Behind the Bench

basketball

My husband coaches basketball games. I watch basketball games. Our children alternate between playing chase around the gym and fixating on their tablet, completely oblivious to the on-court battle gripping the rest of us by our throats. More often than not, I feel like a referee myself as I try to keep Numbers 1, 2, and 3 happy until they can run around on the court after the game. Let’s face it, they’re only here for the Skittles. A lot of times, I feel like this: IMG_0275

Even on our worst nights, when everyone is fussy and touchy and grouchy and hungry– always hungry– I feel compelled to fill our seats in the stands. I’m drawn to our usual seats with an undeniable magnetism to cheer on our girls and support my man. The view from back here, behind the bench so to speak, is oftentimes tumultuous at best.

We lost a big game tonight. That’s basketball speak for: A lot was riding on this game:

  • A district championship, for starters. Would have been the first one in 40 years in this town.
  • Pride. It’s girls basketball for heaven’s sake. It takes a VERY INTENTIONAL effort to fill the stands. We had a good turnout, and we really wanted to deliver for our fans and give them a reason to come back and keep supporting us.
  • Senior Night. Did I mention it was the last home game most of these senior girls will ever play? This will be one of their forever memories, unfortunately scarred by a loss.
  • And validation. My husband-coach has always preached that hard work pays off. He may not agree to it, but I was definitely needing to feel validated tonight. I needed to feel that all of his man hours and all of the girls’ sweat and practice in prep for this night had made a difference.

But it was just one of those nights. Great strides have been made this season. We’re still a playoff contender. There’s much to be proud of, but it doesn’t replace the sting of missing our goal by THIS much, by being THIS CLOSE.

It’s different, sitting back here behind the bench, supporting my man and his team. I’m not really a part of the team, and I obviously don’t actively contribute to the outcome of the game. (My overweight 5’3″ frame doesn’t quite fit the bill like it used to, at least not without the aid of a personal oxygen tank to jog alongside me.) 🙂 But make no mistake about it, I very much have A LOT invested in this team and their games.

Which is why I feel all the Big Feelings choked up in these match-ups. I lose my voice in cheerful glee when we run away with a win; I swallow back inappropriate swear words and possibly irrational anger when we face a loss.

Because I know all the behind-the-scenes prep work that stole my man’s time in the week prior to these games, and I want very badly to see that his dedication to this time away from our family was worth it. That’s my investment. He is watching film, scouting, statting games, printing individualized scouting reports, scouting, prepping motivational gimmicks to pump up team morale, networking with other coaches, scouting, 6:00 am practices, after school practices, attending junior high games to build rapport, scouting, and a host of other things (including scouting of course)– all of the tasks that my man is happy to do in the name of Thou Holy Almighty Basketball Season.

I am dallying in all things offspring-related: the school stuff, the medical stuff, the emotional stuff, the dinner stuff– for one EXTREMELY fickle eater and two who don’t eat enough to warrant actually cooking most weeknights (Yes, boys, we are having cereal again), the bedtime routine stuff. He is there. I am here. That is the investment I can offer.

I love this game. And oh my gosh, I love this man! And that’s ultimately the bottom line. Sometimes we coach’s wives will end up driving an hour and a half to an away game just to end up driving home without a win; sometimes despite our man’s and our team’s best efforts on Senior Night, we fall a little short. Sometimes we want our man’s hard work to pay off so badly it hurts. Because we love him that much. We know that he deserves to bask in the glory of being the best, earning the trophy, wearing the ring. We support him always, especially on nights like tonight. Eventually his time will come. Eventually he’ll be the best, earn the trophy, and wear the ring. He’ll remember that we were always in his corner, patiently waiting for what we knew would come. And it will come.

 

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Dear Teach, a word of encouragement for you

maria

You know you’ve been grading papers too long in one setting when you have to stop yourself from writing sarcastic comments on your students’ papers as feedback. #guilty

What I wanted to write on one kid’s fiction analysis in my reading class: “What in the world?!?! Did we even read the same story?”

What I actually wrote: What was the main problem the character had to fix?

Other times I masked my true feelings…

What I wanted to write: Is this in English?

What I actually wrote: Use your Frequently Misspelled Words list.

What I wanted to write: For the love! You might as well start copying your partner. You’re never going to make it in this class!

