Archives for the month of: October, 2016

Now’s the time to start thinking about what costume you’ll wear on October 31, which happens to be a Monday this year. It’s a lot of fuss and bother, but the kids love it if you do.   Love it!

I found that if I rely on an identity heavy on makeup, it comes out pretty well. Here’s one of the best:

 

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Student Laura K. did the makeup and provided the scissorhands.

I tried once being Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I blush to disclose that I don’t have the A. H. cred. Just don’t have it. Black dress? Check. Gloves? Check. Jewelry, hairdo, coffee, and pastry? Check. World-renowned, drop-dead looks? Sigh. Also not so elegantly gaunt.

Another failure was Charlie Chaplin. Many students thought I was trying to be Hitler. In a tail-coat? Really?

I’m hard at work with my costume for this year and there’s no knowing how it will turn out. I hope it’s the best yet. I’m up to my knees in purple tulle. Can you guess? All will be revealed Oct. 31.

 

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I like giving the kids a treat.  How ’bout you?

 

This is a big topic. It might be the biggest topic. In the last post, I suggested it was possible, doable, and good to bring your whole self, with all your loves and passions, to work (as the old prayer book said, “It is meet and right so to do.” I don’t know why my Episcopalian background is surfacing. Maybe it was writing about Saint Paul’s)

I believe that’s true and I’ve found my best work at work from having been fully there with the kids, talking about something true in my life. Possibly painful. Utterly true.  That’s when they get quiet and stop fidgeting and absorb what you say.  You know you’re speaking to their unique, individual hearts.

But if the kids look to you like an undifferentiated mass, and you believe that they will snigger and deride your true self, what to do then?

Hmmm. That, my dears, is a good question. Do you hide yourself or withhold yourself? Sometimes you might. Sometimes you might have to. But that’s the path to survival, not flourishing.

Survival is good! Survival is necessary. In your first few years, survival is your main goal. But there will come a time when you will want to do more than survive.

I sometimes play my guitar a little, at the end of class. I am not a talented nor accomplished guitarist and that’s not modesty but the pure unadorned truth. But I’m lucky enough to have sufficient understanding with my students that they know I know I’m not good and that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to show them what learning looks like. I want to offer them everything I have, even if it isn’t very much, at least not yet. They know they are to ignore my strumming or picking and pretend they can’t hear, because if I think they’re listening I’ll do even worse, but that this is my way of leveling the playing field, being a beginner at something some of them are pretty good at, right out there in front of them.

 

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The encouragement of someone you love helps a lot.

I didn’t have the courage to do this in my early years, but I do now. One of you who (I hope) follows this blog asked me one day after observing my class, “What do you do if they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer?” Oh, T. I love you so! I replied, “You say, ‘Gee, I don’t know! Let’s go find out!’”

Maybe teaching courage is more important than anything else we do, and maybe teaching courage is best done by having it palpably right there in front of them by being goofy or unskilled or ignorant and owning that and going to work on it then and there.

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Teachers get a medal for courage, no matter how scared they feel inside.

 

A new teacher of my beloved acquaintance asked me recently, how do you bring your sense of social justice to a classroom in the culture of your school? He put it really well and I didn’t, but I know what he means. There is the school, and there are the principals and parents and community members with all their expectations and beliefs about what we ought and ought not to teach (everybody has an opinion)—and yet we have ideas about that, too. How do you reconcile all that and not lose your soul?

That, my dears, is a good question.

To answer it, I will tell you a story. But first, let me say that parents do get to trust that teachers aren’t lobbying kids out from under them. They send their kids to school with faith that their teachers are partners in their weighty job of rearing good humans to take up the mantle.  They must not fear that you’re dissuading the kids from all the lessons parents have labored to impart.

Also, kids get to expect that their teacher is there for each of them, not just the ones you love or agree with politically. You’re everybody’s teacher. Period. You may not say or do anything that imperils their trust that you see each student’s noblest potential and aim to teach them toward it.

