Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The good, the bad, the health care

The bad news is my knee is dead. Not exactly: part of my femur was necrotic. But in early stages and caught by chance and holes have been drilled in the bone (it's called "microfractures", yummy) and it's maybe going to be ok.

The good news is all of that about catching it early. But I drive to school alone, thinking, and asking myself the what if they hadn't caught it? questions. Which suck.

The bad news is that I need a new primary care doctor and the new doctor I need to find somewhere in a haystack has to keep me on my thyroid medication and guess what, some doctors don't, and it causes me a great deal of anxiety thinking about getting this done somehow somewhere and lots of good doctors that are recommended to me aren't taking new patients.

The good news is a friend recommended one that is. I go next week to try.

The bad news is that I worried about my knee and kept looking at Niles and worrying about his ankle and started to get to a tipping point in that worry and jumping into panic.

The good news is that the same friend recommended a pediatric orthopedist and we went today and she listened to me and Niles and took x-rays and all is well! All is well!

The bad news is that I have yet again new cavities to be filled. Really? I'm 41. Come on.

The good news is I really like my new dentist.

The bad news, back to my knee, is that I'm now scheduled for a month of PT three days a week.

The good news is that it's just what I need and the rehab place is right by where I work.

The bad news is that I'm terribly anxious that it's not going to work. That my knee is really dead. And that no doctor will ever prescribe my thyroid medication again and my hair will fall out and I won't stay awake all day and I'll gain 30 pounds. That my teeth will fall out or rot away in my head.

That I won't be listened to.

That I won't be believed.

That I will be invisible.

But I'm going to keep trying. Because I have a lot to live for and a lot to get healthy for.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's like this

It's like this. You get to 41, almost 42, and you hurt. You're tired and need medication to stay awake during the day and by the end of it, you hurt so bad you almost cry when you lie down in bed.

Your weekends are spent shuttling kids around, kids you love more than anything and used to lie next to in bed and sob thinking of how much life would hurt them as they got older. God I don't want you to hurt.

You go to church after a month away, you keep trying and it keeps not working, you feel like it's broken or maybe you're broken or maybe God is trying to show you something. And your new pastor has done some ugly ass shit to your sanctuary and you realize that the word sanctuary applies here. Not only are there now ugly handrails in the sanctuary but this new priest has wrecked the sanctuary you used to have in your cozy little south side church. And you don't know what to do.

The department of transportation seems hell bent on ruining your life specifically with the highway shutdowns and bridge closings and ridiculous roadwork.You don't even have road rage anymore. Just road-numb.

Your knee breaks down and you have surgery and find out it was more broken down than you ever could have thought.

You stand in the frozen food aisle on a Sunday night and kind of break down in a softer way than your knee has, overcome by exhaustion and the dull aching pain that covers your body.

You drive home on automatic knowing that 5:37 in the morning is going to hit hard, you are going to lean over to your bedtable and stare at the electronic device beeping at you and you won't even believe it is time to start moving again.

You have three doctors appointments to look forward to at the beginning of the week--two for yourself and one for a child who has started to hurt and the pediatrician isn't listening.

You will stand in your classroom, engaged and obliterated, ignoring the pain and laughing with your middle school students who come to your room knowing that they get 45 minutes without so much drudgery and hurt. You do that for them. You pour it out every day all day long. And then your colleagues wonder why you can't eat in the lounge.

Because you hurt. And you're tired. And you're allergic to leather and your sandals are making your feet itch. And you just need 45 minutes to watch youtube videos designed to make you cry good tears because otherwise you're going to cry real ones.

But it's like this as well. You daughter makes the best chocolate cake you've ever had and you sit in bed with your blog no one reads and eat that cake and rest your knee and wish you still had some percoset but really, you're glad you don't and maybe the tylenol will work. The tylenol and warm bath and a bit of chocolate cake and maybe you'll take a couple benadryl because the leather sandals and the bonus might be sleep, rock hard sleep.

You text a friend and she tells you about her day, her kids, her pain, her loves. And you don't feel so alone.

And you start to kind of hope. Yes, 5:37 is going to be really hard in just a few hours. Yes, you're going to pour your life out to 13 year old kids all day long all week long, but you know they'll give back because they can't even help but give back.