What I actually wrote:  Tutorials are every Monday and Tuesday after school. Please make arrangements to come next week.

When I reach this stage of paper grading, I know it’s time to hop up and take a break for a bit. Bye Felicia! I’ll be back when I can record grades without choking back mouth vomit.

We’re about a month into school now; we’re settling into routines. We’re identifying struggling students, setting goals, making adjustments, probably clicking along at a pretty steady pace. As we begin to settle into fall and the first round of assessments are administered, we sometimes begin to fully realize the pressure put upon us as teachers. For me, it’s usually about this time of year when I begin to feel overwhelmed… by a myriad of things: getting students to be successful in the classroom and having data to prove it, balancing work life/family life, beating down the to-do lists faster than they can grow, wondering if I’ll ever get a few minutes of peace to myself before bedtime without accidentally falling asleep… just a number of things that make me feel uptight. Inevitably, when I feel stressed out, I have to deal with self-doubt. This leads to more negative self-talk than I care to admit.

Anticipating this natural shift in the year, I’m being more intentional this time in dealing with my feelings. This year, I have a battle plan in place. (Because, yes, I’m one of the many who contributed to the $11.4 million dollar success of the film War Room.“The enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy.”) This year I’m choosing to take a pro-active approach to stress and self-doubt. I’m on the offensive now, and through much prayer I’ve identified my battle cry: 2 Timothy 1:7.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

A timid person is one who shies away from confrontation. A timid person feels unconfident in the face of strife. This is the chick who wishes things were better but never figures out how to actually make it happen. This is Elle Woods, when who we really need is G.I. Jane.

According to this verse (advice Paul offered to his BFF Timothy while being imprisoned for his beliefs), Jesus has equipped us with a spirit that is ready to take the offensive. In the face of self-doubt, he empowers us to stand up for ourselves and to protect our well-being. He provides us with the emotional, mental, and spiritual power to claim his truths instead of the lies the enemy would lead us to believe. We should not let Stress tell us that we are a poor teacher or an inattentive mother this year. Let’s ignore the voice that makes us question if our struggling students will be successful or if our family would be better off with a wife/mom who, like, cooks and stuff.

When we feel maxed out, isn’t it super easy to be irritable and snarky to the people around us? Through the grace of Jesus, we are provided with a spirit that continues to communicate in love. Therefore, this year I’m more equipped to approach my students, my colleagues, and my own family with patience and kindness.

Lastly, I am so thankful for the self-discipline to stay the course even when I am so exhausted I can’t even stay awake through a whole episode of Grey’s Anatomy. When we feel worn out, know that the enemy will want to strike us when we’re weak. In these moments, we’re more likely to lash out or give up. But, hopefully, this year will be different. As we begin to feel overwhelmed, pray this verse. Refuse to let self-doubt creep in and cause undue damage.  Let’s claim our right as a child of God saved through grace, to a mindset of power, love, and steady self-discipline.

Are you ready for battle?

A Prayer for Teachers

It’s that time of year again. In Texas at least, teachers are reporting back to duty this week. Good-bye slow mornings with no alarms. Good-bye afternoon movie dates and post-lunch naps! (I’ve always been told to sleep when the baby sleeps, and even though my youngest is nearly three, I still live by that creed. Mama takes her sleep SER.I.OUS.LY.) Good-bye mid-week grocery shopping. Good-bye late nights with one more cartoon and a few more snuggles. Good-bye to my crush, Jimmy Fallon. We’ve had a hilarious summer and I’m pleased to see your finger is healing nicely, but now reality calls. Until next year…

From one educator to another, I want to say to you, Dear Teacher, that I pray for you this week. Leaving the luxuries of summer behind is a yearly adjustment for all of us. In just a couple of weeks, you’ll face a roomful of new faces and try without success to remember what it was like to wake up after the sun instead of before it. As you look into your students’ eyes for the first time in a week or so, I want you to remember that you were lifted up in prayer and readied for this moment.

Dear Teacher, those kiddos (even the big ole’ seventeen- and eighteen-year-old ones) need you this year. They need to hear repeatedly that they are worth your time, that they are capable of big things, and that hard work will eventually pay off. They need you to speak these truths to them so many times that your voice becomes their inner voice. When they tell themselves, “Yes, this is hard! But difficult does not equal impossible,” they hear you. They’ll give it a try… for you. Because they think you believe they can.