Okay, here’s the story. I try to remember to tell this to every class. One day, when I was 21 years old, I was walking along with my toddler son under the beech trees of William and Mary. My head was full of all the things I needed to think and he lagged a bit behind, so I turned to wait for him to catch up, and saw him crouching, reaching for something with his hand. Another cigarette butt, I wondered? Toddlers will put anything into their mouths. No, it was something far more interesting.

beech-nuts

“Beech nuts! Christopher, you found beech nuts!” And I looked up and noticed those regal trees for the first time. “They are the seeds of these big trees. Imagine! If you planted one of these, in time, one of these beautiful trees would grow from it. But these aren’t fertilized. You can tell because they are skinny on their sides. See how they cave in? Let’s look for fat ones. Then we could plant it and make a beech tree!” I was giddy. Looking up, looking down, looking at my son’s fat little hand with the beech nuts in it.

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Then, I suddenly wondered: how do I know this?

Flashback: I am maybe 8 years old. We’re at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue in Rochester, New York.

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It’s after the Sunday service and we’re out under the beech trees. My father is walking along, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down. He was always finding 4-leaf clovers and Indian arrowheads—yes! They’d rattle around in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

“Daddy, what are you looking for?”

“Beech nuts, fertilized ones.”

And he explained to me about the fat ones and thin ones. And he added, “If you could plant a beech tree, you would not have lived in vain.”

Flash forward: my baby’s face, my hands full of beech nuts, my father gone, never to meet this child, a memory recovered, and teaching, in its fullness, revealed. I didn’t even know I knew it, but it lived inside me, waiting for that man’s grandson to spark the memory of love and stewardship.

Teaching, it’s often been said, is like planting a seed. Like planting a beech tree. Like giving your soul in its purest form to a child, for love and no other reason. Because beech trees are sublime and children should walk along beneath them and ponder planting one themselves.

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So that’s how you bring yourself to work. You give them the best you have, at all moments, out of pure love of the world, a love that surpasses your love of yourself or the kids themselves. You do it for the beech trees.

 

I think I may have mentioned to some of you that I had a hard, hard first year of teaching. How hard was it? I remember once standing at the top of 3 flights of stairs considering, merely hypothetically, how much damage I’d do if I flung myself down. Like, going to the hospital for a couple of weeks would be great, but permanent disability would not. What held me back was that I didn’t want anyone to know the haphazard and flighty state of my lesson planning. The only reason I didn’t quit is that I couldn’t come home and tell my husband. We needed the money and it wouldn’t be fair to him. But I really, really wanted to.

On my way to work, I would see the guys out collecting the trash and long to trade places. That was a job with such fantastic advantages. You make the world cleaner and better, you don’t take work home, you see the results of your work right there in front of you, you hang out with your buds all day, you get good exercise, you enjoy nature. . . What’s not to like? And literally none of that is true of teaching—except maybe in time making the world better, although you’ll never know about it if you do.

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Enviable.

Teaching is unpredictable, labor-intensive, typically isolating, frequently embarrassing, indoorsy, stationary, and never, ever done no matter how many hours you put in at home. If you haven’t done it, you can’t probably picture how stressful it is.

And yet. There is just something about spending time with a roomful of fractious kids, and a topic comes up, and (usually because it’s personal and about you) they go entirely quiet, and you know they are all listening with their whole selves to what you’re saying. When you are honest about something hard that happened to you, every ear is grasping what you say. You know that what you learned back then was important, and you know that all those kids hunger for the wisdom you pried out of the experience. You can imagine, maybe, that you’re giving them what they need.

And like collecting the trash, no matter what, you have to show up.  All the suffering you do in your first few years is best done on the job.  Even if it’s cruelly hard and you’d rather be in a hospital bed in traction (or imagine you’d rather that), you will learn a lot just by being there, even if you feel ineffective.  Show up.  Do what you can.  Go home and apply the palliative measures.  Then get up and do it again.

Slowly, by degrees, you’ll have some successes.  A kid will say good morning or make a funny joke, or you’ll help someone write a better sentence or be there with a tissue when they needed one.

Not as tangible as a nice, clean curb with a nice, empty garbage can, but motivating nevertheless.

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Job well done.

Well this is a pretty big topic, not easily addressed.  Colleagues come in so many forms, from people you see at lunch to those you must work closely with, as in co-teaching or team teaching.  I heard the advice that you should just avoid the teacher’s lunchroom altogether and do your own thing, insulating yourself from others at your school.  That is wise if a culture of negativity and complaint has taken root, but kind of depressing and limiting even then.