Yes, it is a long time and miles to go before you sleep again but you will, and maybe there'll be good news from doctors and less pain and more hope for the next day and the next and the next and your daughter will be in plays and your other daughter will win tennis matches and your son will become a minecraft master for whatever that will do for him and you will keep breathing and thinking and loving and being.

It's just like this.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Doing it Right

On Monday one of my sixth graders walked in during 2nd period. I was teaching 8th grade. I had marked her absent that morning, and here she was with her backpack and lunch bag. I work hard to not call attention to people who walk in and out of my room while I'm teaching--6th graders often forget their materials and sneak in to grab the dictionary or notebook they've forgotten. If I engaged each of them, teaching would never happen. So I let her get her things together and kept on with what I was doing with the hooligans assigned to my class.

(I say hooligan in the warmest way).

There was only a bit left to 2nd period, and I noticed that she stood in the back by my lockers, just standing still. I told her she could go on to class, that it was fine to be late. Then I went back to my job.

When the bell rang, I noticed she was still standing there. I urged her to just head on to her next class, and then I went out into the hall to watch students (and hooligans) move between rooms.

When I came back in again to begin teaching 7th grade, there she was.

"You need to head on to class," I said, more firmly.

She did. Twenty minutes later the nurse was at my door to gather her things because she was going home. I figured that she'd been ill that morning, thought she could do it, but realized it was a mistake. Been there, done that.

Or maybe she was frozen in fear.

I talked to a friend about it, and she said, "why not just ask her?" I have learned to do this in the last year or so. If I want an answer, ask the right question. I got good at this last spring with my homeroom. They kept religion journals and this was a safe way to communicate with me. And oh did they communicate.

But I was afraid to ask her. Not because of her answer, not because it was scary to talk to 12 year old people, not because of any of that.

I'm afraid of falling in love with my homeroom this year. Like I did last year. Like I did with the current sophomore class. Like I do.

I am leaving. I cannot financially afford to stay here longer than one more year after this current one. Then I will have two girls in private high school and every year is like buying a used car, and that year will be two cars. Plus I have a girl who will need an actual car. I teach in a situation that allows my young children to attend Catholic grade school for free--but high school isn't included in the deal. So as London graduates, I lose her grade school benefit and need cash on hand to get her freshman year done. I can't stay much longer.

In fact, I was going to leave this year. I started looking. I got my high school certification.

And then I fell in love with my homeroom. With three of them specifically. And I watched them fall for me too and I needed to see this out. I told my boss, who understands that I will eventually leave her, that my work wasn't done here yet. It isn't. I need to help bring a couple of these folks to fruition.

So I stayed and all I can do is assume the universe is unfolding as it should and I will find the job I need when I need it.

When I told my brother why I was staying, he said, quite astutely like he does, "Aren't you just going to get attached to the next class of kids? Like, each year?"

And since he was right, I started thinking about how to be everything I needed to be without letting my heart open. How to make 6th grade right for these very timid young people without letting them affect me at all.

And last night talking it over, I knew I couldn't. I can't be here for my older kids and not for my new ones. I either have to shut it down entirely and punch a clock and be a terrible person for a  year and walk away unhappy and disappointed and disappointing, or I need to be who I am.

So this morning I told my little scared 6th grade student to just think for a few days: how can I make it easier? And we would talk again soon.

I need to just be brave and be who I am.

And know that it's going to hurt like hell when I leave.

Like it always does when I do it right.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sometimes it's not fine

I went to a wedding shower this weekend over in Illinois, my inlaws, kind of deep in the list, like I think the bride is my husband's second cousin. This doesn't happen in my family. I'm not sure I could pick all my first cousins out of a crowd.

One of the people in attendance was a first cousin that I have known since she was very small, like three or four years old. She is now an adult, married with a one year old baby boy. I had heard from my mother in law and a couple of other folks that she was nervous about him. She's a teacher as well, special education, and she was worried that something wasn't right with him. Everyone keeps assuring her that all is well.

I watched her before the shower started, playing with him on the floor, having people help with feeding him at a table, holding him, passing him to her mom, to my mother-in-law. It all did seem fine to me. It didn't seem like anything was amiss. I knew why everyone was reassuring her.

But I've been there.

Niles was not an early talker. That doesn't really cover it. He wasn't an early communicator. And I worried while everyone told me he was fine.

So after lunch but before the bride to be opened gifts, I sat down next to her at her table.