Teach, they’re watching you this year. Don’t forget that they’re learning important life skills, the ones that have nothing to do with Reading or World History. They see how you treat other staff members and how you deal with conflict yourself. They see how you face the day with work to be done while your personal life crumbles to pieces and brings you to the brink of emotional instability. They’re learning from you, every moment, just by being near you. How should I politely tell this person they made me mad? What do I do when I’m afraid to go home after school? How do I admit I need help? Be intentional with your integrity and your character this year, Teacher. Your students need you beyond your subject area.

Dear Teacher, I pray that you will be what your students need you to be this year. Maybe some of those boys need a patient teacher, one who can always greet them with a hug and a smile… even in April or May. Maybe a few of those girls need a listening ear or a kind word to speak louder than the belittling ones they hear outside your room. Maybe your students just need you to remember that they’re still kids. And inevitably, kids are bound to act like kids. It’s not always convenient when data demands need to be met. But we’re not raising a generation of numbers, are we?

Teacher, I pray you’ll enjoy your last moments with your family or friends before the year steals your time. I pray you will be fortified and ready for the students God will bring through your door this year. I pray you will have the support you need and the confidence you deserve to have an unforgettable year.

And because I know my prayers will never fall on deaf ears, I pray for the REALLY important things too: I pray there won’t be a line at the copier when you’re in a hurry. I pray it won’t jam when the line is seven people deep behind you. I pray you receive Starbucks gift cards at Christmas instead of another candle. I pray your name is accidentally left off the committees list. I pray your duty is minimal, and your raise is significant. I pray for extra hours in the day when you need to grade research papers. I pray for the rest of your assessments to be online multiple-choice quizzes. I pray for patience when you need it, rest when you’re weary, more laughter to share with your  students.

Here’s to another stellar year, Dear Teacher!

10 Reasons to Confess You’re a Closet Writer

10. The public library becomes a death trap to your dreams! A routine trip with your kids turns into a mind competition. You can’t even check out Captain Underpants or Brown Bear, Brown Bear before you’re eyeing the shelves in your genre thinking, “All these people, rows and rows of them, have written down their words and convinced someone to publish them.” All those people are your competitors. “I will not go quietly into the night.”

9. You battle a self-conscious internal dialogue. It tells you the world already has a bazillion books and questions why anyone would read yours. 

8. Instinctively, you vow to negotiate for uber-hip cover art. Dang right, Skippy: we all judge a book by its cover! You will draw readers because they’ll fall in love with the front. Sure, words are important too, but let’s be real. 

7. Your “office” time takes place in the middle of the night– after your kids are in bed, likely while the rest of the neighborhood sleeps. Even though you’ve never been a night owl, writing is the adrenaline rush that changes your sleep habits. 

6. When in writing season, you revisit chaotic sleeping patterns comparable to your college years. You find it IMPOSSIBLE to fall asleep after writing in the wee hours. Unfortunately, now you have a day job and a family, maybe kids, and have forfeited your sleep for your writing obsession. 

5. And writing does become an obsession. So many thoughts! So many ideas and stories to share. They relentlessly beg you to set them free. 

4. You feel overprotective of your words and begin to realize it’s not all that different than raising your kids. You handle them with the gentlest of care like you would an infant, praising them for every little milestone along the way. You fuss at them when they won’t cooperate like your teenagers, occasionally giving them the silent treatment when they’ve made you so frustrated you want to scream and throw things. One day your words, like your children, will have to leave the safety of your hands. You’ve done the best you could. All you can hope for is the confidence that the world will treat them right. 

3. You are picky with whom you share your writing. When you need encouragement, you invite your mother over for a read. “Oh, darling! I loved every single syllable of it!” (What else would you expect from Mother Dearest?) When you feel ambitious, you seek out someone who hasn’t fallen in love with your words as deeply as you have, someone whose constructive criticism will better your piece. 

2. Others think you’re wordy. Brief email replies are non-existent in your world, and you hate Twitter because it’s a game of Revision just to be able to tweet. 

1. No matter how many words you’ve written over your lifetime, there will always be more waiting for their turn in your pen. 