Basic rule: you should want your colleagues to think well of you and cheer you on.  Especially in your first few years, they can provide a lot of help you didn’t know you needed and shield you from some real problems.  Even as you depend upon them, try to take good care of them.  Make some funny jokes.  Cut out the odd cartoon and post it.  Offer a good article (assuming you’ve had any time to read and find a good article).  Maybe bring in coffee or treats or flowers one day.  See Blondie Brownie Recipe below.

In my first year, they voted me team leader, which was absurd– a way for those who knew the ropes to dodge some responsibility.  I was so naive I thought it was a compliment and a chance for me to show my merit.  I did all right with it, but they shouldn’t have done it.  It was dumping.

But one good thing I did do:
Our 8th grade team had a difficult kid named Peter whose mother had been angry with us.  She said she felt we had thrown him to the wolves, and we were the wolves.  How it was that we threw him to ourselves she did not explain.  We listened and soothed as best we could.  Not too long after that, I invited my team to a little party during our usual meeting.  I gave out invitations with wolves on them, stipulating a howling good time.  They arrived and I had “Peter and the Wolf” on my boombox as I poured soda and gave out cookies.  We cohered as a team over sugary snacks.

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My first team.

There are a number of lessons here:

  1.  Folks might dump on you, even if they know better.
  2.  Don’t let them.
  3.  If they do and you can’t get out of it, be gracious.
  4.  When you make people laugh, they will like you even if they don’t want to.
  5.  Cookies, soda, snacks, etc. aren’t expensive and they win people to you.  But don’t overdo it.  They should be on your side whether you feed them or not.

Another team I taught with was wonderful: every one of them a crack teacher.  One day someone wandered into our meeting with a bewildered look, holding a piece of paper.  One of my teammates asked if they could help her.  She just handed the paper over.  My teammate said, “That’s okay.  It doesn’t apply to you.”  “Oh, okay,” she said, and left.  Someone else said, “Didn’t that come out a month ago?”  The reply:  “Yes, but she’s new.”  Oh, they all said.  Right.

Basic rule there:
Any team worth its salt knows that when you are new, you have more than you can handle.  So they take it easy on you.  If they don’t, speak up and tell them that you’re willing to do what you can do to help them plan the field trip or assembly today and tomorrow and after that, you’ll be buried in grading.  Be clear that you want to help.  Be equally clear that you can’t wait till the last minute.

But the most important basic rule:
No matter what anybody says or legislates, teaching with someone is as intimate and personal as any other deeply felt human interaction.  If they put you with a co-teacher or team you don’t respect and love, the chemistry won’t happen and that’s nobody’s fault.  There is nothing more helpful than a soulmate at work.  There is also no way to force it.

Once or twice I have co-taught or just taught alongside someone I loved and respected, a true friend.  Those are good days. If you have that, treasure it.  It’s rare.  If you don’t have it, don’t despair.  You can go it alone– it’s just lonelier, is all.

And no matter what you do, take good care of the administrative assistants.  Those ladies (they’re always ladies, so far in my career) make the school run and can spare you a world of pain.  They get yelled at and they don’t like it any more than anybody else does.  Look after them.  They may just look after you.

And now, if you’d like to cook something to bring in, here is the easiest treat I know:

Blondie Brownies

¼ c melted butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c chocolate chips
(optional) ½ c nuts

Pour the sugar into the melted butter and stir.  Beat the egg lightly and stir into the butter/sugar mixture.  Add the vanilla and mix.  Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir until mixed.  Stir in the choc chips and optional nuts.
Pour the mixture into a buttered 9×9 pan.  Bake them at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a knife comes out clean from the center.  Cool well before cutting into squares.  Yummy!  Easy!  Almost unbelievably sweet!

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When buying friendship, this is the coin of the realm.

Here is a happy scene I happened upon at the wonderful Doylestown Bookshop.

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Brittany and Tyler, both former students of mine, working away at their grading on a Sunday afternoon.  So many good, healthful things here in support of their hard work as teachers: a change of scene, good food and drink, companionship, a stretch of the legs– all while the grading gets done (which pays of big-time with the sense of accomplishment).

There will always be grading, but good thing there will also always be friends and bookstores and coffee and weekend afternoons when we can do a little catching-up.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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