"So I thought Niles had autism," I opened the conversation. She laughed a little nervous laugh. But I pushed on. I told her his symptoms. I told her how he would say a word one time and then never again. How he'd had some language and lost it. How he never imitated. Didn't make eye contact. I had two older children and never thought that about them. Something was wrong with Niles. Something was wrong.

"People told me not to worry about it, that boys were different from girls. But it wasn't right and I felt it."

She nodded at me. I could tell she was about to cry.

"So I took him to a speech and language pathologist. I'd done it with Brooklyn, I knew the drill. And the professor came out and said to me, all serious, we are so glad you brought him to us. Because something was wrong. But it wasn't what I thought. It was apraxia, and that was big and scary too, but we were able to work on it."

She started to spill out her worries, the things she was noticing, comparing them to students she had taught.

"Yes," I agreed. "There is something in your heart that says it's not right. I totally get it. And you won't feel ok until it's obvious that everything is better. I didn't feel ok until that professor said the word apraxia and I could look it up and see that it was absolutely what he had. It took until he was two and a half to finally relax. I get it."

We talked a little more.

I have no idea if it helped or not. But I remember. I remember all the "it's fine" comments. They didn't help. What helped was finding the answers.  And that's what she needs to do. In the end, I'll put money on nothing is wrong. But I'm not his mama. And she needs to find out.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Gazelle Gets Brave

First week is winding down. Lunch on Friday and sitting in the teachers lounge and we are all fitting into our little stereotypes and roles already. Two new people at the table and they are finding their place.

Teaching is unique in that (in schools where I've taught at least) there is one, or two, people in charge, but then a large band of equals. Yes, you might have a department head in a big high school, and of course seniority and experience changes interactions, but for the most part, it's all chickens in the henhouse doing their own jobs and not interacting on a professional basis. I meet with my partner and I'm trying to mentor her as best I can, but I am not beholden to the science teacher or the art teacher or the 3rd grade aide. There is little collaboration and our rooms are our tiny kingdoms to be ruled pretty much as we wish.

The teachers lounge can be a toxic place. It can be a place to air grievances about parents or students. It is not a safe place, either--complain about a colleague and watch how fast that smacks you in the face. It is a place to talk about lawncare and vacations and your own childrens' schools and how great or terrible they are. "How are you?" should be met with "I'm fine." Your coworkers are not your friends. Not in the lounge they aren't. You sit after school in a bar with one or two of them as time goes on, maybe. But in the lounge you are an gazelle on the Serengeti. Don't get comfortable or the hyenas will circle.

Last year, I picked a word to guide my thinking and actions. My word was fishing. I was casting my nets into deep water. I was getting out of the boat. I was looking and searching and trying.

Sitting in the lounge today, I knew what my word was going to be.

I have spent three years smiling and nodding at my colleagues. Even when I thought they were ridiculous and pedagogically simple-minded. I can forgive a lot, as long as you're nice to kids and try your best. I spent three years figuring these people out, this building out. And this year is the year I find my voice. I have to be brave when I think something is wrong. I can't value harmony over justice and I need to have an opinion.

But Sally, you say, you always have an opinion! Yes, yes I do. I rail against the administration whenever it rubs me the wrong way. I ask questions at faculty meetings. I propose ideas. Solutions. I hate "that's the way we've always done it." If my boss asks me what I think I always tell her. I am unafraid of speaking truth to power, because inherently I have no power in the situation and therefore little to lose. I am not going to be fired for saying "I don't like the computer review program I'm being forced to use, can we evaluate its effectiveness?" or "I think you should hire her because she understood what I was talking about when I brought up interactive notebooks." I don't bitch about unimportant things and I make sure that any given hill is the one I'm willing to die on before I advance. But I always advance when it's me representing myself, other teachers, or students, and the hill has my boss standing at the top.

But I'm not speaking truth to power when I'm talking to colleagues. I'm speaking as an equal. Yes, I can tell my new partner how I do things and I can try to be a good mentor--but in the end she has to make her own way. But I have never felt it to be my place to tell any other colleague that what was happening in her classroom bothered me. That students came to me worried about his class. That something got back to me in a conference with a parent. I take that information from students and parents and combine it with my own observations and decide what I think about my colleagues. For sure I do that. And I learn who to trust and who to keep it light with and who to avoid because she's a dragon.

I don't, however, give advice, bring up uncomfortable subjects, or confront an equal about something that's going on that needs to change or even that simply needs to be known.