For My Sons: Before You Say “I Do”

I remember a sweet moment with my #2 earlier this year. I was tucking him in one night, readying myself for the barrage of “Mom, I have one more thing to say…” that inevitably forces me to give him a few more seconds. As I leaned in for one more hug in a vain attempt to preempt all his requests, I saw his little face scrunch up as a tear escaped each eyelid. I could tell it wasn’t that fussy “I don’t want to go to sleep!” complaint; it was a softer, breathy sob I heard. He’s a “bottler” like me, like his granddad too. He comes by it honestly, at least. There’s no telling how long he’d been chewing on whatever was bothering him; there’s no telling what had happened throughout the week to trigger such big feelings in his little five-year-old mind. “Oh, buddy. What’s wrong?” I asked.

Then it all came rushing out in one exaggerated breath: “I don’t want to grow up and be too big to sit in your lap and read by myself and get married and have to move to a new house. I need to stay with you always.”

“Oh, me too buddy, me too. I want to stay with you always!”

IMG_2019Feeling amused, even as I said it, I felt it for the lie that it was. I want to stay a part of his life always, yes, but I know I will not stay with him always. That is not what I am called to do. I’m supposed to raise him up and then send him on out. And that is why I take my job so seriously: I haven’t got much time to ready either of us for that huge step. What is it they always say to us weary-eyed moms of littles? The days are long, but the years are short.

Sons, you are so young now— 8, 6, and 2 years-old… but just in case I don’t squeeze it all in or life gets messy as it sometimes does or you just need proof on how long I’ve been praying for the men you will become: Sons, here’s what I want you know before you say “I do”…

1. Don’t let this go to your head, but your position as head of the family has power. Great power. A lot of men foolishly underestimate how delicate this impact is on the family, and sadly many families suffer because of it. We hope you’ll choose to be the head of the family from the Biblical perspective. Be the shepherd of your family, serve as the spiritual leader, set the precedent. Your actions, reactions, attitudes, and spiritual leadership will set the tone for everyone else. Even your intelligent, beautiful, intuitive, strong-minded wife will need you to fulfill this role. Love her as Christ loved the church. Treat her like she is a treasure. Be happy making each other happy. Be the boss at work, but a servant-leader when you come home at night. Come home every night you can. That beautiful lady who shares your bed and those little people who call you ‘Dad” need daily reminders that you value them.

I look at your daddy, and over time I’ve matured to realize how our Biblical roles as husband and wife are purposefully distinct. I have been designed to carry out certain facets of family life (I’m good with the little ones and don’t tell your father, but I MIGHT be better at assembling things that require tools. Not necessarily a weakness of his, just a strength of mine). Your good ole’ dad was created for a different role (say, being the “bread winner” and introducing you boys to superhero movies that are rated PG-13 when you’re barely in elementary school. See? We all have our roles). And while we thank God every day for His willingness to stand in the gaps when we feel our efforts are not enough, we see how beautifully intricate our places are designed to be and how a family lives in harmony when we live up to our God-given responsibilities.

2. We want grandkids! Now, sons, you know we’ll love you always and we’ll stand behind you well into adulthood. But hear me clearly: please, please, please, please, please, PUH-LEASE a thousand times over make sure there is a Mrs. before there is a Junior. Do. You. Hear. Me?

Whichever of you chooses to be a family man, value your role as another human’s father. When your kids are young, you’ll beg for more sleep, more quiet time, more energy. As they grow older, you’ll beg for more time, more wisdom, more influence. 

When they’re little, be patient in the day-to-day. It is inevitable that they will spill their drink at the dinner table every night for two consecutive years. They will whine or cry when they are tired or hungry. They will grumble when they don’t get what they want. It is okay. You did it too. Train your children to pick up after themselves and how to do it. Show them how to read other people and the value in meeting others’ needs. Teach them everything you’re good at; find someone else to teach them the things you can’t. Their well-being is more important than your own pride. Pray with them starting at an early age, and speak often about what God is doing in your own life. Build that relationship with them early.

Sometimes you’ll need to be a listening ear instead of a punitive voice. Sometimes you’ll fare better striking the fear of God in them. Approach every experience with a mindful heart; you’ll be able to trust your instinct to know when to meet them with a hug or a belt. And use the belt, sons. Never punish in anger, but do take the time to learn the appropriateness of a well-timed spanking.

