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?

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.