Trust me, they do it to me.

They do it to me all the time. 

"I think the way you set up the math groups is going to come around to bite you in the ass."

"I can't believe you thought she was algebra material."

"You know he acts up all over the school. The fact that you didn't give him a U for behavior undermines the rest of us."

"If you let students pick their own seats, they'll complain about my class where they can't."

"Don't let students back in to get materials, it teaches them they don't have to care."

"Your room gets loud sometimes and I don't want to have to close my own door so you need to."

"Stop talking to my students, this isn't a social time. They need to get to homeroom."

But I would never, ever, ever in a zillion years (I'm a math teacher so I know that's a long time), say anything like that to any of them.

Until today. Today in the lounge I brought something up. Not a bad thing. Not an important thing. A detail. And I framed it in as neutral a way as I could. As one of the sixth grade homeroom teachers, I've noticed that...

And the claws came out.

I was trying to send a semaphore message across the table to this new teacher (not my partner) that she had picked a detail to obsess over that might come back to hurt her. Not something that affects me at all. Not something that even matters to 90% of the students she teaches. But it matters to the small minority.


She did not agree. If they want accommodations, they need to approach her individually.

Right, because 6th and 7th grade students have that kind of chutzpah.

"And if parents attack me at open house, so be it. I don't care about that stuff."

Maybe she doesn't. If so she's made of sturdier stuff than I am.

The conversation turned to how resource handles check out procedures. And then to gossip about families and students that I do not participate in when I'm in the lounge because I'm a freaking gazelle on the Serengeti.

I finished my yogurt.

I threw my trash away.

I went back to my room and clicked on youtube.

But it won't be the last time. Because I've picked my word for the year.

My word is Brave.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Close Call

Sometimes I get caught up in the what-ifs.

And I know many people worry about the future. But I think I'm kind of unique, in a bad way, in that I worry about the past.

When I was 10 or so, I was on a girl scout camping trip that found us by the Meramec River. We were cleaning out a lodge for day use and a leader handed me an armload of cornstalks. There'd been a harvest dance or something like that. She told me to follow the trail down to the river and toss the cornstalks into the Meramec. Easy enough. I carried them down the trail, not really paying attention, until the ground fell out beneath me. I was on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Meramec.

It was a long way down.

I tossed them over the side and walked back to the lodge.

I have thought about how close I came to falling in the river ever since. Three decades of worrying about the alternate universe where I plummeted to my death.

I have had some what-ifs this week.

London and I were in the car on the way home from a movie. We stopped at Target to pick up the three subject notebook we had forgotten to get on the big school supply trip. Heading home on the side streets in the rain, a car pulled out from an alley and kept going.

In the split seconds that I had, I could do the math and see that he was going to run right into London's door. Already the ambulance trip and the emergency room flashed into my mind. Without thinking anything else, I ran up into the median and we narrowly escaped a wreck. By about four inches. The driver gave me the finger (I had complete right of way, I wasn't speeding, I should have been giving him the gesture).

I pulled away slowly and managed myself into a parking lot where I burst into hysterical crying while London tried to reassure me: "Mom, it's ok, we didn't get hit."

But we could have.

I also had knee surgery last week. Arthroscopic, no big deal. Then I went for my "get the stitches out and a pat on the back" appointment and the surgeon sat down with me, looked at my knee, praised it, and then explained all the things he'd done. Yes, I had two tears in my mensicus. But, he showed me the pictures, I also had this thing on my femur.

My friend Trisha called it an osteochondral defect. The doctor used scarier words. Like, "dead bone". He had to go in and drill tiny holes in my femur to try to help boost the blood supply to that part of the bone. He was happy with how my knee seemed to be healing up. And then scheduled another appointment for me in two weeks.

My knee had way more wrong with it than I thought. Than he thought. And maybe that part of the bone wasn't as dead as he seemed to indicate. But if it were, well, I drove home wondering about how I wasn't even going to see a surgeon until my friend Maggie pushed me to. It was fine now that I was home from all my hiking. Fine. But obviously not fine. And the surgery maybe caught something that would have progressed and gotten worse without attention.

Maybe it was a near miss like the car wreck that didn't happen and the fall from the bluff that didn't happen.