Allow yourself to be the Fun Parent sometimes. Be the parent who says “yes” to activities that may be messy or inconvenient now but that will forge relationships and memories for later on. You’ll learn that you bond more easily with some of your children than others. That’s okay too; it’s natural. We all enjoy different things and find we have different things in common. That weird sci-fi novel your daughter is reading? Read the synopsis on Sparknotes, fake a conversation, and then take her to see the movie. At least you’ve made an intentional effort to spend quality time with her. Do that for each child, even if it’s just grabbing one to take with you to have the oil changed in your wife’s car (which I, as your mother, expect you to do for her. Not that she can’t, but because you can. Chivalry is not dead, sons).

3. Sons, your wife and your families will need you. Not to be perfect, not to earn a six-figure salary necessarily (Although that would be a good goal, wouldn’t it? The least you could do for your father and I is to eventually put us up in a nice old folks home). Your wife and your children don’t need you to hold a certain corporate title to be proud of you. They need someone who will provide for them, take care of them, guide them, set a positive tone at home, and be there. Always be there. Being the shepherd of your flock and the “yes” parent to your children is a choice. Look at the footsteps of the fathers in our families who have come before you. As you choose to place your shoe into the imprint of their step and say “I do,” you have many a resource available to you. Learn from them, let them encourage you, and see them for the great men that they are. Strive to be like them.

Love always,
Mom

How to Be a Proud Parent to Your Child on Awards Day When He Doesn’t Win Any Awards

This is the time of year I ritually refer to as my Best Parenting Month. Note sarcasm. (I stole this idea from Jen Hatmaker. If you haven’t read her post, Worst End of School Year Mom Ever, you have missed out on a fundamental lesson in parenting. Even worse, you missed several key LOL moments and the chance to celebrate yourself for your parenting shortcomings that inevitably sneak out around the end of your child’s school year every year. Click here. NOW. MUST READ. Who wants to pass on an opportunity like that?)

Because… it’s May, and you are hanging on by your hot-pink, cannot wait a single second longer for summer, fingernails. May is a loaded month for parents of students– class parties, field trips, parent forms, permission slips, teacher requests and class orientations for next year, banquets, Muffins with Mom and Donuts with Dad, and a trillion other things I have blocked from my frontal lobe in a vain attempt to keep my sanity in tact and my hot-pink fingernails untarnished. We parents of school aged children all know, with the end of the school year comes the annual Awards Day Ceremonies courtesy of your local elementary or middle school campus. You know the drill: teachers award students for their outstanding achievements throughout the year.

first place ribbon

Certificate for Perfect Attendance!
(This kid has either been blessed with Super Parents or a bionic immune system. Or he’s in very bad need of scheduling eye, teeth, and well-check appointments. Either way, he deserves a nod.)

Most AR Points Earned!
(Oh, you are not familiar with “AR”? Well, you do not live in Texas. Foreigners just won’t understand.)

Mr./Ms. _____________________ [insert school mascot here, an especially adorable title for the kindergarten set.]
(A piercing bright light will momentarily blind you as this child takes the stage. No worries, it’s just her recently shined halo. You get used to it eventually. Before the ceremony began, her parents were escorted by a tuxedo-clad usher to their reserved seats down front and center. You only know this through heresay, of course. You snuck in the back to occupy space in the standing room only section– otherwise known as The Latecomer’s Section– about ten minutes after the ceremony began. Needless to say, your child won’t be winning this award any time soon. One of the prerequisites for this award is for students to be the offspring of the kind of parents who are completely alien to the standing room only section of the auditorium. Your kid was beat before he ever began, really. But, I’m sure he’s good at other things.)

If your school is like ours, then technically no elementary child will walk away without any awards. This is when the teachers really shine! Their creativity and ambiguous use of diction help to make every child feel special.

Oh look! You got the award for Best Smile!

And here’s one for you: Best Paper Passer-Outer

Then: Strategically Completed the Analysis of Strategies certificate

Next up, Returned All My Library Books Award!

