel’s will. 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