But more than just brushes with death or scary moments when I didn't feel safe. I think about my connections to the people on this planet. What if I hadn't moved into my block? What if I hadn't said yes to the librarian at my school and taken that tutoring job with her niece? What if I'd gone to UT instead of SLU? What if I hadn't said yes to going out that night? What if I hadn't sent that letter? What if I'd let it slide? What if I'd been too timid? What if I'd said yes? Or no? What if I'd given up?

Car wrecks, bluffs, and knee surgeries aside, I think about those what ifs more and more these days. And the pattern I see is that when I come to a crossroads, even if I don't know it's a crossroads, when I listen to my heart I'm right. If I would have done some overthinking, I would have lost.

Which makes me wonder, of course, about all the things I've lost by overthinking.

I have a heart bigger than my whole self sometimes and bold as brass.

I keep it in check by thinking too much and worrying and ruminating. And with fear.

But what if I didn't?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Back to school

New school year.

I met my 22 homeroom students this morning during our annual "drop off supplies and visit with the teachers" Sunday morning. School starts Tuesday for real, but this allows parents to get all that stuff in the door and off their hands, kids can see their desks (or in my room, find out that I don't assign desk, just lockers and cubbies) and maybe be put at ease a bit.

New school year.

I met a new student who had been told that I had grown up in a military family. It's a common misconception because I moved every two years. I corrected it, but the facts were still the same. I got it, I told the mom.

"I was new in 6th grade and then in 8th and the middle of 9th."

"Then you get it," she nodded. She introduced me to her husband and her daughter, and all of that was fine. It's fine. I felt bad for the girl, who reminded me just a shade of myself in middle school, only because I knew that detail of course, because she hid her anxiety well. I know she has it, though, because of course she does. And it had been passed to me by the secretary already. Take care of this one.

This is my 4th year at this school, which is the longest I've worked anywhere. The only reason I stayed, at first, was to rebuild my very checkered resume. At this point I stay for a lot of reasons, almost all of them heart ones, but it is hard to stay in one place, even now. Even always. Even forever.

I think part of what allows me to stay is that every school year is its own little mini life. It is new every August, even if my desk is the same and my view of the concession stand and soccer field is unchanged. Not only do I usher in a new generation of 6th graders, bringing them as gently as I can into the realities of middle school, but the 7th graders and 8th graders are changed as well. Even though the parents have a mental image of who I am now and what that means for their child in my class, their children are new again to me because summer changes us.

Summer changes everything. It is subtle, but the changes are there. Girls' faces change. Boys get taller or start shaving. People get bolder, more comfortable, or alternatively, feel unstable where they stand. Summer changes them. Some are glad to be back and some are counting the days to Christmas break. Either way, these taller, tanner, more experienced young people stop by my room and wave at me and it feels new.

And so I can stay. The life around me can change now and I stand there letting it wear down my sharp edges. I look in the mirror in the faculty bathroom and smile, the crows feet around my eyes making me look like maybe I'll be ok, I'll be safe to approach, I'll be the teacher they need.

I put up my pictures and set out my pencils. I shook folks' hands and showed them how to work the lockers. They wished me luck and I told the students I'd see them Tuesday.

I hope it's a good year.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Minor Surgery

I had knee surgery on Monday. I had a torn medial mensicus on my left knee (in my left knee?) which was getting caught in the joint and making my leg buckle and all sorts of nasty things. It was hurting and stupid and I went to the surgeon who had replaced my parents' knees and even had operated on my dad back in the 70s, and he manipulated my knee, took an x-ray, and that was that. Scheduled me right then.

Day surgery, arthroscopic, a ten minute procedure. But general anesthesia.

General Anesthesia is one of those military men I don't get along with. (I guess Major Surgery would be another?). I started worrying right away. I've had several surgeries, including three c-sections with epidurals. Those were fine (except the itching!! Gah!!). But the general anesthesia gets me. I throw up, for one thing, which is never pleasant. More than that, though, when I come out of it, I tend to be choking and screaming, which is not pleasant for me or anyone else who happens to be there. It's terrible. People are yelling at me and holding me down and it's horrible.

So I got brave and Monday morning I told the anesthesiologist that I was a mess. We talked about previous surgeries and experiences and she said that because she knew that had happened to me before, she could control that this time. Basically, sedate the hell out of me.

"Now, you'll be sleepier than you normally would be after this sort of surgery," she warned.

Like I care about sleepy. So I won't report in at my job as a crane operator that evening.