And lastly, don’t forget: Asks the Most Questions certificate

Now, my kids are still fairly young. I haven’t been to a ton of these things yet, but I’ve got to say the whole thing makes me feel uneasy. Because my mind is a carousel that never runs out of tokens, naturally I’ve spent way too much time analyzing this. But I think I’ve got it now. When I attend the end of the school year awards ceremony (or occasionally take my place in the standing room only section, don’t judge), I sometimes have to repress this very primal, competitive feeling that threatens to creep out at some unsuspecting moment. I wouldn’t say I feel jealous of other parents whose children seem to win every award. I don’t wish the halo-adorned student were my own child to take home after the ceremonies. I mean, come on. I’ve got to get home to cook dinner anyway. I’d have to skip the subsequent parade in her honor. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

So, why do I get all antsy inside at these things sometimes?

Because I desperately want it to be my child’s turn to feel special at some point. 

None of my children needs to be the best at everything to satisfy me. I want them to reach their potential, for sure, but none needs to be the smartest, run the fastest, learn to read first, or waste time shining their halos to make me proud to be their mama.

Regardless of which awards they’ll win this year, which will be long forgotten in a few short years anyway, I am proud of them for a hundred things Awards Day may never notice. My shy, introverted kindergartener finally opened up to his teacher enough to read aloud to her around mid-December. He even promoted to reading aloud to a first grade group in his G/T meetings! My people-pleasing third grader has become more adept at making his own decisions and making his opinion known to his friends, something we only dreamed of in the past. And the list continues just like it does for your own child… making friends with the special needs student in the classroom, learning to tie shoelaces, writing names independently, completing the first solo flight on a chapter book, standing up to a bully in the hallway, completing every homework assignment on time, keeping up with a student planner for the first time, passing the ever-lovin’ STAAR test, and for the littles, just learning how to sit down in a chair and to keep quiet and walk in a straight line in the hallway. (You have not seen A.DOR.A.BLE until you’ve watched a whole line of tiny 5 year-olds with their duck tails and bubbles move down the hall!)

Remember, parents, that this one ceremony does not add to or take away from the total value of our children. More importantly, it doesn’t add to or take away from your total value as a parent.

My children are good kids, just like yours. I know their hard work over the course of the year will be recognized. I also know they are SO MUCH MORE than the colored card-stock they’re sent home with on Awards Day. Maybe my sons’ arms will be overloaded with certificates this year; maybe they’ll rush to me with a wide smile plastered to their little faces as they proudly show me their “Line Leading LIKE A BOSS” awards. I’ll be no less proud.

I’m their mama. It is my duty, and my pleasure, to be proud of them. I need them to know that I will always feel this way, regardless of how the world validates them.

This. Funny. The kind of mama I want to be.

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Confessions of a Teacher: Learnt

I wouldn’t say I’m a racist. That’s always been an ugly word, especially now. I think it’s okay to admit I suffered from a certifiable case of culture shock.

I’m thinking of the year I was hired to teach in what some might label a stereotypical “inner city” middle school, though the students there are not near as hardened as you might be imagining. Nonetheless, I had my first taste of this culture shock that summer before school started. The gentleman who happened to be on campus that July day and kindly escorted me through the halls sheepishly led me past a glaring, three-foot tall blue penis spray-painted on the window outside my new classroom. One of the first things I noticed about my new room when I crossed the threshold for the first time was a smaller, equally offensive version of the same blue genitals on the window behind my desk (The term blue balls suddenly took on a whole new meaning. At least there was that to laugh about.) Also, lining the back of my classroom where I expected a wall to be was an accordion-style folding partition. Not exactly my dream job of teaching, I could tell that much. The first few minutes I was in my new room, I cried. It was not even my first day of actual teaching for that district, and already I was replaying scenes from Dangerous Minds in my head. Should I make room in the lesson plans for Michelle Pfieffer’s Dylan-Dylan contest? How many Snickers bars would I need to buy? Would my new anthem become my favorite song from that movie, “Gangsta’s Paradise”?

I am a white, approaching middle-age woman; most of the students I taught the four years I was at that middle school were not white. They were largely made up of Hispanics and African-Americans. To be candid, to be authentic, I felt like a fish out of water.

My culture was not their culture.

My values were not their values.

And this created problems.

I did have a problem with many of my students… I had a problem with EXTREME apathy toward learning, despite my best and most innovative efforts to win my students over. I had a problem with families who offered no classroom support and made no effort to give their kids the impression that school is important. I had a problem with kids thinking the streets are cool, preparing for the future and being smart is not. I had a problem with families who gloated in generational welfare. I had a problem with three of our 8th grade students being pregnant during the year. I had a problem with a lot of things. I experienced a complete clash of our cultures.

I spent four years of my teaching career feeling like a failure because I struggled to merge the cultures and values of many of my students with my own. My numbers were no different; my data was comparable to other teachers on campus, even better than some in areas of student growth. But, in the year I’ve been out of that school district, I’ve endured an incessant, gnawing feeling. Why couldn’t I be successful? How should I have overcome paralyzing culture shock?

How did I fail?

I use to be a good teacher. Best practices, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, engaging lessons, all of these teacher-y things were second language to me. Not a blessed one worked in my new school.

Which leads me to this: Edward M. Baldwin’s book, LearntLearnt

I plucked it from the overcrowded shelf at the public library because of this jacket synopsis: “Kenny Houston is a white teenager with problems… and he’s being shipped to Lincoln High, a predominantly black alternative school in a week. …Tony Avery is a black man with problems too. He’s Lincoln High’s new English teacher, but he’s not very popular. Portraying an authentic African-American dialect, Learnt tells the story of a discouraged teacher and a troubled student learning the most valuable lessons of their lives in one of Duval County’s worst high schools. A tale that speaks out to teachers, parents, and anyone who has ever set foot in a high school classroom.”

Wow.

I buried myself in the world of “Kenny Houston” and “Tony Avery” this past week, wondering how much of myself I might be lucky enough to discover among its pages. A “discouraged teacher and a troubled student learning the most valuable lessons of their lives”? A clash of cultures. With a happy ending.

The book did not disappoint. I kept asking myself, Why doesn’t Avery just quit? (He asks himself the same question repeatedly, especially after trying days when he rushes home feeling defeated and ready to lick his wounds.) He never does though. He is determined to keep at it. Throughout his journey in surviving his first year of teaching, proving administration and the community wrong, and finding his own teaching niche in which to settle, Avery’s heart spirals back to the same fundamental principle: there are students who need him.

Above all else, the novice teacher treasures relationship. He allows room in his heart for any kind of relationship his students are willing to offer. Some students come to adore him and relinquish enough to become compliant, well-behaved students for him. Some maintain their “old ways,” the same behaviors that scared off two other teachers before Avery. They at least respect him enough to let him teach without too much disruption, even if they never actually become ardent learners themselves. Others actually fall into a fairytale ending when they truly enjoy learning for the first time and make great academic strides. They were capable all along. They just needed the right key to unlock their potential.

Avery doesn’t always understand his students. He can’t always relate to them. They predictably grumble when he assigns homework. He makes home visits and is surprised to find he’s not welcome by some of their parents. But it always comes back to the same idea: relationships. Avery achieved what I feel like I ultimately let become a struggle for me: Relationships trump everything else. Relationships especially trump cultures that clash.

I’ve known it all along: Teachers are in the business of people, not education. Teachers should protect those people at all cost: by accepting them and every pound of baggage they’re forced to drag behind them, by not giving up on them as individuals despite how many of them collectively hold morals or values that are different from our own, and by, above all else, loving them for who they could be and not who they may be today.

What an awesome responsibility I took on in becoming a teacher! I am accountable for those things, as I should be. As Baldwin concedes about the unsung hero of his story:

“If they [his students] fail, he’s partly to blame. But even though the blame wouldn’t be entirely his, he knows his part in their failure would be the most pronounced. …Besides, students and parents don’t claim to have majored in their position, or graduated with a three-point-seven-two grade point average while studying to be a student or a parent. Students and parents haven’t gone through workshops and internships, bent on honing their techniques and skills before being awarded with the title of ‘student’ or ‘parent.’ They don’t wield a diploma that claims they know what they are doing. They are not really expected to be professional or even the slightest bit good at what they do, and they can’t successfully argue that what they do deserves a paycheck.”

But we educators do. It is our challenge to take the blame for our students who fail. We have spent years perfecting our craft. Students are just students; parents are just parents. But relationships… relationships will bridge most gaps and, I want to believe, eventually settle the conflict of clashing cultures.