So they gave me that first cocktail--when I had my appendectomy, the nurse leaned in as she injected my IV with that stuff and said, "this is the best 5 minutes of your day" in my ear--and wheeled me into the OR, and it's so weird. They wanted me to go from the bed I was in to the table, and I remember starting that process but then, you know, that's it. I don't know if I fell on the floor or if I made it to the table or anything. My brain stopped recording about the time I scooted halfway off the bed. So weird.

And then I woke up. Not screaming. Not gagging. Nothing. I opened my eyes. No one was yelling at me or holding me down. I just woke up.

And then promptly started to cry because it was so much better. Or probably because of whatever they'd sedated me with. But it felt like I was crying because of relief.

The surgeon had found the tear, but also another tear in my lateral meniscus. It was a mess in there. Cleaned it up.

So I went to school the next day for inservice, but then got violently ill Tuesday night (totally unrelated to the surgery or drugs I was on, more like a terrible GI bug or food poisoning) and decided to rest on Wednesday. I'm making it pretty well now that it's three days out. I'm going to my thyroid doctor tomorrow for my regularly scheduled annual blood draw, and then probably up to school to help my new partner teacher with the little details. For which I will be sitting down I am sure.

School starts Tuesday and I think it'll be ok. I hope the surgery does what it's supposed to do. Because I'm sure my right knee will be jealous soon enough and want fancy stitches too.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Classroom Rules

In 9 days I take control.

I will be in charge of, at any given moment, between 10 and 28 other people. I will decide who gets to take care of their basic needs like using the restroom or quenching thirst and who gets to wait. I don't even have to justify my decisions. I will decide if what one person is doing is collaborating or cheating. I will have the power to be lenient or strict, to keep people silent with threats of punishment or allow them to relax.

We've all been students in grade school and middle school. We've all been there, at the mercy of tyrants and burnouts and earnest young adults who thought they knew best.

The difference between you and me, though, is that I became the earnest young adult who though she knew best, and then the tyrant, and then the burnout.

Classroom management. For some reason, if a teacher needs support with lesson plans or how to teach social studies to 4th graders or how to engage 8th grade boys, that support is there (in a decent school, in a decent district, of course). "Hey, how would you present special right triangles?" and the answers are available online or from your partner or mentor or boss.

But if your classroom is out of control, for some reason, there isn't much anyone does to help you. Maybe because content stuff like special right triangles is an idea a specific teacher teaches once a year and classroom management is every moment of every day, or maybe because every profession is filled with folks looking to weed out the weakest links in their ranks, but whatever the reason, if you struggle with classroom management, you are seen as a failure. Whether it is your first year or your 20th year in the classroom. If you can't control students you aren't a good teacher.

I left the classroom for 12 years, raising my kids and running them all over creation. When I got back 4 years ago, I came to the growing realization that control wasn't what I wanted.

I wanted comfort, easiness, an agreement between people--between equal partners. I teach middle school and although prefrontal lobes are still developing in my partners in the classroom, they are mostly whole people. I don't think they could handle some of the most terrible parts of adulthood, like arguing with insurance companies, but they can do most things.

They can decide when they need to use the restroom or get a drink.

They can decide if they need more help to learn something.

They know if they need to move around to keep from losing their minds from boredom (I teach math).

They like to choose things, like where to sit or what color ink to use. They like to play games or read a book or chat in their spare time. They like to be comfortable with themselves, their peers, in the spaces they are forced to spend time in.

I have really thought about my space and my rules over the last few years. I built standing desks out of crates a few years ago to increase my storage space and give students a choice to stand up or sit on a stool during class. I stopped assigning seats. I didn't control the noise level (within reason) unless we were taking a test. I play music. I show stupid videos sometimes. I make mistakes. I apologize. I let students pick informal groupings but I assign big projects so that no one feels awkwardly left out. I have a basket of (mostly crappy) leftover pencils to borrow. I have another basket of colored pencils and mismatched markers in case a student doesn't have any that day. I have scissors and rulers and calculators and sometimes I even have a glue stick. All in a drawer that I do not control. Get what you need. And they do--and they return them.

I boiled it down to two rules:

Do not keep anyone else from learning

Take care of your own needs.

And this year I'm adding a rule for me:

Do those two things and I won't let you fall.

As long as you take care of your own needs--approach me when you need help, seek me out with questions, go get a drink, pick the seat that works best for you--and you seriously do not keep other people from learning, there is nothing I will not do to make sure you succeed.

It's too late in my life to be an earnest young adult who knows best, obviously, but I know I am at risk for burnout and tyrant. All teachers are. I work with several. How do I keep it at bay? It's a question I ask myself all the time. And this is my answer for now.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dear Students

I walked into my classroom this week and started making my plans. I picked a theme for my classroom--sort of nautical, but not in the rich people in casual clothes enjoying their days on the sailboat way, but rather a hardworking navy kind of way. I picked two quotes to start us out: A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor, and We are not passengers, we are crew.

I started to think about the second one in depth. The first makes sense, especially for incoming 6th graders: it's going to be tough but you're going to make it and be better for it. But the second one I chose because I want my students to see that they are active participants in their learning. It can't happen without them.

But then I started to reflect further on it. On any kind of endeavor when you are out in a group away from safety, whether you are in a canoe or on a sailboat or on the Appalachian Trail or sitting in a pre-algebra class, each person is key to the group's success. You can't leave folks behind and remain an intact crew. You need them, even if it doesn't appear obvious at the beginning.

Yes, the slowest hiker might hold you back at each crossroads, but it is good to pause and wait, have a drink and a snack. The younger sister in the center of the canoe without a paddle might seem like just a passenger until she stands up and helps get the cottonmouth out of the boat without tipping everyone into the river.

In a classroom, your crew includes many members that might seem like dead weight to you at first. The student who keeps asking the questions so that the teacher has to come up with more examples and it feels like he's wasting everyone's time because all you want is to get to the homework problems and get it done so that you don't have to do it after soccer practice. The student who blurts out the answers before the teacher finishes posing the problem. The student who points out the bunny that just hopped by outside, thus getting everyone off track to see what's going on (the same student is the first one to notice it is snowing, as well). The student who asks you for help during quiet work time. The student who asks the teacher for help during quiet work time and prompts a break out tutoring session in the back of the room.

These students are key to your success. It may not appear obvious, and if you are the sort of student for whom math comes easy, it may never appear obvious. But these students are part of your crew. Asking questions, providing distraction, seeking help--there will come a day when you didn't even realize you had that question. Or you will be in a lesson and hope that someone else will ask what you don't understand or can't even articulate. Students who seek clarification hone a good teacher's skills to a fine point. She will be a better teacher tomorrow because she answered good questions today. And distraction?

Who goes on a hike to prove they got there and back? You go on a hike to see birds and sky and mountains and rocks and animals and to talk with your fellow hikers. Who goes on a canoe trip to get to the destination and pitch a tent and go to sleep? You go on a canoe trip to see the world from a different angle. Distraction keeps us from getting lost in the goal.

Because in the end, pre-algebra is a step in a journey. Hell, even its name indicates its transitory nature. We are a crew together, we are all part of making this year happen, getting us all across its water to the other shore.

So find your space here and get comfortable. All of you deserve to be here, all of you have earned a spot on this crew. And all of us will sail successfully to the the shores of Algebra I. As your teacher, as your figurative captain, I will not let you fall. We will get there.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Things I did that my kids will never be allowed to do

There are so many things.

My kids always wear bike helmets, for instance. But in that case, I think it's about knowing better. People didn't think kids should have helmets on back then. Nobody wore helmets. For the most part, the safety patrol in my house growing up is similar to mine now--seatbelts were always worn, long before people had to; we didn't set off our own fireworks now or then; we never swam alone.

I flew alone and my kids don't, but that had more to do with the cost of flying and needing to get places, I think. Although missing connecting flights in Atlanta and being driven around the tarmac by an airport official in a woody station wagon doesn't seem like something that would happen today. Not because I would forbid it, though, just because it seemed ridiculous then, and now it would never ever happen.

I was put on a greyhound bus in the late 80s and sent to a friend's house. THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN FOR MY KIDS.

I ate questionable cold cuts.

I had a TV in my room.

I often had a bedroom on the first floor with easy access to the outside world.

But as I sit here in my living room on a rainy Tuesday morning, I realize more than "things I did that my kids will never be allowed to do", my focus is "things that happened to me that I won't let happen to them." It is intertwined of course. And some things cannot be prevented, as much as I long for the control to keep everyone safe, forever, safe and happy and well-adjusted and brave and powerful and loving and perfect.

I have to learn how to let go of that pretend control and let them, bit by bit, learn to live.

But with bike helmets on.